Nat Pendleton — He Was Smart to Play Dumb (1936) 🇺🇸

Nat Pendleton |

January 04, 2022

So this was Nat Pendleton!

I’d expected a hard-boiled mug you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night; a “deeze, dem, and dose” conversationalist, and a guy who couldn’t count to twelve except on a pair of dice.

by Thornton Sargent

Instead I found — a gentleman! Believe it or not, this plug-ugly of the screen sitting opposite me was conversing in a well-modulated voice and expressing himself in the language of a cultured, well-bred American without pose but with plenty of poise.

“I just drifted into acting. You know it’s funny the way I got my first job,” he chuckled in a restrained way. “I had been producing pictures, and when the company blew up, an agent from whom I’d hired a lot of actors told me of the trouble Irène Bordoni was having in getting a man to play in ‘Naughty Cinderella.’ ‘You’re the only intelligent, baboon-looking guy I know,’ he told me. ‘Why don’t you come over and try out for it?’”

“Ever since then I’ve been playing heavies and lugs,” said Pendleton. “Maybe it was smart to be dumb. With a face like mine I couldn’t have got in any other way. Now I think I’ve built myself up to where I’m within striking distance of stronger character parts like the kind McLaglen and Pat O’Brien play. I can do them,” insisted Pendleton, and then he added in an apologetic tone, “You know I’m really not such a horrible-looking person as I seem on the screen.”

I studied him more closely — 200 pounds of solid muscle and a clean, clear face that stands out squarely below his sleek black hair. He’s the type that some women call handsome — virile, thoroughly masculine, and with a devilish light in his eye that promises adventure and excitement.

“Look at these,” he requested, reaching for a stack of portraits. “These were taken not so long ago. Straight on, I don’t look so much like a mug. It’s my darned profile and overhanging eyebrows. When the camera catches the side of my face, I come up looking terrible. And,” he sighed ruefully, “that’s the only way they photograph me. To get my first sympathetic role I had to write and sell a story for myself.”

Write? I pricked up my ears. On the screen he acts like a dolt who signs his name with an X.

“I had to change,” continued Pendleton. “Movie audiences are funny. They associate you with the character you play. If you kick or kill somebody, they think you’re that kind of a person in real life. It holds you back in your career. Look at C. Henry Gordon, a splendid actor and a great fellow. He’s getting nowhere because people associate him with the heavy roles he plays.

“I haven’t been playing unsympathetic parts for some time. Comedy, yes, but not mean heavies. I struck out in that direction in ‘The Gay Bride,’ in which I played Carole Lombard’s husband. And now I’ve written another story with a splendid role for a person like Clark Gable.”

“Or for yourself?” I queried.

“Or for me,” smiled Nat.

Again I looked over this brawny individual. Not so bad, I muttered, not so bad! If Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen could become stars, why not Nat? And I remembered the way a certain young lady went for him after seeing “Penthouse.”

And there’s no telling how many others reacted similarly to the Sandow who figured in The Great Ziegfeld, a part that Pendleton gave great comic gusto as well as very handsome “cave man” physical lines.

“Look over the foreword of my story,” he urged, dragging forth a massive sheaf of typewritten pages.

I restrained myself from hurling the manuscript, and hurled questions instead. “Drifted into pictures? From where — when — why?”

And Nat Pendleton proceeded to recount swiftly his amazing career — a career that is crammed with adventure, travel, and vicissitudes. He told of his family, one of the best, with a great-grandfather general in the Revolutionary War; another who served as Ambassador to England; another by the name of Francis Scott Keye who wrote the national anthem; and of uncles and grandfathers who wore the cloth of the Episcopal church. He admitted to graduating from Columbia with a degree in engineering.

“But not with honors,” he laughed. “I just slipped through. Wrestling was my main interest, though I did like mathematics. It’s stayed with me ever since. Just the other day I won a suit of clothes from a gambler. He claimed the house percentage at Chuck-a-luck was 2.55. I bet they were 2.777 and proved it.”

During one vacation he visited in Mexico and hunted bandits as a member of the secret service. College reclaimed him, however, and on graduation he became an auditor for an oil company traveling in Spain, Portugal, and Africa. He left this position to organize his own export firm which did business through the principal countries of Europe.

“That experience helped me on my second picture job,” he explained proudly. “I learned French so well that I did both the English and French versions of ‘The Big Pond.’ Chevalier himself picked me for the French version from a field of 15 genuine Frenchmen. He said I spoke the lines best.”

Meanwhile, for exercise he continued his wrestling, and on his return to this country he won a berth on the American Olympic team, winning the world’s amateur heavy-weight championship at Amsterdam. This led to professional wrestling.

“I won 378 matches,” he explained, “and never had my shoulders pinned to the mat.”

Whereupon the fearless, well-educated Pendleton leaned to the floor and knocked on wood.

“He’s not without superstition after all,” I thought, as I asked if he had ever lost.

Pendleton grinned. “Nobody ever asks who I beat in winning 378 matches. They always ask to whom I lost my two matches. Both times I had to leave the ring — once when John Pesek broke my ankle, and once when Vogel, the Holland champion, broke my arm.”

He leaned over to show me a vicious-looking scar fully six inches long on the arm that had tossed Gardeni and the present wrestling favorite of Hollywood, Man Mountain Dean, big, fat, and funny.

It was proving more and more difficult to keep pace with this versatile personality. I looked about his bachelor quarters — the heavy but comfortable quarters a man of his fancy-free nature would have. On a chair rested a banjo. A medicine ball stood on an end-table. And then my eyes came to rest on a table of books.

“Do you read much?” I asked, picking up “A Treatise On Money” by the English economist Keynes. On the bookshelves I could make out still more volumes of equally imposing content — Stuart Chase’s “A New Deal,” Keynes’ “Essays On Persuasion,” Gordon Craig’s “Theatre Advancing,” and President Roosevelt’s “Looking Forward.”

“Mostly books on economics,” he replied. “Keynes is my favorite. I think he’s the greatest of modern economists. Drawing-room literature doesn’t particularly interest me.” — I believe him!

Good for badminton — as well as the eye that likes beauty — is the pajama suit Joan Blondell wears.

Collection: Screenland MagazineAugust 1936