OBITUARY: Grady Sutton

Denis Gifford
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:33

Grady Sutton is a name to bring a smile to the lips of the most hardened fan of the Hollywood film factory of the 1930s and 1940s. Never on screen for long, yet seldom off, it seems, he brightened over 180 films, and those were just the features. He was also in at least 30 short films and usually followed the old saw of the smaller the film, the bigger the part.

Virtually playing the same role every time, which was an enlargement of his own persona - wide eyes, dead pan, and a soft Southern drawl - Sutton was one of the great gang of character comedians who staffed the supporting cast of any Hollywood movie that dared call itself a comedy. Franklin Pangborn, the prissy hotelier; Edgar Kennedy, the face- wiping dumb cop; Billy Gilbert, the irascible Italian diner proprietor; Chester Clute, the timid clerk with the hairline moustache; their names were legion and their images remain trademarks of a Golden Age.

Sutton was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1908. The family moved to Florida where Grady was educated at the St Petersburg High School. He appeared in his first film at Universal Studios in the silent era, The Mad Whirl (1925), which co-starred Jack Mulhall and May McAvoy. He was funny enough for Carl Laemmle to sign him to a year's contract, and a Reginald Denny comedy, Skinner's Dress Suit (1926) followed. Better, however, was a chance to appear in Harold Lloyd's famous feature set in college, The Freshman (1925). This set Sutton's style for a while, and a string of shy and somewhat simple college-boy roles followed. He was in Leo McCarey's college caper The Sophomore (1929) his first encounter with the new talkie process.

McCarey was instrumental in casting Sutton for his first series of two- reel comedies, recommending him to his old boss the producer Hal Roach, who was cashing in on the college craze with a new series entitled The Boy Friends (1930). Grady, who was now revealing a soft Southern accent as funny as his physique, was cast as Alabam, while the rest of the regulars, including Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman, were former juvenile stars from Roach's Our Gang series. Fifteen films were made, making the name of a former Roach cameraman now turned director, George Stevens.

College comedies continued to concern Sutton through the 1930s, ranging from another series, Blondes and Redheads (1933), which George Stevens directed at RKO, to features such as College Humor (1933) co-starring Bing Crosby and Jack Oakie, The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1934) and Pigskin Parade (1936) in which the young Betty Grable and Judy Garland appeared. But outside the genre were many gems such as his supporting role with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Pack Up Your Troubles (1932). The boys got themselves into another fine mess by trying to locate the father of a little girl. Seeking one Eddie Smith they arrive in the middle of a wedding. Naturally it is the wrong Eddie Smith, as played by Grady Sutton at his most wide-eyed and innocent, and it hardly helps that his father-in-law-to-be is the explosive Billy Gilbert.

Another great comedian who delighted in casting Sutton in his films was W.C. Fields. Sutton first played Cuthbert, Fields's daughter's boyfriend, in the Mack Sennett short The Pharmacist (1933). Fields was so pleased that he cast Sutton as Claude Nesselrode in The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), as Chester in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), and as Og Oggilby in The Bank Dick (1940). This latter featured a whole clutch of comedy cameos: Franklin Pangborn as J. Pinkerton Snoopington the bank inspector; Russell Hicks as J. Frothingham Waterbury; and the eternal drunk Jack Norton as A. Pismo Clam, the intoxicated film director.

In later days Sutton entered television, appearing in a series based on the highly popular movie The Odd Couple, and starred in several commercials including Mean Mary Jean adverts for Chevrolet cars. Of the many stars he supported in his long career, Sutton's favourites were, he said, "two of the nicest people I ever met" - Katharine Hepburn, with whom he appeared in Alice Adams (1935) and Stage Door (1937), and of course W.C. Fields.

Grady Sutton, actor: born Chattanooga, Tennessee 5 April 1908; died 17 September 1995.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments