You know when you watch movies and say: oh there’s that guy, I see him all the time, I wonder what his name was, wish I knew more about him? There are a bunch of those guys, but I hereby posit that Irving Bacon is That Guy, the only one with rights to claim the title, and all others are mere impostors. When I told a couple friends who know their classic movies that I was writing about Irving, in both cases they looked at a picture and said with happy recognition, “Oh yeah, That Guy!” and thus my theory was confirmed. Irving Bacon, a fixture in so many classic movie hotels, restaurants, bars, phone booths, so much a part of the scenery, so ever-present and accepted that you might expect to him to next appear in your life, in your closet handing you your coat, waiting on your table sighing and doing his signature eye roll, a move he usually deployed (possibly also with a double take) after having to wait for the end of some ridiculous conversation. He’d often be flabbergasted at some screwball spectacle, or try to deliver the mail, your verdict or your milk, pop on your handcuffs, attend to you at the soda fountain, gas bar, train ticket booth or hospital room, serve you from behind various counters, wear ten gallon hats, aprons, peer over glasses or from behind a mustache. Like a classic Hollywood version of the numerous Agents Smith in the Matrix, That Irving Bacon Guy is everywhere you turn, and you’re likely to remember almost every time you’ve seen him, which is saying something about his scene stealing talents.
in It Started With Eve. source
I made the joke when I decided to write about Bacon that I sure picked an easy one– all I have to do now is watch every classic movie ever made to review his thousands of appearances, and that’s not too far from the truth. IMDB and wikipedia both tell you he was in about 500 movies (many of his appearances are still unconfirmed but I believe he was there) and 45 tv shows. When he worked on Ida Lupino’s Woman in Hiding, an interviewer quoted him as saying it would be his 1000th picture, and that he had set a different kind of record in 1938 when he did 4 movies in one day. It’s a special actor indeed to whom you can ‘give or take’ a few hundred movies. We’ll say he was in over 1000, which in movie math works out to him being in everything, and us seeing him a million times. Due to some erroneous biographical reporting he even makes appearances in some other entertainers’ lives, where he doesn’t actually belong. Peruse the internets and Bacon pops up (probably wearing his exasperated face) as brother of director Lloyd Bacon, and/or the son of Broadway actor Frank Bacon. But he wasn’t either of those. Our Guy had no “in,” no industry connection, he just came from Missouri packing his talent and that long, seen-it-all-but-still-surprised-by-it face, paired with that flat, smooth, serious voice, which despite his youth led him to be cast as older characters.
For many films and years he went without credit and, like a paper doll over which you just fold the costume tabs, he was identified only by occupational or familial titles (such as paper hanger, Mabel’s father, chef, barfly, burglar #1, ball toss operator, or my favorite, the very common “undetermined minor role” as if he was ever a minor talent). He made his way into the Big features, things like Gone With the Wind, A Star is Born, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, San Francisco, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, The Grapes of Wrath, You Can’t Take it With You, and so many more, all of which ensured even the most casual viewer of classics would take notice of That Guy, and come to love seeing him. He was in a few Deanna Durbin movies, and a lot of Blondie movies as their unfortunate postman, who delivers the mail the way Charlie Brown kicks the football. He was in many westerns, acted with W.C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers, in Capra and Hitchcock, with Jolson, Bing and Sinatra, played Glenn (James Stewart) Miller’s father, with the Beav and Lucy and Maverick, was in both versions of A Star is Born, and pretty much everything that fills the gaps between. This makes me confident in a correlating theory, which is that you can connect everyone in Hollywood in 2 degrees of this Bacon.
He had a way of shifting his tall, imposing body, ever so slightly, but enough to grab your attention, so that even in a large crowd you are able to spot him right away. Often when you spot him he seems to be wondering where he is and why. He was a great listener in any role, so entirely honed in on and hovered over whatever was happening that you can’t help but lean in and listen too. He was genial and so natural in his slow burns, his contemplative asides and sheer puzzlement that he hardly ever seems to act, yet with with an expert touch wrings the maximum out of whatever screen time he’s allowed. Not too much is out there about his real life; during World War 1 Bacon attained the rank of Sergeant First Class in the Army Air Corps. His wife died after giving birth to their second child in 1927. Bacon died in 1965, aged 71, and he worked a lot. I’m sure he would’ve been perfectly content to be remembered as affectionately as we do, even if it’s just as That Guy.
in Meet John Doe.
In a feat more difficult than delivering mail to Dagwood Bumstead, I’m going to pick just a few of my favorite Irving Bacon roles, with the caveat that I haven’t yet seen him in Rio, where he’s murdered by Basil Rathbone, or the westerns Drift Fence and Under Western Skies, where Irving is said to have decent roles, nor many of his numerous silents such as Motorboat Mamas or For Sale a Bungalow. You will of course have your own, and possibly different, favorite slices of Bacon.
In Spellbound. source
In Cause for Alarm, Irving is That Postman. Loretta Young has zero patience for his small talk, his advice on saving and pennypinching and his complaints about the heat; she cuts him off dismissively, generating some bad karma since she ends up needing him, to get back that letter she gave him, the letter wherein Loretta’s husband Barry Sullivan’s framed her for murder. In a mediocre thriller Irving’s a welcome sight and he adds greatly to the suspense by being such a prickly stickler for detail that he teases Loretta with the letter, just within reach, and sends her to the heights of frustration. Maybe she should’ve knocked him over like Dagwood. Bacon ends up being vital in the outcome, but I won’t spoil.
In True Confession with Carole Lombard, he’s unbelievably DEADpan as That Coroner, who in less than a minute on the stand, is so eggheadedly self-conscious and demure he can barely be heard, and mixes up the defendant with the deceased, the rug with the range and the lead in the head.
In Manhandled with Sterling Hayden and Dan Duryea, just try taking your eyes off Bacon as That Police Sergeant, standing in the background during questioning, checking out the lovely blinds, feeling the plants, then assuming the cop pose and nodding in agreement with his superior to show he was listening. My theory was here indisputably proven when Irving refers to himself as “I’m That Guy.” He gets fun scenes where he whips out a thick stack of papers for the Lieutenant to sign, requisitions for new brakes on the car. Later as he’s driving he informs the Lt. they currently have no brakes because he had to turn in the old ones to get the new ones. The new ones they’ll get tomorrow. We’ll worry about stopping, he says, when the time comes.
In my favorite political movie (and an unfairly overlooked Hepburn-Tracy classic) Capra’s State of the Union, he’s Buck, “the world’s worst butler, and the world’s nicest Guy,” who opens the door clad only in pants and suspenders because he loses his clothes weekly to the kids filling packages for overseas. Watch your hat, he says to Van Johnson, unless you want some Belgian farmer wearing it. During the final few scenes of the film his reaction to and mocking of Angela Lansbury are priceless. He dips into many scenes as he serves drinks and snide comments, and erupts with glee (along with his seltzer bottle) as Katharine Hepburn finally slams a martini and sets in motion the final scenes.
in His Girl Friday. source
A couple honorable mentions: In Michael Shayne: Private Detective, Bacon plays a clumsy fisherman who resists helping a murder investigation for fear his wife will find out he’s fishing instead of working. In The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, his hair mussed, he delivers E.G Robinson’s verdict with the utmost drama and collapses in his chair.
Saving my best for last: In Doris Day’s all star It’s a Great Feeling, Bacon was hilarious (and I will go so far as to say the film’s best bit) as That Train Station Information Clerk, the human computer who prides himself on having memorized the schedule. The man who never needs to look anything up is stumped when Doris strolls up to ask the fare to Gerkeys Corners, WI. First he argues with her, asserting there is no such place, and, still believing this is some prank, must stoop to look it up in a dusty book he hasn’t cracked open in 15 years. Which refers him to consult further volumes. Which he has to do repeatedly as next Dennis Morgan, then Jack Carson come up to ask additional details about the same obscure route. Annoyed Irving tells Carson “why don’t you go to San Francisco?” but you know he means That Other Place, and gets so riled up he punches the next person who walks up, some poor sap who asks him where the washroom is. Then he quits. Taking his desk name plate with him.
I love that guy.
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