Character actors are like salesmen who shove a foot in your door, knowing they have only a few minutes to make their pitch. Sometimes mere seconds. Before the viewer shuts the door and goes back to ogling Cary Grant. Good character actors will earn their paychecks by any means at hand (or foot). They’ll speak their few lines, perform their bits of business, and punch a hole in your consciousness that lets a sweet little light flood in. You’ve suddenly met a new and interesting human being, even if for a moment. Mark me, it’s a tough assignment. Only the strongest survive. That’s what makes the great character actors so long-lasting—they’re made of the same leather that they’re sticking in your doorway.
Hence my discussion of Chester Clute. Sure you know Chester Clute. You’ve seen him a gazillion times. He’s that buttoned-up little guy who looks like a middle-aged chipmunk in a business suit. Chuck Jones might have designed that owly demeanor. And Mel Blanc might have provided that voice: high-pitched, nasal, as if strained through a steel straw. And there’s that name—chesterclute, isn’t that the funny-looking brass instrument in the orchestra’s back row (melody introduced in the string section, echoed in the woodwinds, taken up by the chester clutes)? Or maybe it’s a town: Chester Clute, Minnesota, where the Sciuridae come from. The nutty ones, of course.
Whatever. You’ve all SEEN him. A small fellow, falling between Frank Orth and Donald Meek; not as brusque and raspy as the former, nor as mild and squirrely as the latter. (No, Chester is most emphatically chipmunkish. With a touch of owl added; I think that was Chuck’s inspiration.)
Oh, yeah, you’re all saying in your best snarling-out-of-the-corner-of-your-mouth manner. When have we seen him? Name one pic we have. O-kay. I got one. You’ve seen Mildred Pierce, haven’t you? (Haven’t you?) Well, Chester is Mr. Jones. Don’t sag your jaw like that and let your mouth drop; you’re not catching flies. You know Mr. Jones. He’s Mildred’s accountant, that owlish little man going over Mildred’s receipts. Only he’s distracted by Eve Arden, doing her own solid-gold character-actor foot-shoving. “You always interrupt,” Chester snaps, like a chipmunk aspiring to badgerian ferocity. “It’s only because I want to be alone with you,” Eve ardenshly coos back. “Come here and let me bite you, you darling boy!”
I knew you’d remember …
What a beautifully played little scene. Arden’s elegant wolfhound growls at Clute’s bald pate as if it were a rubber ball she wants to play with; while Clute’s frightened chipmunk squonshes himself into a ball with a desire for self-preservation. It’s a noir miniature in comic form. The scene’s strange, flirty interplay hints at the film’s undertones, the bizarre sexuality that lurks at its edges like a chipmunk skulking in tall grass, and that will burst out like rabid rodents once nasty Veda Pierce gets her claws into her stepdaddy. No wonder Chester shudders like a pudding on the boil. There are no love nips in noir. Only big, wolfish bites.
Chester was a master of such vignettes. Movies don’t do them now, but you can find these sketches in almost any classic-era film. They’re a lost art form, as gone as the movie matinee cartoon. But such scenes gave even the most humbly chipmunkish of actors their one brief moment, to shine like a master thespian alongside the likes of Cary Grant. Which our man Chester does in My Favorite Wife. That’s the one where Irene Dunne has been lost on a desert island for seven years, and returns in time to break up hubby’s new marriage to Gail Patrick. Only, as hubby discovers, Irene has her own entanglements; she was lost on that isle with Randolph Scott (we should all be so lucky).
So now Irene must persuade a jealous spouse that she’s really spent all that down time with Chester Clute. Not the hunk, but the munk. Irene gets the idea when Chester helps her buy a pair of shoes.
Chester reacts to Irene’s proposal with interest. His eyes gleam, his mouth curls, his cheeks puff out. He’s a chipmunk being offered a solid gold nut.
But now’s the real test—Irene must convince hubby of her ruse. Hubby is that oglee supreme, Cary Grant. Yes, Chester gets the chance to steal a scene from Cary Grant, every character actor’s dream.
It’s another honey of a scene. While Grant leers, Chester simpers and Dunne smiles, her beautiful teeth gleaming like a dentist’s showroom. Their ruse established, the latter two now have a ball, like amateur actors fired up with the joys of improv. They play to each other, piling up whopper after whopper like kids in a building-block challenge. Meanwhile, Grant is a cynical and clued-in observer; he knows this is all a trick, but he’s enjoying it anyway. (Heck, he can afford to; he’s Cary Grant.)
Who does stuff like this anymore? These three actors, Clute, Grant, and Dunne, are a well-honed baseball infield, passing the gags like Tinker to Evers to Chance. It’s the hallmark of Hollywood’s golden age, the celluloid American dream: the bit player getting equal time with the stars. Look, with Dunne and Grant you’re dealing with heavyweights. But Chester is right up there with them, pitching in the major leagues, to mix my metaphors. He pitched big-time in every bit he did, from film to film—dominating his tiny patch of cinematic footage for however long it lasted, whether it’s five scenes or five minutes or even five words. That’s what makes the great character actor stand out from the central casting mob. The script might give him just one line, but he’ll make it stick like a dart on a board. You’ll quote it to yourself afterwards. And if he has several lines, he’ll inscribe them like Michelangelo working in marble miniatures. Making it for keeps.
Chester does that with his few lines in his bits from Arsenic and Old Lace. He’s an owlishly befuddled doctor asked to commit Teddy Brewster to an asylum (after a talk with the Roosevelt-impersonating Teddy, he doesn’t need much persuading), and he nails it. Scroll first to the 1:13 mark, then to the 1:51 mark to see him at work. Yes, I know, you all want to ogle Cary Grant, but please, save Cary for later. Chester is starring here:
So, how many films was Chester in? You can check out his IMDB page here. I myself lost count (I was always bad at math). His roles read like chipmunky types: small, nervous people peeking out from their burrows at the big feet stomping by. Typical is 45 Fathers, where he’s listed as “Timid Juror.” In Ringside he’s billed as “Timid Man.” Timidity was one of Chester’s shticks. Most character actors had them, recognizable traits fixed in our minds like bullet points. William Demarest was irascible; Margaret Dumont was dignified; Jack Norton was drunk. Chester was timid. Donald Meek was also timid, but his timidity was particular and unique, specific to him. Meek apologizes for taking up space; he clears his throat and bows himself out of the room, hoping no one will take offense and step on him. Whereas Chester, striving for chipmunkly dignity, will quiver with embarrassment; confronted by a delicate situation he’ll squinch his eyes and cast them about, like a hapless waiter trying to dump an unwanted blue plate special.
That’s what he does in Manpower, when tough-guy George Raft enters his drugstore to buy a lipstick. Raft is actually purchasing the tube for Marlene Dietrich, but Chester doesn’t know that. All he knows is that this fierce-looking gent has just walked into his drugstore and demanded a lipstick, something fierce-looking gents don’t do. Chester squints, squitches his nose, and slides his eyes down and sideways, as a radical thought dawns on him (“What shade?”, he finally asks). You sense that here’s a chipmunk who’s just encountered a whole new world.
Chester’s film credits are a who’s who of the ordinary man: clerks and managers, husbands and family men, little guys, unimportant in the larger scheme of things, but surviving life’s comic vicissitudes, just like the rest of us. He’s listed in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry as “Man With Toupee.” I haven’t seen the flick, but I can imagine what happens to poor Chester’s hairpiece (nothing good, I presume). In Love Is a Headache, he’s a “Pants Salesman,” no doubt getting his foot in that door just in time. In The Spellbinder, he’s “Dr. Hillary Schunk,” man with unfortunate name; in The Smiling Ghost, he’s a “Homely Woman’s Husband,” man with unfortunate spouse. He’s a “Jewelry Salesman” duped by Barbara Stanwyck in Remember the Night, “Johnson,” the affable neighbor who gets bonked on his bald knob by an angry wife in The Doctor Takes a Wife, a “Butter and Egg Man” in She Knew All The Answers, the obsequious “Hammond” in You Can’t Take It With You, the “Westmore Hotel Clerk” tangling with Humphrey Bogart in All Through The Night; and, in Hold Back the Dawn he’s the “Man in Climax Bar” (how did that one get past the Breen Office?).
Check out the Clutean filmography. It’s Everyman’s résumé, right out of the phonebook, everyone with a story: “George–Opera Stage Doorman” in Two Sisters from Boston, squinty-eyed with terror because Jimmy Durante knows of his questionable Brighton Beach past; “Mr. Montrose–Clerk” in The Spoilers, neat and dapper while ogling Marlene Dietrich; a “Cowhand with Whiskey Jug” in Sagebrush Law; the waspish “Mr. Burvis” in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, demanding to see the title characters (“where are those fatheads?”, he snaps; rem acu tetigisti). He’s “Goff” in Yankee Doodle Dandy (Goff?); “Fud” in Crazy House (Fud?); mild bank clerk “Mr. Buchanan” in Larceny, Inc., trying to refuse ex-gangster Edward G. Robinson’s unrefusable offer; efficient butler “Phillips” offering pills and sympathy to Charlie Ruggles in It Happened on Fifth Avenue; a “Cornflakes Eater” in Web of Danger; a “Milquetoast Customer” in Ever Since Venus. A compendium of labels, jobs, occupations, strutting and fretting for a few minutes of screen time to make sure they’re heard. Such bits could pass like water drops on a window pane if there wasn’t an actor behind them who could imprint them on celluloid, give them body and substance, and shape them as particular, individual souls. When Chester brings them to our door, we have to let them in. Because we’re really greeting our own selves.
Chester’s last film appearance was in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis 1953 romp Scared Stiff, listed as “Man with Spaghetti on Head.” It’s a classic bit-player part; the actor used solely as the butt of a joke. You might think that’s like playing the second half of a pantomime horse, but I would disagree. For a final role, I think spaghetti is a great way to go. It’s as classically comic as getting a pie in the face. I like to think that Chester would want to be remembered that way. And the role does require experience and talent to carry off; no foot-shuffling’s done here. Chester’s onscreen for only a few minutes, with almost no dialogue. He has to share those precious moments with a madly mugging Lewis, all the while dripping with pasta (he looks like a wet mop). But he’s wonderful. He doesn’t try to out-manic Lewis (would anyone want to?), who plucks off spaghetti strands as if unravelling snarled thread. Instead, Chester chooses to behave like a human being. He’s timid, fluttering, resigned, but above all patient. it’s one more kink of life to be gotten through, and he gets through it like a pro.
Who was it who said that there were no small parts, only small actors? That guy must’ve been thinking of Chester Clute. A little man but a big actor. As far as I’m concerned, whenever Chester’s onscreen, I’m leaving the door open.
This post is part of the What A Character! Blogathon 2014, hosted by Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Please click here to read these great posts on Hollywood’s great character actors.
BIG BONUS CLIP: Chester appears with another team of heavyweights, Don Ameche and Claudette Colbert, in a scene from Guest Wife. Colbert is out with Ameche, posing as his wife (they’re not married). Chester is a shoe salesman who recognizes Colbert from their mutual home town, and insists on proving his suspicions by examining her feet (do we sense a theme here?). Things get complicated: