Saturday, December 10, 2011

Remembering Harry Morgan

The great character actor Harry Morgan passed away this past Wednesday, December 7th. He was 96.

Morgan was one of those really wonderful "faces" who populated movies of the '40s and '50s, and of course then he went on to star in some of television's best-loved series. He was always a strong performer who often brought more to his supporting roles than was written on the page.

I think my first memory of Morgan was as Bill Gannon in DRAGNET when I was little; I think they were reruns, but it's possible I saw some when they first ran roundabout 1970. Our family loved Jack Webb shows and also never missed ADAM-12 or EMERGENCY! I suspect Bill Gannon, Joe Friday, and Webb's other characters helped inspire my brother's career in law enforcement.

Along with DRAGNET, my first memory of Morgan is probably as Chummy in THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954), a film regularly seen in my house as I grew up.

Regarding THE GLENN MILLER STORY, I remember being very confused that he was billed as Henry Morgan. He switched to using the name Harry as his TV career took off, in order to avoid confusion with the comedian Henry Morgan. In some of his films he's billed as Henry "Harry" Morgan.

Morgan's film career began in TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI (1942) at 20th Century-Fox. He's the soda jerk who takes Ann Rutherford to the big band concert in ORCHESTRA WIVES (1942), Brownie, a submarine crew member in CRASH DIVE (1943), the carnival barker at the STATE FAIR (1945), and a bath house attendant in SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946).

Those titles are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to small but memorable roles. He was also Charles Laughton's silently menacing henchman in THE BIG CLOCK (1948), Robert Montgomery's loyal aide in THE SAXON CHARM (1948), one of the outlaws in the underrated William Wellman Western YELLOW SKY (1948), and he narrated John Wayne's BIG JIM McLAIN (1952). He also appeared in the Richard Widmark Western BACKLASH (1956).

One of his finest roles was as a good-hearted train robber in MGM's "B" movie GENTLE ANNIE (1944). This film, which also starred Donna Reed, James Craig, and Marjorie Main, is worth seeking out for Morgan's touching performance. He plays a man of contradictions, a devoted son who is on the wrong side of the law yet nonetheless lives by a certain code of honor.

Another of his great supporting roles was as the amused police lieutenant in HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949), showing on Turner Classic Movies December 20th and 24th this month.

An especially interesting credit was the film noir STRANGE BARGAIN (1949). In 1987 Morgan reunited with his STRANGE BARGAIN costars Jeffrey Lynn and Martha Scott for a sequel to the film in an episode of MURDER, SHE WROTE. Footage from the film was used in the episode.

Morgan was part of the "stock company" who regularly appeared in the Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations of the '50s. In addition to THE GLENN MILLER STORY, Morgan appeared in the Mann-Stewart films BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), THUNDER BAY (1953), THE FAR COUNTRY (1954), and STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND (1955).

And yet I still haven't mentioned William Wellman's THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943) or Joseph L. Mankiewicz's DRAGONWYCK (1946) or Frank Borzage's MOONRISE (1948) or Vincente Minnelli's MADAME BOVARY (1949) or Fred Zinnemann's HIGH NOON (1952).

Or his Disney movies, like my childhood favorite SNOWBALL EXPRESS (1972) or CHARLEY AND THE ANGEL (1973) or THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG (1975). And he was hilarious as Joan Hackett's father in my favorite James Garner movie, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (1969).

Or what about his roles as General Grant in HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962) or as Harry Truman in TV's BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE (1979)?

What's amazing is that, having said all of the above, I haven't even gotten to what might have been his finest hour, as Colonel Sherman Potter on TV's M*A*S*H. He was the completely reliable adult of the unit -- and yet he was also hilarious. Who could ever forget the classic TV moment when the old cavalryman went out and shot his broken-down Jeep? I had tears of laughter streaming down my face.

What a life, what a career! I'm so grateful for all the wonderful contributions he made to films and television over a span of many decades.

Obituaries: The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and IMDb News. Robert Lloyd also posted a good appreciation at the L.A. Times TV blog Show Tracker.

And there's a very nice tribute at 50 Westerns From the 50s, which reminds me that Morgan was in John Wayne's last film, THE SHOOTIST (1976).


Blogger mel said...

Thanks for a wonderful piece on the late Harry Morgan. I was also confused with the "Henry" alternating with the "Harry" during the 50s but, as I wasn't familiar with the comedian Henry Morgan, I accepted the two names as belonging to the same actor.

An interesting fact that I read in one of the obituaries was that his favorite movie of all that he himself appeared in was "The Ox-Bow Incident". Reviews of this film that I read have praised his performance in it. I have a copy but it's one of the many I haven't watched yet...

What a talent! And yet, until his celebrated role in M*A*S*H, the average moviegoer was unaware of his name.

But I have always loved the movie actors and actresses who generally took secondary roles - the great character actors - and to me he was one of the finest.

8:48 PM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Hi, Laura - Thank you for the nice tribute to Harry Morgan. I've enjoyed him in December Bride, Dragnet, M*A*S*H, etc. but was stunned to realize what a truly superb actor he was when I saw him recently in the film HAPPY LAND (1943). Don Ameche and Frances Dee play inconsolable parents who've lost their son in WWII. Morgan plays the son's Navy buddy who brings solace to the parents as he reveals the story of their son's heroic death. Morgan's performance is natural, nuanced and profoundly moving. Harry Morgan will be missed. - Jane

11:30 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on Harry Morgan, Mel and Jane. I've never seen either THE OX-BOW INCIDENT or HAPPY LAND, but I do have a copy of HAPPY LAND recorded from Fox Movie Channel which I look forward to seeing. I didn't realize he was in it, but taped it due to its fine cast (Ameche, Dee, and Ann Rutherford). It's interesting both OX-BOW and HAPPY LAND were done the same year, 1943 -- very close in time to a film where he greatly impressed me, GENTLE ANNIE.

Best wishes,

12:11 AM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Harry knew Jack Webb for many years; in fact, he occasionally worked on the radio "Dragnet" in a variety of roles (none of them Frank Gannon).

6:50 AM  

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