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Irving Bacon

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Posted: Monday, September 12, 2005 12:00 am

Flabbergasted

by Blackie Seymour

His was the face of bewilderment, amazement, perplexity, and frustration. In fact, the flabbergasted Irving Bacon made a career playing overwhelmed and totally confused characters. And he was really good at it. Even when his role was uncredited, his performance was noticed and remembered by the folks walking out of the theater after the show was over.

He was the ticket taker at the railroad station in Spellbound who had a repeat scene for the last camera shot in the film. In Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, he was the foreman of the jury who announces the verdict that freed Edward G. Robinson. In Columbia's first color feature, The Desperadoes, he was the bartender who was frantically trying and failing to protect his glassware during the numerous fight scenes.

His most popular role was, of course, that of Mr. Crumb, the postman, who was bowled over so many times by a frantic Dagwood Bumstead making his mad dash to work in the Blondie film series. Try as he might to avoid Dagwood, the scene always ended with a loud thud and a shower of loose mail falling all around the flattened Mr. Crump. Even when he was replaced by Eddie Acuff in the role, they kept Irving Bacon in the series as a retired mail carrier who got involved in other situations with the Bumsteads.

Contrary to many published reports, Irving was not the brother of director Lloyd Bacon, or the son of Broadway star Frank Bacon. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri on September 6, 1893, Irving began performing practically from the time he could walk. By the time he was thirty he was working steadily in Hollywood. He began at the Keystone Studios, where his hawk-like features were perfect for their type of comedy, and for years he continually showed up in one- and two-reel comedies. Despite his youth, he often played old codger roles, and looked so natural in the makeup that the audience readily accepted him as being aged.

After sound films killed off the silents in the late 1920s, he made the transition, working in the Dane and Arthur shorts, like Knights Before Xmas, and the Louise Fazenda comedies such as Too Hot to Handle; both in 1929. Throughout the '30s, Irving was everywhere in bits, and in some noteworthy roles. Some of these were the Secretary of the Navy in Million Dollar Legs (1930); the Chinaware salesman in If I Had a Million (1932); and a reporter in The Mind Reader (1933). In 1934, he was a police inspector in House of Mystery; a stage manager in You Belong to Me; and a milkman in Ready for Love.

In 1935, he played a male nurse in Private Worlds; and in Murder on a Honeymoon, a man who has a pelican. He showed up in Murder Man operating a merry-go-round; as a lunch man in Manhattan Moon; a postal worker in Bright Lights; and a shooting gallery operator in Affair of Susan. He was also a train passenger in Diamond Jim; a gunsmith in Powdersmoke Range; a butcher in Bad Boy; and appeared as Jake, a factory worker, in Man of Iron.

In Drift Fence (1936), Irving played a good character role that finally got him billing. He was "Windy" Watkins, the ranch foreman, and he looked much as he did in his silent shorts with similar makeup. Also in 1936, he played Henry, a drunken wagon driver in Timothy's Quest. He was a photographer in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; a chauffeur in Nobody's Fool. He was a rodeo announcer in Rhythm of the Range; a picnicker in San Francisco; a fireworks salesman in Pepper; Charlie the janitor in China Clipper; Keogh, a detective in Murder With Pictures; and "Peg-Leg" Holden in Hopalong Cassidy Returns. In 1937, he played a fingerprint expert in Angel's Holiday; an organist in Merry-Go-Round of 1938; and the coroner in True Confession.

In 1938, in Midnight Intruder, he played a chauffeur with several children and no place to live. He was a small town sheriff, who makes a valiant attempt to catch the escaping murderers, in Mr. Moto's Gamble, but ends up only with Keye Luke and Maxie Rosenbloom. He was Henry the head waiter in Capra's You Can't Take it With You; a cannery official in Spawn of the North; a process server in Exposed as well as Mad Miss Manton; and, finally, as Mr. Beazley, the mailman in the first Blondie film. His name was changed to Mr. Crumb when the second film was made.

In 1939, he played a jailer in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man; a hotel clerk in Spirit of Culver, and in Gracie Allen Murder Case; and a prison convict in Behind Prison Gates. In Rio, Irving played one of his best roles, that of Mushy, who escapes from a Devil's Island-type penal colony with fellow convict Basil Rathbone. After trekking through swamps and jungles, they reach a huge ant colony where an exhausted Rathbone stabs Irving. Rathbone leaves the body next to the ant colony and puts his identification on the body, knowing that after the ants finished feeding, no one would be able to identify the remains.

In the same year, Irving was a telegraph clerk with the Marx Brothers in At the Circus; the sheriff in Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence; and Irving even appeared in Gone With the Wind, playing a corporal.

In 1940 he was in two classics. In The Grapes of Wrath he played the nervous and nosey truck driver who gives a ride to the newly released convict Tom Joad (Henry Fonda). In His Girl Friday he was Gus, the waiter who somehow got mixed up in a scam between Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy. In Love, Honor and Oh, Baby!, he was a cab driver. He did a cute, but brief, comedy bit as a fisherman forced to be a murder witness in Michael Shayne, Private Detective. In It Started With Eve, in 1941, he teamed with Gus Schilling for a straight-faced comedy bit as two men waiting for Charles Laughton to die so they could make his death mask. He also was the soda jerk who served W. C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

In 1942, he was a hotel manager in The Spoilers; and in Pardon My Sarong he ran a gas station where he ran into a confrontation with Abbott and Costello. That same year, he played a great character as a soda jerk in Between Us Girls, which gave him many close-ups and a lot of dialogue. Also, he played Mr. Hardwicke the school principal in Get Hep to Love, a role which he seemed to fit nicely so he was cast as one again in Top Man the following year. He was popular in the Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan series. Besides those two films, he played the same part in Chip Off the Old Block; a soda shop owner in Mister Big; and a befuddled hotel guest in Patrick the Great.

Desperadoes (1943) was Columbia's first Technicolor feature, and Irving's role as Dan Walters, the owner of the bar, was a standout. He reappeared many times throughout the film and had lots of comic bits and punch lines.

In Hers to Hold (1943), he was Dr. Bacon, who attended Deanna Durbin when she donates blood in the opening of the film; and he was Dempster, the butler, in So's Your Uncle. He was the chief of police in James Cagney's Johnny Come Lately; and a diner owner in Gung Ho! (1944) who complains about wartime "meatless Tuesdays".

In Under Western Skies (1945), a relatively minor B-western musical-comedy, Irving played one of his best and longest character roles; that of the quick-draw, sure-shot sheriff, who supposedly kept his town safe from the likes of notorious outlaw Leo Carrillo. In reality, the sheriff's eyes were failing to the point where he had blurred, double vision. So, in the last reel, Noah Beery, Jr., playing a mild-mannered school teacher, gets out his gun and cleans up the mob. Not wanting the town to know of his shooting skills, he allows Bacon to take the credit.

Manhandled in 1949 offered another great character for Irving, as Sgt. Fayle, assistant to detective Art Smith. Irving is continually annoying his boss by asking him to sign requisitions for various things, including new brakes for their police car. Finally, he reveals that he had to turn in the old brakes before getting the new ones. This is the last line in the film, as the car crashes.

In 1953, he was the father of Jimmy Stewart, who played the title role in The Glenn Miller Story. Although this was basically a straight, dramatic part, Irving's comic face and delivery could make practically any line sound at least a little humorous.

His last feature film was credited in 1958, but he went on to do many TV appearances on series such as Maverick, General Electric Theater, Wagon Train, Riverboat, Donna Reed Show, Laramie, Wild Bill Hickock, Four Star Playhouse, Whirlybirds, December Bride, Leave It to Beaver, Real McCoys, and the Burns and Allen Show. In I Love Lucy he appeared as a character very similar to the old codger role he played in silent comedy shorts when he was young, bringing his career full circle.

Irving died on February 5, 1965, leaving a legacy that any thespian would be proud of - 451 features and shorts and at least 25 noted TV shows. It's no wonder that his face - that nonplussed puss of confusion and amazement - remains well remembered by fans of the Golden Age.

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