One of my favorite character actors has been dead for 53 years but he continues to live and make me laugh in so many of his wonderful performances on film, mostly in pictures of the ‘30s and ‘40s. The comic actor I’m referring to was Eric Blore and if the name doesn’t particularly ring a bell to you, you would undoubtedly recognize him if you’re a fan of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals. He is best known as the quintessential persnickety English butler.
Eric Blore was born in Middlesex County, England, in 1887, came out of college and started his working life as an insurance agent, but the acting bug bit him while touring in Australia. When he returned to England he gave up his day job and started working on the stage. He had a wonderfully expressive face and crisp, unique voice that lent itself perfectly to British comedy. Soon he began a career starring in many shows and revues.
He made his film debut in a U.K. comedy short, “A Night Out and a Day In” (1920) before heading to New York, where he made his Broadway debut in Little Miss Bluebeard (1923), which ran for 175 performances. Blore soon became a regular in Broadway musical revues, for which he also occasionally wrote song lyrics from about 1923 to 1933. Although he made his Hollywood debut in a silent adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1926), he remained for the most part on stage.
Then in 1933 he gave a memorable performance as an overbearing, pushy assistant hotel manager in Flying Down to Rio, which featured the first screen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Audiences loved him and Blore’s screen career was officially launched. Like so many other comic character actors, Blore essentially played variations on his most popular role throughout his career – sometimes a waiter, sometimes a butler, but mostly a gentleman’s valet.
In addition to his English butler, lock-jawed voice and a multitude of expressions (mugging in the best sense), Blore had a magnificently timed delivery that punctuated every scene that he was in. His valet character, while sarcastic, frustrated, and even a bit condescending from time to time, always maintained a ridged faithfulness to his gentleman employer.
Eric Blore stayed pretty busy in musical and comedy pictures through the ‘30s and ‘40s and even played in a few dramas like The Soldier and the Lady, The Moon and Sixpence, with George Sanders, The Shanghai Gesture, and Island of Lost Men. His strength was definitely in light comedies however – appearing in five of the nine Fred and Ginger dance musicals, which included The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance (1937), in addition to Flying Down to Rio. His presence in the William Powell, Jean Arthur picture, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) added to the fun.
Blore appeared in two of Preston Sturges’ classic screwball comedies, The Lady Eve (1941), where he played a sly con man posing as a British royal in order to fleece wealthy businessmen, and Sullivan’s Travels (1942), where he reprised his manservant persona as the skeptic butler to Joel McCrea’s idealistic director.
He had a recurring role as valet/butler Jamison in the screen adaptations of the Lone Wolf mystery novel series. There were eleven films in all between 1940 and 1947, and these little pictures were well made and extremely popular. Blore’s valet proved to be the perfect counterpoint to Warren William’s Lone Wolf, Michael Lanyard.
Blore even made an appearance in one of the famous “Road” pictures, playing opposite Bing Crosby and Bob Hope as a goofy diamond baron in The Road to Zanzibar (1941). And in 1949 he even made it into the animation world when he starred as the voice of Mr. J. Thaddeus Toad (from The Wind in the Willows) in the classic Walt Disney feature, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
Warhorse character actors like Eric Blore brought so much to movies of the past. These performers could take a dull, stale scene and make it sparkle with just a well-timed glance or double-take, or a perfectly delivered line of dialogue. Eric Blore was one of the best around. Whenever I see his name appear in the opening credits of a picture I know I’m going to enjoy the show.