Hollywood was and still is filled with types – be they on the screen or not. In fact, it was often remarked that you can expect anything to happen on Hollywood Blvd. I remember making an inquiry in a bookshop only to have a person dressed in a red wool suit with Elvis side burns and glasses standing to my left near the till in over 80 degree heat. There are those that have unmistakable quality of “it,” who can carry a film and enthrall the audience. Then there are those that, for some reason, are known only to a few. They somehow do not have that star quality, yet deliver performance after performance, never quite getting there. I speak of the Lyle Talbots of the world, or, in this case, Mr. Jeffery Lynn.
Jeffrey Lynn was born Ragnar Lynn in 1909 in Auburn, Massachusetts. He had a BA degree from Bates College in Maine. The stage beckoned. He toured in a stage stock company production of the military farce BROTHER RAT that, was a curious foreshadowing of what to come in his life of having stardom allude him. The play BROTHER RAT was brought to Hollywood to be filmed by Warner Brothers without Lynn who was given a role in another short film.
I first saw Jeffrey Lynn in the role of Lloyd Hart in the James Cagney gangster picture THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939). Lynn played the college man soon to be lawyer who eventually woos Jean Sherman played by blonde, smiley Priscilla Lane away from James Cagney’s character Eddie Barlett, who has been waiting for her to grow older than in the film’s beginning. Lynn’s role was good solid work for an actor who gets to play a younger version of himself as he grows from a soldier in the trenches to a polished man of the law.
The one that really showed his skill in my opinion was the 1939 Lloyd Bacon directed Warner Brothers picture ‘A CHILD IS BORN’. I have always enjoyed pictures about occupations such as the medical profession, MEN IN WHITE (1934), NIGHT NURSE (1931), steel workers, MEN OF IRON (1935), truck drivers, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) and THE VIOLENT ROAD (1958). Jeffrey Lynn’s role as Jed Sutton, the husband of convicted murderer Grace Sutton (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who is about to give birth is interesting to watch as he fights frustration of not being able to see his pregnant wife. It was a role that was similar of some early Clark Gable performances, particularly in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934). While Lynn’s Jed Sutton is on the right side of the law and Gable’s Blackie Gallagher is a grinning rogue, both show texturing and humor in their brushes with the law with different resolutions. You could argue that it was a variation on the ‘good guy’ roles Lynn played so well and I would agree. Yet he carried it off so well. He was ably supported by Fitzgerald as his wife and the long neglected Gladys George as a show business dancer whose career in stalled because of a baby.
Lynn did go on to bigger roles in FOUR WIVES (1939) and FOUR MOTHERS (1941) which featured expanded part of Felix Dietz that he had done in the previous FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938). Lynn went on to a huge career ending in 1990 with an appearance on the TV show KNOTS LANDING. Lynn also has writing credits, music credits and hosting credits, just not the full stardom of having his name above the title which to me is a shame. The lucky actors who don’t mind playing typecast roles could make whole careers out of playing policemen, bankers, henchman, and doctors. There are those that dislike it, fight the system for what they think are different roles; unfortunately, most do not gain that all important public acceptance. Boris Karloff once remarked when asked later in his life if he ever tired of playing monsters and madmen to which he replied no that he was blessed to be an always working actor.
Such were the Lyle Talbots, Jeffrey Lynns and the David Manners the Golden Age. They had the looks, the voice, the stories, the directors and careers in supporting others. Some were happy about it. Others may have carried a secret bitterness that is forever silent. John Garfield’s cynical character of the chain smoking, unshaven piano playing Mickey Bordon articulated it so well in a towards the end of this clip from FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938); ironically with Jeffrey Lynn in the cast. He talks of God rolling the dice, life’s choice and in the best part not seen here remarks of “having just enough talent to make someone else look good but not yourself.”
Window dressing for people to play off of, perhaps yes, always capable of course. Whatever their feelings, we shall never know. It is still wonderful to see them on the screen. For that we thank them.