Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Walter Catlett

Anyone who's seen "Bringing Up Baby" knows that it's a virtual-who's-who of supporting player talent, including Charlie Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald, Asta the dog, Mary Robson, and even a brief appearance by my favorite, Ward Bond. Yet one bit player strides through the film with ease, his hijinks smoothly surpassing even the stars. I speak of course of Walter Catlett. 

Catlett is a great example of someone whose name evokes a "who?" from nearly everyone. His picture might remind a lucky few and certainly he's best known for "Bringing Up Baby." Yet no less an authority than Howard Hawks cites Catlett as one of the most important people on the "Baby" set. He was the one who taught Katharine Hepburn how to be funny.

He certainly had plenty of experience. Born in 1889, Catlett was a distinguished veteran of vaudeville and Broadway while cinema was still in its infancy. As a song-and-dance man equally gifted at comedy, Catlett appeared in numerous revues on the Great White Way, including The Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, 1918's "Follow That Girl," and Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" in 1924 where he introduced the title song. Clearly not a lightweight. (Below, try out Ella Fitzgerald's take on the song to give you a taste of Catlett's background and because everybody can use some Ella in their day):

Catlett made his way out to Hollywood and appeared in a few silents, but with his expressive face and voice he needed the coming of sound to really make a name for himself. His career exploded in the 1930s and soon he was working on upwards of a dozen films per year. The consummate character actor, he would show up briefly, usually playing a character of vague dishonesty but rarely an outright villain. Early successes included Lewis Milestone's "The Front Page," Jack Conway's "A Tale of Two Cities," and Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," cast as the poet Morrow who takes Longfellow Deeds out on a bender.

In 1938 Catlett would have his biggest success to date when he was cast in Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby." Initially he had only a small role in the production as the dim-witted and easily confused Constable Slocum. Yet Hawks realized he had a ringer on hand, as well as a solution to a vexing problem.

In 1938 Katharine Hepburn was in the midst of her "box office poison" phase. Her casting in a screwball comedy opposite Cary Grant, who had just come off the meteoric success of "The Awful Truth," was the last thing anyone would expect of the actress touted for her dramatic roles. Hawks saw that she was having trouble with the tone of the role and needed a solution. He first asked Catlett if he would be willing to advise her in broad, fast-paced comedy of which he was a master. Catlett replied that he'd be glad to, but he didn't want to suggest it to her himself, figuring he might be refused by the haughty Hepburn. The crafty Hawks then visited Katharine and told her that Catlett would be just the man to give her advice, but only if she asked him nicely. 

The partnership was sealed and Catlett became Hepburn's unofficial comedy tutor. As a result, his role in the film was greatly expanded to give him a reason to stick around, resulting in his unbelievable series of turnarounds at the climax of the film. It is comedic acting at its finest, and while it may have been equalled, his performance here has never been surpassed. Don't believe me? Check it out below, with Catlett attempting to interrogate Hepburn:

Despite "Bringing Up Baby"'s box office failure, Catlett found himself in high demand for the rest of his career. He showed up as a flustered theater manager in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and helped creep out a generation of children in Disney's "Pinocchio" as Honest John the Fox. Later he would work as part of Disney's live-action stock company, appearing in "Davy Crockett" and "Disneyland" among many others. Catlett also worked with the legendary Raymond Walburn in the "Father" series of comedies, resulting in what must have been an astonishing screen pairing. Anyone have video of any of these? 

As the vaudeville and live theater business began to decline in the 1930s and 40s, many great actors were forced out of business and into early retirement. Fortunately some actors like Catlett, were able to take refuge in Hollywood and turn in some of the classic scene-stealing performances. What might "Bringing Up Baby," and Katharine Hepburn's career, have been like without Walter Catlett? Thankfully we'll never have to know. 

Let's close with a bizarre and rare treat: Catlett, alongside Arthur Treacher, Sterling Holloway, Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour, and my personal favorite Veronica Lake, performing "A Sweater, a Sarong, and a Peek-a-Boo Bang"  from 1942's "Star Spangled Rhythm." The song starts out as a parody of the women's respective "talents" and ends up in a much weirder place. Enjoy (the song's a bit out of sync but bear with it): 

Suggested Viewing:
-The Front Page
-Bringing Up Baby
-Yankee Doodle Dandy

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