March 18, 1886– Edward Everett Horton
From the very start of film as an art form, slightly coded gay characters were used for the easy laugh: Sissies, Gallery Owners, Interior Decorators, Fussy Bachelors, and Prissy Artistic Types. These incidental characters added spice to the urbane sophisticated comedies of the era when film as an art form was in its infancy. The gay hints these minor characters provided were in juxtaposition to the butch, sexier romantic men of the era. Film comedies deftly employed actors like Clifton Webb, Frances Langford, Eric Blore, and today’s Born This Day honoree, Edward Everett Horton, as gay comic relief with stereotypes that didn’t threaten film fans, male or female.
I have always had a special place in my heart for the work of Edward Everett Horton. He was Fred Astaire’s straight man, and I immediately identify Horton with his work in the Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals from RKO Studios including the apt named The Gay Divorcee (1934), but he provided many other notable roles onscreen during the 1930s included a deft portrayal of The Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland (1933), and the neurotic paleontologist who first appears disguised as a woman, in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937).
Horton began his career in 1906, singing and dancing and playing small parts in Vaudeville and in Broadway musicals. In 1919, he moved to Hollywood to give film work a try. His first big role was in a comedy, Too Much Business (1922), and he had his first lead, playing an idealistic young classical composer in Beggar On Horseback (1925). In the late 1920s he starred in two-reelers for Educational Pictures, and made the transition from silent films to talking pictures in 1928. As a trained stage actor performer, he more easily found work in the talkies than other actors, and he appeared in some of Warner Bros. early sound films, including The Terror (1928) and Sonny Boy (1929)
Beginning in the early 1930s, Horton made at least six films a year for the next quarter of a century, I tried counting but lost track at 120. Reflecting his work earlier on the stage, there were occasional serious variations in his roles. There was Miriam Hopkins’ humorless boss, Max Plunkett, in Ernst Lubitsch’s charming pre-code Design For Living (1933) based on the saucy Noël Coward play. He played an unusually forceful role in Douglas Sirk’s terrific Summer Storm (1944) and he delivered a masterful comedic turn in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943).
Horton developed his own special variation of the time-honored comic double-take (an actor’s reaction to something, followed by a delayed, more extreme reaction). In Horton’s version, it was a triple-take: he would smile ingratiatingly, nod in agreement with what just happened; then, when realization set in, his facial features collapsed entirely into a sober, troubled mask. He was a master at it. His final film role was in the comedy Cold Turkey (1971), where his character had no dialogue and communicated only through facial expressions.
He used his crack-timing to full advantage playing mousy types in Holiday (1938) with Katharine Hepburn, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) with Robert Montgomery, Arsenic And Old Lace (1944), It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) with everyone in Hollywood, and Sex And The Single Girl (1964) with Natalie Wood and Lauren Bacall. Horton worked steadily for more than six decades. Horton:
“I have my own little kingdom. I do the scavenger parts no one else wants and I get well paid for it.”
He may have been a sissy, but he was no dummy. He bought up property in the San Fernando Valley starting in the 1920s. He developed what he named “Beleigh Acres”, a 23-acre compound where he lived with his longtime partner, handsome, silver-tongued actor Gavin Gordon, and Horton’s mother, who stubbornly hung around until she was 102-years-old. Gordon and Horton met in a stage production of Coward’s Private Lives in 1934. They appeared in only one film together, the sweetly sentimental Pocketful Of Miracles (1961), alongside Bette Davis, Ann-Margret and Glenn Ford. They were together 25 years.
He was busy working in television throughout the 1950s and 1960s: as a guest on series, voice-overs for commercials, and most notably, as host for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. Horton was on the silly Western comedy, F Troop, implausibly playing Running Chicken, an Indian tribal medicine man, giving us an entirely new set of offensive stereotypes.
But, his most enduring work in the 1960s was as the narrator of the Fractured Fairy Tales section of the very popular The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle And Friends (1959-1965) in which he was prominently billed in the opening credits of every episode. This work endeared him to millions of Baby Boomers like me. One of my favorites of his television appearances is an I Love Lucy episode, where he is cast against type as a frisky, amorous suitor.
Edward Everett Horton’s final credits rolled in 1970, taken by that damn cancer at 84-years-old. He continued to work up until the week he left this world. He is interred in the Whispering Pines section of Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, one of my favorite places in Los Angeles (Glendale, for you purists). Gordon joined him in 1983. I have visited them there several times. You can too. Like any reputable homosexual, Horton collected antiques. At the time of his passing, he had a collection worth millions.