By Michael J Roberts
"A lot of people say I've deserted my art because I left Broadway and the stage. Hell, I'm no artist. I'm a working man. I've got a trade just like any other mechanic, and I follow my trade where the work is. Just now it's in Hollywood, but I'm not tied to Hollywood." ~ Thomas Mitchell
Thomas Mitchell was a marvellous character actor during Hollywood’s Golden Age, always worth watching even if the glint in his eye meant he was capable of stealing every scene he was in. Born in 1892, Mitchell came to Hollywood in the early 1920’s as a Broadway and Shakespearian trained actor. It wasn’t until Frank Capra took the round-faced character actor under his wing with 1937’s Lost Horizon that Mitchell came to prominence. 2 years later in 1939 during the annus mirabilis of Hollywood, Mitchell had his own miracle year, working in John Ford’s Stagecoach, Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes To Washington and the daddy of them all, Victor Fleming’s Gone With The Wind. Stagecoach brought him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and John Ford would again provide him an excellent role in the under-rated The Long Voyage Home, again with John Wayne.
Mitchell worked consistently through the 1940’s and early 1950’s for many fine directors like Fritz Lang, Julien Duvivier and Willian Wellman, all keen to use his reliable screen presence, and it was Hawks who again provided a strange highlight in the flawed western The Outlaw, finished and compromised by producer Howard Hughes. Joseph Mankiewicz’s Keys To The Kingdom and Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror, opposite Olivia De Havilland were notable efforts before Mitchell took a signature role as forgetful Uncle Billy in Frank Capra’s eternal; fairy tale, It’s A Wonderful Life. The final A-Grade film Mitchell made a mark in was Fred Zinneman’s High Noon in 1952 and he spent his final years bouncing between average films and, like many of his contemporaries, appearing in numerous TV shows.