Friday, December 15, 2017

Henry Stephenson - A Lovable Old Gent

Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club have once again teamed up to host the fabulous What a Character! Blogathon giving us film fans a chance to gush about those unsung heroes of the silver screen - character actors. What would classics such as Gone with the Wind be without the likes of Thomas Mitchell or Hattie McDaniel? What would It's a Wonderful Life be like without character actors Beulah Bondi, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore, or Samuel S. Hinds? It is the character actors who give a film that extra special touch, and recognizing these same actors appearing in similar parts in various films gives the audience a feeling of familiarity, making them all seem like dear old friends. 

Henry Stephenson is an especially lovable character actor. This kindly gentleman graced the stages of London and New York and the silver screen for nearly thirty years, often portraying genial men of distinction. His presence lent a touch of class to every film he appeared in. He played opposite Errol Flynn in five films at Warner Brothers, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox studios kept Stephenson especially busy in historic period productions throughout the 1930s and 1940s. 

Henry Stephenson Garroway was born on April 16, 1871, in Granada ( British West Indies ) and was educated in England, where he also played rugby... but not professionally like that other famous British character actor C. Aubrey Smith. He made his Broadway debut around the turn of the century in "A Message from Mars" and, with the advent of motion pictures, Stephenson ventured into the new medium in 1917. Unfortunately, like many character actors, he did not make a name for himself until he settled into supporting roles, both on stage and in film. 


At MGM and RKO, Stephenson found his niche portraying both imposing and benevolent gentlemen in such classics as Red-Headed Woman ( 1932 ), A Bill of Divorcement ( 1932 ), Cynara ( 1932 ), What Every Woman Knows ( 1934 ), The Night is Young ( 1935 ) and Mutiny on the Bounty ( 1936 ). One of his most well-remembered films during this period was the classic Little Women ( 1933 ) starring Katharine Hepburn. Stephenson portrayed dear old Mr. Laurence, the March girls' neighbor, who although having a face that "may frighten some people, his eyes are kind and I like him!". C. Aubrey Smith would later portray Mr. Laurence in the 1949 MGM remake. 

In 1935, Stephenson appeared opposite Errol Flynn as Lord Willoughby in the classic swashbuckler Captain Blood. He would also perform with Flynn in The Charge of the Light Brigade ( 1936 ), The Prince and the Pauper ( 1937 ), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ( 1939 ) portraying either lords or dukes. Stephenson simply had that regal bearing that befitted one born of royal blood. He was a count in Conquest ( 1937 ), Marie Antionette ( 1938 ), and Suez ( 1938 ), and in the Deanna Durbin vehicle Spring Parade ( 1940 ) he was promoted to an emperor, none other than Emperor Franz Joseph. 


Stephenson and Katharine Hepburn in Little Women ( 1933 ) 
But it was tender-hearted paternal roles that suited Henry Stephenson best. In the 20th Century Fox musical Down Argentine Way, Stephenson played Don Diego Quintana, a proud Argentinian who learned to quench the fire of an old family rivalry to see his son ( Don Ameche ) happily wed. Although he often portrayed wealthy and illustrious gentlemen, his characters were rarely arrogant, and never ever villainous. Quite the contrary. It was Sir Ronald Ramsgate ( Stephenson ) who enlisted the aid of the great Sherlock Holmes to protect the crown jewels in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ( 1939 ), and it was Mr. Brownlow who helps rescue little Oliver from the clutches of Fagin in Oliver Twist ( 1948 ). 

When World War II broke out in 1939, Stephenson found himself cast as military men in a number of morale-boosting films. Once again, he played men who had to carry responsibility and make judicial decisions that would impact a great many lives. He was General Cathaway in the romantic This Above All ( 1942 ), Colonel Blimpton in the B-film mystery Halfway to Shanghai ( 1942 ), and General Hetherton in The Hour Before the Dawn ( 1944 ). Stephenson was also memorable as General Fitzgerald in the enchanting Enchantment ( 1948 ) where he portrayed the sympathetic father who adopts the young orphan Lark ( Gigi Perreau ) to raise as his own. 


Stephenson with Dolores Costello, Freddie Bartholomew, and Una O'Connor in Little Lord Fauntleroy ( 1936 ) 
Stephenson's last film was made just a year later in Challenge to Lassie, the final installment of the popular Lassie film series. He would make a handful of television appearances before retiring. Stephenson passed away at the age of 85 in 1956. He was survived by his daughter and his wife of many years, Ann Shoemaker, who was herself an excellent character actress ( Alice Adams, Stella Dallas, My Favorite Wife ). 

15 comments:

  1. This is an absolutely charming post on one of the greats. I didn't realize he made that many movies with Flynn although I've seen them all. I have a super soft spot for DOWN ARGENTINE WAY so it was especially lovely to see that mentioned.Mr. Stephenson had a great face too!

    Aurora

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    1. I'm glad to hear you are a fan of Down Argentine Way, too. That is such a fun movie to watch! And yes, I agree, Henry had a wonderful face, so kind and gentle.

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  2. I'm another one who didn't realize Henry Stephenson was in so many films with Errol Flynn. I'll have to pay closer attention.

    I liked what you said re: Stephenson's regal bearing. So true! You can easily believe he's an Emperor, for instance.

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    1. When a character actor is so good at playing the parts they are typecast in ( like Stephenson and his regal roles ) I often forget their job offscreen is that of an actor...which is usually not considered a noble profession. If I had to go to court, I would want Henry Stephenson as my attorney. He's a fellow who could really win over a jury!

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  3. What a wonderful character actor to profile! He added something of value to every film he appeared in. Like you, I especially enjoyed Mr. Stephenson's performance in LITTLE WOMEN. I also liked him very much in OLIVER TWIST.

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    1. Yes, he was wonderful in Little Women...especially that scene where little Beth goes to him to thank him for the piano. It's so sweet watching his face fill with love.

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  4. Lovely piece. He's one of those character actors I smile to see every time but often can't recall his name. It was nice to learn more about him after years of enjoying him in many parts.

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    1. Not remembering the names of character actors is quite common. It took my sister and I years before we were able to spot ( and spit out the name of ) actor J. Carroll Naish, especially since he had such varied parts, always looking different. We're glad you enjoyed our post!

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  5. I was utterly charmed by your choice and article. Indeed, it is that benevolence you mentioned that fairly shines from Stephenson's eyes that makes us feel warm and happy so often when we see him in a movie.

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    1. I'm glad you appreciate Henry's fine qualities, too. He certainly was a delight. Wish there were more men like him.

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  6. What a lovely post - it makes me feel all warm and cozy just reading about this great character actor!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Marsha! Henry Stephenson is the type of man you would want as a grandfather, someone to turn to who would always know the right thing to do in any situation.

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  7. I absolutely love it whenever Stephenson shows up in a film I’m watching. I’m so glad you profiled him, as he was definitely all class. Speaking of ‘tender-hearted’ paternal types, he really was pivotal in Double Harness, and added so much to that film.

    I didn’t realize he worked into the 50s! Awesome career.

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    1. Ooh, I don't recall having seen Double Harness so thank you for dropping that title! Yes, Stephenson was quite a gentleman. I would say the female version of him was Dame May Whitty, classy but cuddly.

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  8. I definetely recognize Henry Stephenson's face - and it's nice to know that he was married tyo Ann Shoemaker! Very nice article - and from now on I'll pay more attention to mister - or lord - Stephenson.
    Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!

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