When we look back at classic Hollywood, we most often think of the beautiful and sometimes tragic movie stars that lit up the silver screen with their signature personalities and looks. The other actors that appear in classic films are simply space fillers; many are almost completely forgotten today. However, every once in a while, some of these “space fillers” produce a spark of recognition. You know you have seen them in another movie, but you just can’t seem to remember which one. You probably don’t even know their name, but for a short moment, they steal the scene away from the stars. Whenever you see them, it seems as if they just keep playing the same role over and over: the comedic sidekick, the maiden aunt, or the straitlaced businessman. Nevertheless, they provide much needed laughs when the stars fail to elicit even the smallest giggle. These character actors need to be remembered for the contributions they made to film, so for the next few weeks, I will be shining a spotlight on some of the well-known ones and some of my personal favorites.
Born in Kentucky on December 10, 1903, she began her career as a stand-in for Lillian Gish in the 1920’s. With the advent of sound, Merkel hit her stride playing the wisecracking best friend of some of the biggest stars of the 1930’s. As she became older, she transitioned from being the friend to being the mother or eccentric aunt. She finally received some recognition for her work by receiving an Oscar nomination for her role as Mrs. Winemiller in Summer and Smoke, one of her last films. She died in 1986 at the age of 82.