Despite a quick ascent to the Broadway stage and Hollywood film sets, it was many years before Walter Pidgeon achieved the type of stardom we associate him with today. He wasn’t hatched with Greer Garson at his hip, even if their eight* popular features for MGM sometimes make that seem to be the case.
* A ninth, The Youngest Profession (1943), sees Garson and Pidgeon playing themselves after being tracked down by Virginia Weidler's autograph hound.
Walter Davis Pidgeon was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada on September 23, 1897.
He traveled a long road from New Brunswick through Boston and New York to Hollywood, and even that journey didn’t spell Pidgeon’s true arrival. Back to Broadway and over to London before going west once more to settle in as a supporting actor. Pidgeon’s professional journey began in 1923, but the turning point in his career did not come until 1941, when the actor was already comfortably past forty.Pidgeon cut short his studies at the University of New Brunswick to join the 65th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery during the first World War. During training he was trapped between two rolling gun carriages and suffered a terrible injury that led to his spending seventeen months recovering in a military hospital. Pidgeon never saw battle.
After the war he moved to Boston and worked in a stock broker's mail room to make ends meet and pay his way through the Boston Conservatory of Music. When Fred Astaire heard Pidgeon singing in an amateur theatrical production, he recommended the young baritone to well-known performer Elsie Janis. Janis traveled to Boston and liked what she heard well enough to immediately hire Pidgeon, who accompanied her throughout the United States and Canada over the next two years. It was alongside Janis that Pidgeon made his Broadway debut in Puzzles of 1925, though Pidgeon claimed that he actually worked a bit part in an earlier show for E.E. Clive, at that time a producer, in 1923’s You Never Can Tell.It was during this period that Pidgeon married Edna Pickels, a fellow student of the Boston Conservatory, who toured with her husband as understudy to Miss Janis. Pidgeon’s first marriage ended tragically when his wife died during childbirth in 1926. Pidgeon named his daughter Edna after his late wife.
But Edna was still with her husband when Elsie Janis fired him and the singer ventured to Hollywood to take a chance on the silent screen. While this medium does not sound as though it would make an ideal match for a vocalist, Pidgeon was buoyed west after receiving a lot of attention from Hollywood talent scouts stationed back east. Moviegoers wouldn’t be able to hear him, but the tall singer was a man of striking appearance and quickly found work for producer Joseph M. Schenck. Schenck signed him to play leading man to his wife, Norma Talmadge, and her sister, Constance. Film Daily announced Schenck’s signing of Walter Pidgeon on September 6, 1925.Pidgeon appeared in several silent films and made a natural transition to talkies starring in several early Technicolor musicals. Unfortunately, his timing was all wrong. Musicals proliferated during this earliest phase of talking pictures and by the time of 1930 and ‘31, when Pidgeon had seemingly ascended, the public was in revolt against the terrible product being churned out. His film roles dwindled and Pidgeon returned to the stage. At this point in his career he seemed fated to go the way of so many other forgotten early stars of the talkies. But Walter Pidgeon had a second wind.
He supported Cary Grant and Joan Bennett in Big Brown Eyes (1936) for producer Walter Wanger at Paramount, who Pidgeon also worked for in Fatal Lady that same year. After appearing in three movies for Universal in 1937, Pidgeon gained notice when he played Clark Gable’s rival to Jean Harlow in MGM’s Saratoga, the 1937 film best remembered because of Harlow’s tragic death prior to its completion. Pidgeon signed a long term deal with MGM at this time, beginning a long and mutually satisfying relationship. But not quite yet.As had been typical of Pidgeon’s career to date, MGM wasn’t immediately able to carve the proper niche for Walter Pidgeon. He’d play love interests, rival love interests, lawyers and even be cast as detective Nick Carter in three series entries at the studio, but these were parts anyone could have played (In fact, I'm struck by how similar his career seems to that of Ronald Reagan's at Warner Bros. at this moment in time). In a relatively common twist, Pidgeon really came into his own when MGM loaned him out to other studios.
Former Big Brown Eyes co-star Joan Bennett had married Walter Wanger by the time Pidgeon was loaned to him for The House Across the Bay, a 1940 release from United Artists. An even better part for Pidgeon came when he was starred with Bennett in his support in in Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt for Twentieth Century Fox in 1941. That film opens in spectacular fashion when sharpshooter Pidgeon fixes Adolf Hitler in the crosshairs of his gun, only to be discovered in his perch by Nazis before he is able to take the shot. Pidgeon spends the rest of the movie trying to outwit George Sanders and the Nazis, while Bennett, armed with a surprisingly strong Cockney accent, is convinced to give him a hand.
1941 was the most important year of Walter Pidgeon’s career. In between Man Hunt and a second MGM loan to Fox to star as the patient and understanding preacher in John Ford’s masterpiece How Green Was My Valley, came a solid if not spectacular film at the home studio, Blossoms in the Dust. In this movie Pidgeon played the considerate husband of Edna Gladney, a real life social worker who advocated for children. Greer Garson played Edna in this first of the eight eventual pairings that would come to largely define Walter Pidgeon’s career.
It was alongside Garson that Pidgeon received the only two Academy Award nominations of his career, for Clem Miniver in Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Pierre Curie in Madame Curie (1943). Garson was also nominated for each of those films and would claim her only Oscar from seven eventual nominations for her lead in Mrs. Miniver, which also captured Best Picture. Pidgeon lost out to James Cagney the first year and then to his good friend Paul Lukas the next. “Most people think of me as Mr. Miniver,” Pidgeon said in a 1972 interview, “But I enjoyed my role in Madame Curie more.”
While each part shows Pidgeon to best effect, his Pierre Curie did offer a more fully developed character with more to do overall in the film. His strength as Clem Miniver is inspiring, especially his calming influence when the family takes shelter from a German air raid, but as Curie he embarks on a delightful courtship of Garson’s Marie and is strong enough to put his own work on hold once he sees the importance of his wife’s work. Their mutual obsession with science, which sounds so cold and impersonal on the surface, actually draws them into a beautiful screen romance that eventually becomes Pierre’s primary and welcome distraction from his work.
Many stars shifted to television as they aged out of leading movie roles during the 1950s, but Walter Pidgeon continued working in movies for MGM. Early in the decade he played Esther Williams’ father in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952); He’s the likable studio head who tries to convince Barry Sullivan, Dick Powell and Lana Turner to come back to work for overly ambitious and self-absorbed Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); His eighth and final turn alongside Greer Garson came in Scandal at Scourie (1953); Pidgeon is the aging heart and soul among another ensemble of major stars in Executive Suite (1954); He still finds new fans as the calculating scientist Dr. Morbius in sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956); He was also James Cagney’s levelheaded attorney in the underrated These Wilder Years (1956) with Barbara Stanwyck.
Pidgeon was offered and accepted another long term contract with MGM in 1954. By this time many of his peers had either faded or elected independence, but Pidgeon was very happy to renew his relationship with the company that had made him a star. In 1955 he told Hollywood journalist Bob Thomas, “This studio takes good care of its people. I’d be lost anywhere else.”
It was during this time that he also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, a post he held from 1952 through 1957. But when the movie offers began to slow down Pidgeon made his return to Broadway, where he enjoyed a successful run in The Happiest Millionaire beginning in 1956.
Only at the end of the decade did he really become active on television. Throughout the 1960s he made guest appearances on several popular shows including Rawhide, Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare and The F.B.I., while he still occasionally took on movie roles in films such as Advise & Consent (1962) and Funny Girl (1968). He kept working into the 1970s, but retired after a blood clot on his lung hospitalized him in 1977.
Walter Pidgeon had married again back in 1931. He and his wife Ruth remained married for the rest of his life.
A series of strokes led to Pidgeon’s admittance to St. John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, California in 1984. He celebrated his eighty-sixth birthday from his hospital bed there and then died two days later, September 25, 1984.
The Walter Pidgeon character who emerged from the screen by 1940 was self-assured yet modest. Polite yet blunt. He appeared as a tall, gentle and handsome man whose movie romances didn’t burn passionately but instead possessed a comforting loving glow. That was especially so when he was teamed with Greer Garson.
His voice was trained to sing and that it does, but his wonderful deep tones were put to even better use through the natural and mellifluous delivery of his lines. Especially after he put singing behind him. Understated and never overwhelming, Walter Pidgeon played gentlemen without our ever questioning his characters about hidden or ulterior motives. He was beyond reproach.
- "Actor Walter Pidgeon Dies." Oberver-Reporter 26 Sep 1984: D-6. Web. Google News. 2 Aug 2014.
- Anderson, Nancy. "Walter Pidgeon Crosses the Generation Gap." Rome News-Tribute 4 Aug 1972: 14. Web. Google News. 2 Aug 2014.
- Thomas, Bob. "After 30 Years in Films, Walter Pidgeon Going Strong." Tuscaloosa News 10 May 1955: 6. Web. Google News. 2 Aug 2014.