Friday, September 4, 2009

For Your Consideration: Donald Meek

Donald Meek
July 14, 1878 or 1880 - November 18, 1946

Next up in my look at character actors of classic Hollywood and the roles that have won them loyal fans, but not awards, is Donald Meek.

T.S. Eliot's, Gus, the Theatre Cat has nothing on Glasgow born Meek. Do you recall how it was bragged that Gus "acted with Irving, he acted with Tree"? Well, so did Meek - with Sir Henry Irving that is, as a child actor in Britain. Before he was out of his teens however, Donald Meek relocated to the United States. In 1998 the young man was a soldier fighting in the Spanish-American War. I have not read that he met that famous Roughrider Teddy Roosevelt, but he did meet up with Yellow Fever and, as a consequence, lost his hair. My good friend and noted Toronto thespian, Ben Gans, has told me that the secret to his success is a bald head. Although I found no such happy effect when I reluctantly sported the look, it did prove fortunate for Meek's road as a character actor/star. He trouped the continent for over 15 years before his first Broadway role in 1917 and appeared in 20 plays from that time until 1932.

The Toast of New York, 1937

Two of these gentlemen came across the pond as comedic acrobats. Hint: not the two in the middle.

Donald Meek portrayed the curmudgeonly criminologist, Dr. Crabtree, an S.S. Van Dine (Philo Vance) creation, in 11 movie shorts in 1931 and 1932. His co-hort in criminal deduction was Inspector Carr played by John Hamilton (Perry White, The Adventures of Superman). Interesting little puzzles for fans, the Crabtree and Carr flicks often show up on TCM at odd hours. Look for such titles as The Side Show Mystery, Murder in the Pullman and The Symphony Murder Case.

Meek would appear in several movies as crackpots, teachers, nervous nellies, flat out loons and villains for the next 15 years. He's a stubborn grandfather in 1936's Pennies from Heaven starring and produced by Bing Crosby. Also in 1936, Meek is the caretaker of a French palace/museum who sees ghosts in Love on the Run. In 1941's Come Live With Me he teaches down-on-his-luck writer Jimmy Stewart the fine art of being a bum. In 1939's Nick Carter, Master Detective starring Walter Pidgeon, Meek plays a detective crazy fellow known as Bartholomew, the bee man. He is a delight to watch as he deftly steals the movie and helps nab the baddies. I absolutely adore him as the judge in 1945's State Fair who gets happily pickled on Mrs. Frake's mincemeat.

You Can't Take It With You, 1938
Poppins: "The die is cast. I'm a lily!"

Shy Mr. Poppins who casts his lot with the easy-going Sycamore family in Frank Capra and Robert Riskin's Academy Award winning adaption of Kaufman and Hart's Broadway success is probably the sort of role most associated with Donald Meek.

"If we are ever to have law and order in the west all the railroad tycoons must be taken out and shot down like dogs!"

Meek's villainy knows no bounds as McCoy the nasty head of the nasty railroad who drives those poor James boys into a life of lawlessness in Henry King's 1939 Technicolor western Jesse James. He would repeat the role in 1940s The Return of Frank James.

Mr. Peacock tries to be heard.

It is for another western from that year, John Ford's exquisite Stagecoach that I feel Donald Meek should have received peer recognition. Mr. Peacock is a soft-spoken whiskey salesman often overlooked by his fellows. He is a man of sense and of heart. He is respectful of the ladies (both of them), solicitous of the alcoholic Doc and brave in the face of danger. Stagecoach boasts a fine ensemble cast and an Academy Award winner in Thomas Mitchell, but I find myself on repeat viewings drawn again and again to watching the actions through the eyes of Mr. Hay...sorry, Mr. Peacock.

Along with Stagecoach, Donald Meek stole scenes for John Ford in 1935's The Informer and The Whole Town's Talking and 1939's Young Mr. Lincoln.

A valued player who worked up until his death at the age of 68, Donald Meek had an interesting career, one wife named Belle Walken, one posthumous star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and legions of fans.


  1. What an interesting history. My favourite Donald Meek film has always been "Stagecoach".

  2. One of my favorites of his roles was as Edna May Oliver's henpecked brother in the Shirley Temple movie Little Miss Broadway. He gets one of the best insult lines ever, directed at one of his fellow barbershop-quartet members: "You—you—off-key baritone!"



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