What a Character! Hume Cronyn
This post is part of the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Aurora, Kellee, and Paula - also known as Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club.
One of my favorite character actors is Hume Cronyn, especially his role in one of my favorite Hitchcock films, SHADOW OF A DOUBT.
Hume Cronyn, longtime husband to Jessica Tandy, was a wonderful actor. He had a quiet reserve about him, but with a slight mischievous grin. One of the best roles I’ve enjoyed him in was as neighbor and friend Herbie Hawkins in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT was the first of his films with Hitchcock, the second being LIFEBOAT. SHADOW OF A DOUBT tells the story of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) who comes to visit his favorite niece, also nicknamed Charlie. Young Charlie is bored out of her mind with her small hometown, and longs to travel the world as she believes her favorite uncle does. However, as Uncle Charlie’s visit goes on, two detectives arrive, and his demeanor changes. Young Charlie begins to wonder about her uncle, and is devastated when her life as she imagines it falls apart.
As the film opens, after a short visual tour of the seedy neighborhood in Philadelphia that Charlie lives in, we see Uncle Charlie, lying alone on his bed in his rented room, when he’s told by his landlady that two men were looking for him. He doesn’t appear to be rattled. It’s only after his landlady leaves him that we see a very different, violent side. He sends a postal telegram to his sister (Young Charlie’s mother) in Santa Rosa, California, that he’ll be visiting.
We cut to a similar visual tour of Santa Rosa, where Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) lives with her family, and we see that she lives in an idyllic small town where it seems anyone would be happy. Except, in a mirror image of her Uncle Charlie, she’s lying in bed alone in her room, looking quite unhappy.
We meet Charlie’s bookish younger sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott), and her father Joseph Newton (Henry Travers). When we meet Joseph, we see he’s carrying a book under his arm called “Unsolved Crimes”. This may escape the viewer at this point, but it becomes of interest later on. I love Hitchcock. He was so wonderful at putting these little clues into movies. Ann took a phone call for her mother Emmy (Patricia Collinge) that they had a telegram, but since she didn’t take note of what the telegram said, no one knows that Uncle Charlie is coming yet.
When Young Charlie is feeling in a rut, totally unhappy with the boring life that her family is living, she sets out to send a telegram to Uncle Charlie, who she thinks will liven things up.
(Hitchcock’s cameo in SHADOW OF A DOUBT)
Uncle Charlie arrives on the train, and Charlie gets her first look at her uncle thinking something’s wrong, because he appears to be limping and hunched over as he gets off the train. As soon as he sees her, he straightens up and stops limping. He brushes off her question, and they continue on to the family.
During dinner, Uncle Charlie brings out gifts for the family, and his gift to Charlie is an emerald ring.
A ring, she realizes, is engraved. “TS from BM”. Our first clue that something is amiss. (And as a side note, this is one of Hitchcock’s trademarks - a reference to the bathroom in his movies — in this case, the use of ‘bm’. :) )
But let’s skip ahead, and get on to the reason for my entry in the What a Character! Blogathon!
In true character actor fashion, we don’t even meet Herbie Hawkins until 27 minutes into the film. In fact, we get a glimpse that he’s a true character, just by his first appearance, hovering in the barely-open doorway! As Emmy tells Charles about Herbie, she says, “Herbie is a friend of Joe’s. They’re literary critics.”
Note what books he’s carrying….Murder Mysteries and Unsolved Crime. We find out he lives with his mother, who is not doing well. He seems to be a very quiet, skittish man. Herbie and Joe go out to the porch, and immediately they start talking about murder mysteries. And in one of my favorite exchanges:
Joe: The best way to commit a murder….
Herbie: I know, I know. Hit him on the head with a blunt instrument.
Joe: Well it’s true, isn’t it? Listen, if I wanted to murder you tomorrow, do you think I’d waste my time on fancy hypodermics or on Innee?
Herbie: What’s that?
Joe: Innee - Indian Arrow Poison.
Herbie: *nods* Oh.
We find out that these two pass the time (all the time) by trading “How I’d kill you” scenarios, and which would be the best way to commit murder without getting caught.
Herbie: “I’d murder you so it didn’t look like murder.”
(Meanwhile, Uncle Charlie reads something he doesn’t appear to want anyone else to know about in the local paper, Young Charlie meets the two detectives posing as journalists who are trying to get a photo of Uncle Charlie, Uncle Charlie deposits money in Joe’s bank, Young Charlie spends some time with Jack (MacDonald Carey) and finds out he’s really a detective.)
While Charlie tries to come to terms with what Jack has told her, she watches her Uncle and her mother through the window, she meets Joe and Herbie. She doesn’t feel like seeing her uncle, so she tells her father she’s tired and wants to go up the back way. 30 minutes later is just Hume’s second appearance on screen. And what do their characters talk about after Charlie leaves?
Herb: Did you taste anything funny in that coffee you had at my house?
Joe: No tasted all right.
Herb: That’s what I mean, it wasn’t all right.
Joe: Put something in it?
Herb: I put a little soda in it, about the same amount if I wanted to use poison.
Joe: *laughs* You don’t say, I never tasted a thing. ‘course I might not notice the soda.
Herb: You’d notice the soda more than the poison. For all you know, you might just as well be dead now.
It’s just hilarious to me that these two talk so seriously about killing each other when we have a murderer on the loose right in front of them and they have no idea. I love the way these two actors have the chemistry to pull this off. Under any other director or with any other actors, the whole premise could just be cheesy and corny. But with Hitchcock at the helm, and Cronyn and Travers doing the dialog, it becomes a lovely little lightheartedness to an otherwise creepy-feeling film.
I know this post is about Hume, but when I say “creepy-feeling film”, I’m referring to Cotten’s understated portrayal of Uncle Charlie. Yipes. Look at the look he gives Young Charlie at dinner as he speaks of ‘silly stupid women’ whose husbands have died. Eeek.
Back to Hume. In only his third appearance in the film, Herbie enters again while they’re having dinner. They’re still eating so he makes himself at home on a seat next to the table, and takes out mushrooms. He thinks he’s got the PERFECT murder. MUSHROOMS! A few poisonous ones mixed in with regular ones.
Herbie: The worst I’d be accused of is manslaughter! Doubt if I’d get that! Accidental death!
Joe: No, no. Innocent party might get the poisonous ones. I thought of something better when I was shaving. A bathtub. Pull the legs out from under you, and hold you down.
This drives young Charlie over the edge! She can’t stand them talking about murder all the time!! “It’s your father’s way of relaxing,” her mother tells her.
Hume’s next appearance is quite different, though. Each time he’s appeared, he’s been meek, quiet. The family is getting ready to go to a bash in Uncle Charlie’s honor, and he’s tried to kill Charlie by convincing her to get the car out of the garage - only he’s started the car, closed the garage door and arranged for it to lock on her, trapping her. Herbie comes bursting into the house yelling “Somebody’s caught in the garage!” Everyone (including Uncle Charlie, who then ‘rescues’ her) goes rushing out to the garage. Our favorite character is a hero! If it wasn’t for him, our heroine would be gone!
Sadly Herbie makes his final appearance shortly before Uncle Charlie gets on a train to high-tail it out of town. You know, Hume’s time on the screen has probably not amassed more than 10 total minutes. But because he’s such playing such a wonderful character, he is so memorable. And Herbie was quite a character.
If only Joe and Herbie knew the full story — Jack & Charlie decide not to tell and let the town continue to think so highly of Uncle Charlie — that they had a real-life murderer in their midst the whole time….and how he’d gotten away with it! That’s the irony of this film. Brilliantly done by Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn. But because Travers plays a more visible part, Hume is truly the only character actor in this film. What a Character!