Alan Hale: The Consummate Character Actor

by Paul Batters

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The nature of an audience is to focus on their favourite stars on the screen. Each studio was fully aware of this during the Golden Years Of Hollywood and they were careful to assure their star performers would be at the centre of that focus. Stars were paired together because they had a special chemistry on the silver screen (even if it didn’t exist off screen!) Directors had their favourites as well and the entire production was geared towards a final product, which aimed to be a hit for audiences.

There is a key aspect of the film making process that is often forgotten or not given a great deal of attention. That is the work of the supporting cast and in particular the character actor. They have faces we have seen many times but sometimes cannot put a name to – and in some cases are often type-cast, as the sidekick in the Western, the ‘heavy’ in the crime, film noir or gangster film or the cruel mother-in-law. But the quality of their performances offer a greater depth to the story being depicted and allow the stars to shine even more so. Many of these actors and actresses have had long and fruitful careers because of the worth they bring to the screen and their ability to give a film balance.

In the world of classic film, perhaps one of the most prolific performers and certainly a loved actor with a very recognisable face is the man born as Rufus Edward Mackahan. He would become better known as Alan Hale Snr.

What made Hale such a remarkable and noticeable face was his uncanny ability to provide balance to any performance. It is debatable whether he worked to upstage, over-shadow or play off the screen any of the stars that he worked with, despite coming damn near close on many occasions. If he did, it doesn’t seem to be out of malice. Indeed, the good-natured Hale was a welcome supporting actor on many films, pushing the main stars to work harder and provide performances, which offered something more. He tempered his performance and understood what his job was; yet it is also important to note that Hale was neither overwhelmed nor intimidated by the stars he was working with. And Hale worked with an incredible array of legendary actors and actresses including Douglas Fairbanks Snr, Lon Chaney, Wallace Beery, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. Hale would even direct some films for Cecil B DeMille during the 1920s, indicating the wide-ranging talent of the man.

Starting his screen career in the early days of silent cinema, his physical presence saw him often cast as the ‘heavy’ or villain. His opera trained voice would ironically be unheard. Yet his voice with his rich depth and warmth would be as recognizable as his face. Whilst not called upon to sing, Hale’s early vocal training would give him a solid understanding of how to use his voice, which would have been quite the asset during the early days of the talkie. Combined with his solid, tall frame and highly expressive face, Hale had a special and lasting presence on the screen which makes it more than understandable why he was such a sought after character and supporting actor.

 

Whilst he worked at a number of the major studios, Hale is perhaps best remembered for his work at Warner Bros; particularly his work with Errol Flynn. Despite a number of descriptions identifying Hale as a ‘sidekick’ to Flynn, it is erroneous to see Alan Hale in such a light. Flynn and Hale were close and the chemistry shared by the two on screen certainly lifted the scenes they shared into memorable occasions. Some reports suggest that Flynn was a huge fan of Hale because he wasn’t intimidated and enjoyed the fact that Hale was such a success at stealing scenes from the main star. The two would be good friends off the screen as well and Overall, the two would work together in 13 films, including historical dramas such as The Prince And The Pauper (1937), westerns such as Dodge City (1939) biopics such as Gentleman Jim (1942) and swashbuckler such as The Sea Hawk (1940).

 

Yet his most famous role is as Little John opposite Flynn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938). Hale’s boisterous sense of fun and adventure bounces off the screen and helps to shape one of the most enjoyable and exciting films that Errol Flynn ever made. Interestingly enough, it is a role he would play three times – once during the silent era alongside Fairbanks Snr and in his final film role in Rogues Of Sherwood Forest (1950).

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Hale had a knack in making even a cameo role memorable and there are many occasions where he was able to seize the moment, injecting some humour with perfect timing and weighting. In It Happened One Night (1934), Hale makes an appearance as Danker, a conman who tries to steal Gable’s and Colbert’s luggage while offering them a lift. He’s on the screen only for a few moments but his singing proves hilarious, and his facial expressions likewise.

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Likewise, Hale’s turn as Ed Carlsen in They Drive By Night (1940) is warm, natural and unpretentious to a fault as the owner of a trucking company and is married to Lana (Ida Lupino), who is as cold and mean as he is sympathetic and friendly. His kindness to Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and the sensitive way he dismisses Joe’s promise to repay him, again shows how effective Hale could be with a simple gesture or facial response. The audience’s sympathies lie directly with Ed and this heightens what will follow, nicely played by Lupino as the cruel counterpart to Hale’s ex-trucker.

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Some reviewers have often described Alan Hale as being simply comedy relief. One of the strongest pieces of evidence to refute this is his role in Stella Dallas (1937) as ‘Uncle’ Ed Munn, where he displays a complexity of vulgarity and pathos in his portrayal. Likewise, in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). Hale plays Cook, one of the soldiers facing terrible adversity in the desert during World War One, a role as far from comedy as one can imagine, which he carries with depth and sensitivity.

 

Hollywood has been blessed with a pantheon of incredible character and supporting actors. Without their presence and professionalism, the films produced would be lesser films. Alan Hale provided something special, understanding his craft and using it to full effect. As a result, the films Hale appeared in are far richer, enjoyable and memorable because of what he brought to the silver screen.

A special thanks to Aurora from Citizen Screen, Kellee from Outspoken& Freckled, and Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club, who joined together to host the seventh What A Character! blogathon. Make sure you visit to read other great entries.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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