Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Dark Side of Percy Helton

Most fans of classic film and classic television might be familiar with Percy Helton as the drunken Santa Claus at the beginning of Miracle on 34th Street (1947) or the much put-upon Commerce Bank clerk Homer Cratchit on The Beverly Hillbillies or even the voice of Piglet in Walt Disney's "Winnie the Pooh" animated shorts. Fans of film noir know that Percy Helton also appeared in several film noirs in his career, including Call Northside 777 (1948), Criss Cross (1949), Thieves' Highway (1949), and yet others. In many film noirs, Percy Helton played relatively decent characters, such as the overly cautious yet sympathetic bartender in Criss Cross. In yet other noirs Percy Helton played characters who were dishonest, unscrupulous, and even downright creepy.

An example of one of Percy Helton's more unsavoury characters can be seen in The Set-Up (1949). He plays Red, boxer Stoker Thompson's (Robert Ryan) trainer. Both Red and Stoker's manager Tiny (George Tobias) accept a bribe from a gangster for Stoker to take a dive in his next bout. To Red's credit, he warns Tiny that he had better tell Stoker that the bout has been fixed, reminding Tiny that the boxer can always punch him.Not only is Red dishonest, but he is a coward as well. When Stoker wins the bout, he flees the ring rather than face any consequences.

Percy Helton's follow-up to The Set-Up would find him playing another somewhat cowardly character  Petey in The Crooked Way (1949) is mild-mannered, small-time crook more than willing to grovel before any authority figure. His one redeeming quality is his love for his cat, a beautiful Maine Coon, whom he carries throughout the movie despite being allergic to feline dander. In the final gunfight he finally shows some bravery trying to protect his cat. He dies in the process.

If Red and Petey had some small sense of decency, it is safe to say that Doc Kennedy in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) has none. In the film Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) visits coroner Doc Kennedy (Percy Helton) for information regarding the recently deceased Christina (Cloris Leachman). Being entirely mercenary, Doc expects Hammer to pay for his information. Hammer offers to pay the coroner, but the amount the detective is offering does not met Doc's price. Hammer ends the negotiations over the price of Doc's information by slamming the coroner's fingers in a desk drawer. Naturally, Doc accepts Hammer's price afterwards.

If Red, Petey, and Doc seem unsavoury, they are nothing compared to Charlie Borg, the loathsome tailor in Wicked Woman (1953). Wicked Woman is hardly a good film. In fact, it is closer to being a camp classic than a noir classic. That having been said, Charlie Borg could well be Percy Helton's most memorable character. Charlie Borg is the neighbour of the film's main character, Billie Nash (Beverly Michaels), in an apartment house. The 5'2" Charlie is taken with the much taller Billie (some sources say Beverly Michaels was 5'9", but other sources indicate she was actually 5'11") from the moment he first sees her. Charlie loans her money and even cooks for her in hopes of making his dreams come true. He also spies on her constantly. This leads to Charlie figuring out Billie's plans with the handsome owner of the bar at which we works, Matt (Richard Egan). Of course, Charlie wastes no time in blackmailing Billie into having sex with him. Charlie may well be the most reprehensible character Percy Helton ever played. One certainly will never see Mr. Helton the same after having seen Wicked Woman.

Of course, these are not the only noirs in which Percy Helton appeared, nor the only films in which he played shady characters. In the end Percy Helton appeared in more film noirs than some better known names more closely associated with the genre. And while today he might be better associated with comedy, it can be argued that his most memorable performances emerged in the many film noirs in which he appeared.

1 comment:

Brian Schuck said...

Coincidentally, I saw a tweet the other day asking who is your favorite side character in film-noir, and one of the first I thought of was Percy as Doc Kennedy in Kiss Me Deadly. With his roly-poly looks and high-pitched voice, he was a standout character in everything he appeared in.