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The Times (08/Sep/1959) - Obituary: Edmund Gwenn

(c) The Times (08/Sep/1959)



Mr. Edmund Gwenn, the actor, who died at Hollywood on Sunday night at the age of 81, established himself as a character actor who was equally well known on both sides of the Atlantic and was as successful in the cinema as in the theatre. He was bom in London on September 26, 1877, and educated at St. Olave's and at King's College, London. As a young actor he excelled in parts that required him to be vulgar, rough, and often noisy; but his acting was best enjoyed by those who saw the polish with which he portrayed the unpolished. He had all the resources of a "low" comedian; but after two separate periods with Willie Edouin and three years in Australia and New Zealand under J. C. Williamson, he made his fame first in a notably intellectual and even sophisticated setting at the Court Theatre under the Vedrenne-Barker management.

There in 1905 to 1907 he was invaluable in smaller parts, among them "'Enery" Straker, the board-school-educated chauffeur of John Tanner in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, and the Cockney gangster in Captain Brassbound's Conversion; and in plays by Granville-Barker, Hankin, Galsworthy, and others he gave every part he played its full worth. In Barriers What Every Woman Knows, under Charles Frohman, at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1908, he acted James Wylie, the youth who goes nearly mad on election day, and rushes maniacally shouting on to the stage. Frohman engaged him for his repertory period at the same theatre in 1910; and there he was seen as the newly made knight in The Twelve-Pound Look, and in several other first-rate performances. He was the central figure in The Bearleaders, by R. C, Carton, at the Comedy in 1912; and after that he joined with Miss Hilda Trevelyan in the management of the Vaudeville Theatre and produced Little Miss Llewellyn. Out of scores of other parts, which he played in England and in America, the best remembered are probably Hornblower in Galsworthy's The Skin Game, the Viennese paterfamilias in Lilac Time, and Samuel Pepys in Fagan's And So to Bed in 1926. Some years later in his constantly busy career, it fell to him to play Samuel Pepys again in another play, Thank you Mr. Pepys, at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Among his other successes was his performance of George Radfern, the old forger, in Mr. Priestley's Laburnum Grove.


He appeared in several silent films during the 1920s — his first was The Skin Game — and made his debut in a talking picture called How He Lied to her Husband, a British film made at Elstree in 1931. Numerous other parts in early British sound pictures followed, best known of which, perhaps, was that of Jess Oakroyd in The Good Companions; and his old part in Sir Carol Reed's picture of Laburnum Grove.

Gwenn first went to Hollywood in 1935 where he quickly made a reputation for himself, and was thereafter in constant demand, but he continued throughout his career to divide his time between the stage and the cinema. As a film actor, he will principally be remembered as a dumpy amiable figure beaming with toleration and good will (he was awarded an Oscar in 1948 for his real life Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) but the seemingly effortless air of geniality masked a skilled and careful style of film acting which was based not only on wide experience, but also on a complete understanding of the film medium. Nor was he capable only of suggesting good humour, as he revealed in the well-known Hitchcock thriller Foreign Correspondent, where he tried to push the hero off the tower of Westminster Cathedral; and he also appeared in another Hitchcock thriller, The Trouble with Harry.

During the war of 1914-18 Edmund Gwenn was temporarily commissioned in the Army Service Corps and for some time he was employed as an instructor of officer cadets at Aldershot, where he reached the rank of captain. In his earlier years he was a keen Rugby footballer and was a member of the Harlequins. The study of ships and the men who sail in them was another of his hobbies.

Gwenn married a member of his own profession, Minnie, a daughter of Charles Terry and a niece of Ellen Terry. The marriage was dissolved.