Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Charles Coburn: What a Character!

WHAT A CHARACTER: Charles Coburn

Every fan of classic films should know the face of Charles Coburn if not the name.   He has appeared in many films usually portraying elderly authority figures.  He was born in Macon, Georgia in 1877.  He spent the majority of his career performing on stage.  In fact, he did not begin his film career until he was in his 60s.    Many of Coburn's well known films were comedies.  Some of his most memorable comedic roles were in the following:

The Lady Eve (1941):

Coburn portrayed Barbara Stanwyck's father, "Colonel" Harrington.  Harrington is a con man card shark who taught his daughter well the art of fleecing unsuspecting marks. They set their eyes on naïve Charles Pike(Henry Fonda) as their next mark.  How disappointing for professional con  Harrington when his daughter ends up falling in love with Charles Pike and protects Pike from her father’s card tricks?

George Washington Slept Here (1942):

Coburn played Connie Fuller's (Anne Sheridan) rich uncle Stanley.  Whenever he arrives for a visit Connie and husband, Bill (Jack Benny), are sure to cover the living room with numerous pictures of good old Uncle Stanley.  After all, they want to make sure rich Uncle Stanley knows just how much they love him. In dire need of money to save their home, the Fullers turn to Stanley who is their only hope.  Imagine their shock when they discover all is not as it seems with Uncle Stanley’s fortune.

The More The Merrier (1943)

In his Academy Award Winning role for Best Supporting Actor, Coburn portrayed millionaire Benjamin Dingle.  Dingle arrives in Washington DC as an Advisor on how to handle the housing shortage during WWII.  However when he arrives in DC, he discovers his hotel room isn't ready.  He answers the ad of Connie Milligan(Jean Arthur), who is seeking a roommate.  She sublets him half of her apartment, and they have to learn how to live in this shared space despite having different personalities.  Things get even more complicated( and funny) when Dingle sublets half of his half to Sgt. Joe Carter (Joel McCrea).

Comedy may be the genre Coburn had the most roles, however that does not mean he didn't foray into other film types.  In fact, one of his most memorable roles is in the drama "King's Row."

King's Row (1942):
In this movie, Coburn portrayed sadistic doctor Henry Gordon. Dr. Gordon is rumored to perform surgery without anesthesia.  His daughter, Louise(Nancy Colman) is in a relationship with rich boy Drake(Ronald Reagan).   When Drake's fortune is stolen, he goes to work on the railroad. When he gets injured, vindictive and sadistic Gordon needlessly amputates both of Drake's legs out of hatred.  This was a far cry from the harmless, lovable characters he was known for playing.

In each of the films listed and many more unlisted, Coburn had a presence about him.   He was a familiar face that audiences loved to see. Even fans of today get a real pleasure from his performances.  A character actor that was always reliable to bring out the best. 


  1. He was such a great actor but I think in the annals of film history he's so often overlooked mostly because he really got his career moving so late in life, no?

    1. I agree with you. He is often overlooked. When you see him in movies, it really is a "Oh! That guy!" However, he doesn't get talked about much. Even though he started acting in films so late in life, he really did play in so many films.

  2. A favorite of mine so I'm extra glad you decided on him for the blogathon. It wouldn't have been the same without him. Thanks so much for contributing this post and lovely tribute. :)


  3. Coburn really deserved that Oscar for "The More the Merrier". I saw him on the old "Rosemary Clooney Show" singing "September Song", but I don't recall the movies ever giving him a chance at a tune. It would have been nice.

  4. He played many memorable roles. But I'm glad you included King's Row. I saw it for the 1st time recently on TCM and was taken back by him playing such non-comedic part- and such a despicable one too! Great post! Thanks again for contributing to our blogathon!

  5. I remember watching him when I was little. He belongs to those fantastic supporting actors Hollywood used to have that by their mere presence enriched a movie. I love his role in "The Lady Eve". He is very funny as a sympathetic grifter and con man. He played very well with Barbara Stanwyck. I didn't know "The More the Merrier". Who is the director? And look at that "King's Row" (I never heard about this one either): amputated both legs? Talk about House's worst nightmare. Was Coburn the actor who played the old millionaire in "Diamonds are a girls best friends"?

  6. One of my favorite performances of all time is Coburn as Mr. Dingle in The More the Merrier! He's so terrific in that and all of his other roles. Thanks for a fun post!

  7. I'm glad you mentioned Coburn's role in KING'S ROW, it's shocker and shows he had range, even if he wasn't always called upon to show it. Thanks for the post, Amy!

  8. Charles Coburn is really a scene-stealer. I watched Bachelor Mother yesterday and wanted so much more of him! His scenes and his lines are always the best.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon!