Edward Everett Horton was one of the first great character actors of the sound era. A veteran of the stage by the time he joined Hollywood in the early 1920s, Horton was one of the actors for whom the coming sound era was not a threat. His pompously dim disposition and his pretentiously mannered diction were a perfect fit for the theatrical, dialogue-driven screwball comedies and musicals that exploded in the 1930s. Equally at ease as a best friend or a romantic foil, Horton possessed a rare pathos that transcended the moral distinction or turpitude of his characters. Whether a trusty companion to our hero or a conniving misogynist to a damsel in distress, he always seemed capable of eliciting more pity than malice. He never played good guys or bad guys, necessarily, just men who, for one reason or another, failed to grasp the world around them.
Like many great comedians, Horton possessed phenomenal technique. He will probably always be best known for his unique version of the double take. What made his double take so wonderful is the length with which he could hold the transition from “first” take to “second” take. His greatest epiphanies would not strike him suddenly like lightning, but would slowly wash over his frozen face, as though his brain were stuck in a holding pattern until it finally grasped the message.
In his funniest moments, though, it seemed he didn’t even get that much. Here is where Horton offers his greatest acting maneuver: the triple-take. When confronted with a particularly sharp jibe from a hero in a film, Horton would not just follow the familiar pattern of missing the point before getting it. He would add a third layer, in which he fails to comprehend that which he just seemed to understand. In other words, it’s: 1) I think I get it; 2) I get it now!; 3) I don’t get it. That final piece, that concluding lack of comprehension, is what puts such a perfect cap on scenes, and why Horton plays such an excellent fool. Someone clever sneaks in the last word, and Horton is left pondering its meaning.
Horton, however, was not just a triple-take specialist. He crafted a complete character, of which that dimness was an integral facet. His characters suffered comically from a severely inflated sense of cognitive dissonance. Seemingly able to hold, at most, one line of thought in his mind at a time, his characters shot incessantly from one moral position to another. When confronted with the unpopularity of an opinion, he could easily demur, if not vociferously defend the opposite position. With this endless vacillation, Horton at his most cloying, exemplified the obnoxious righteousness of so many bosses, rivals, and even parents – representations that made it all the more satisfying to see their comeuppance when it came due.
His soft face, clownish smile, and rotund figure made him a perfect foil for chiseled hunks like Gary Copper (Design for Living) and debonair gentlemen like Herbert Marshall (Trouble in Paradise). Conversely, his nearly complete lack of sex appeal fit in nicely as a nonthreatening best friend, most notably to Fred Astaire in the three best films of the Astaire-Rogers period: The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Shall We Dance. In these films, Horton proved a trusty sidekick to Astaire, helping him navigate through series of romantic and professional turmoil – when he wasn’t causing turmoil himself.
Beyond his physical and intellectual shortcomings, there is another reason why the Horton character was such an affable male companion. Vito Russo, in his brilliant study of queer cinema, The Celluloid Closet, cites Horton’s characters as early, important examples of queer representation, albeit highly coded. Shrouded in narrative subtleties and comic gestures, Horton’s characters were identifiable as homosexual, particularly to a gay audience. In The Gay Divorcee, his most entertaining performance, Horton, in Russo’s words, becomes “an obvious instance of the barely restrained Code sissy, scrubbed on the surface yet brimming with tantalizing sexual and psychological ambiguities.”
In a key scene, laden with sexual innuendo, Horton engages in a brilliant exchange with a waiter played by Eric Blore. Their patter is not only flirtatious, but serves as a sly reference to the kinds of coded speech gays and lesbians employed (and to some degree, still employ) to determine the orientation of a potential partner. Of course, given Horton’s penchant for impenetrable dimness, the delight of watching the conversation comes in watching him struggle to decipher, perhaps along with some of the less hip audience members, what it is they are really talking about.
Though he holds over 180 acting credits, the prime of his career was in the early days of the talkies. Because of his demeanor, his refined vaudevillian approach, and his willingness to perform in relatively risqué pictures, particularly as a “sissy” type, he was perfectly suited to the fresh, energetic screwball comedies of the 1930s, especially of the pre-Code era. Lonely Wives, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, The Gay Divorcee, all remain among his finest performances, and all deal with sexuality in a casual frankness that wouldn’t be possible again until the 1960s. As Russo points out, “The inspired lunacy of the professional sissies disappeared in the Forties…. Sissy characters did not disappear, but the delightful never-never land inhabited by… Horton and so many others disappeared like the movies they embellished.” When the films in which he thrived stopped being made, the best of his work was behind him.
Horton still went on to make many films after the 1930s, popping up in such revered classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Arsenic and Old Lace. He also made appearances in a bunch of musicals of the 1940s, including Ziegfeld Girl and Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here. While his performances remained solid and entertaining, and approached with the kind of professionalism a great performer carries, he would never match the spark of his ‘30s films. Perhaps that owes as much to age as it does to the quality and style of his later films.
In any case, no matter the film around him, Edward Everett Horton consistently imbued his films with the most important quality a character actor can bring: his mere presence made every movie better.