I literally don’t recognize him without the beard. Oh, I’ve seen him in other things—he did 81 movies altogether, working for Hitchcock four times, plus an episode of the TV show. We even own The Trouble With Harry. And he’s part of the strangely packed cast of Them! But he had to talk before I recognized him, and even then I looked it up on IMDb to be sure. Because without the beard, I don’t know him. Who does?
I mean, at the time, quite a lot of people, and this is something we don’t always realize with iconic roles. In many cases, there was a time before. Miracle on 34th Street was his fifty-eighth movie. He had worked with Katharine Hepburn, Lionel Barrymore, and Lassie. Weirdly, he had been in movies called Friday the Thirteenth and The Walking Dead, one an interesting-sounding movie about a bus crash and how the various passengers got to that place and the other a Karloff-starring thriller about a framed man executed for murder and then resurrected by a mad scientist. (Karloff is the victim, not the mad scientist, but it could’ve gone either way.) He was also in things like Pride and Prejudice and Of Human Bondage.
And then, he became the only person ever to win an Oscar—probably the only person to deserve to win an Oscar—for playing Santa Claus, and there we are. Oh, you played Johann Strauss the Elder in a Hitchcock movie? (Which I haven’t seen and my Gods I need to?) Too bad—you’re Santa now, buddy! Sure, he made another twenty-three movies afterward (including another one with Lassie, as it happens, and Hitchcock’s only full-on comedy), but I wouldn’t be surprised if every single one of his obituaries led with his being Santa Claus.
That said, I’m always delighted to discover him other places, because he really was talented. He’s charming as hell discerning the cause of the giant ants in Them! There’s a reason he had such a long career, starting on the stage before the turn of the last century. His career was briefly interrupted by World War I; Wikipedia lists his film career as starting in 1916, in the middle of the war, but IMDb shows his first film as 1920’s Unmarried, not 1916’s The Real Thing at Last. Either way, his acting started before sound and went on until a few years before his death in 1959.
What’s more, he married more than a century ago. His marriage broke up during the war; well, it happens. But he remained devoted to the memory of that marriage for the rest of his life, apparently, and traveled to London to meet with her when he was 78. They remained on good terms until the end of their days. No, I don’t know why they never remarried or why they divorced or what have you, though I’m pretty sure she married someone else. Maybe they weren’t compatible as a married couple but were best friends; it does happen.
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