Born September 26, 1877 in London, England, Edmund John Kellaway was the eldest son of a British civil servant who expected his son to follow in his footsteps. However, young Kellaway had a mind of his own and was determined to become an actor against his father’s wishes. Changing his name to Edmund Gwenn, he made his stage debut at 18 in 1895. He made his first appearance in London’s West End in 1899. In 1901, he married actress Minnie Terry (1882-1964), a member of the third generation of the famed Terry family of actors. Ellen Terry was her aunt, John Gielgud her nephew.
Gwenn’s younger brother Arthur (1881-1949), whose stage name was Arthur Chesney, had a longer lasting career on the London stage than he did. Chesney was at one time married to Estelle Winwood (1883-1984). His cousin Cecil Kellaway (1890-1973), like Gwenn, would become a two-time Oscar nominee.
Allegedly, Gween and Terry were only married for a few days, if not a few hours, but did not divorce until 1916. In the meantime, they were frequently paired together on stage.
Gwenn made his film debut in 1916 in The Real Thing at Last but didn’t become a regular contributor to film until the 1930s when he appeared in such films as The Skin Game, Waltzes from Vienna, and The Bishop Misbehaves. On Broadway in 1935’s Laburnum Grove, he was summoned to Hollywood to play Katharine Hepburn’s father in Sylvia Scarlet and with rare exception, stayed there for the rest of his life.
From 1936-1946, Gwenn made memorable appearances in such films as Anthony Adverse, A Yank at Oxford, Pride and Prejudice, Foreign Correspondnet, Cheers for Miss Bishop, The Devil and Miss Jones, Charley’s Aunt, Forever and a Day, Lassie Come Home, The Keys of the Kingdom, Of Human Bondage, and Undercurrent. Then in 1947, his cousin Cecil Kellaway having turned down the role, he became an overnight sensation at 70 playing Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street for which he won a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
Following Miracle on 34th Street, Gwenn lent his welcome appearance to just films as Life with Father, Green Dolphin Street, Apartment for Peggy, Hills of Home, Challenge to Lassie, Louisa, Mister 880 fow which he won a second Golden Globe and received a second Oscar nomination, Les Misérables, The Bigamist, The Student Prince, Them! , and The Trouble with Harry.
Gwenn’s last appearance was in a 1957 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
He died in 1959 at the age of 81 and is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1940), directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Gwenn played Mr. Bennett to Mary Boland’s Mrs. Bennett, the parents of five marriage eligible daughters in this beloved version of Jane Austen’s timeless novel. Greer Garson, in a celebrated Oscar-nominated performance, was Bennett’s prejudiced eldest daughter Elizabeth. Playing opposite her was Laurence Olivier as the prideful Mr. Darcy. Maureen O’Sullivan, Ann Rutherford, Heather Angel, and Marsha Hunt played Garson’s sisters. Others in the large cast included Edna May Oliver as Catherine de Bourgh, Melville Cooper and Karen Morley as Mr. and Mrs. Collins, and Frieda Inescort as Miss Bingley.
THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (1944), directed by John M. Stahl
Gwenn often played ministers, priest, and bishops on screen. One of his finest roles was as Gregory Peck’s first parish priest, and later his first bishop in this immensely satisfying film of A.J. Cronin’s classic novel. You really miss his presence when he’s not on screen, especially after he’s replaced by a loathsome Vincent Price. Also giving fine performances in support of Oscar nominee Peck are Thomas Mitchell, Benson Fong, Rosa Stradner, Cedric Hardwicke, James Gleason, Anne Revere, Sara Allgood, Ruth Ford, Ruth Nelson, and all too briefly, Roddy McDowall and Peggy Ann Garner.
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), directed by George Seaton
Gwenn stepped into the role of his career after his cousin, Cecil Kellaway. Turned down the role of Kris Kringle, who may or may not be the real Santa Claus. Rather than wear padding, Gwenn gained thirty pounds to realistically play the jolly old man hired by Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade organizer Maureen O’Hara. Gwenn ingratiates himself into the life of single mother O’Hara, her not easily fooled daughter Natalie Wood, and their neighbor, struggling lawyer John Payne. The role one him the first of two Golden Globes and an Oscar. It was also the film debut of Thelma Ritter who has a classic scene with Gwenn.
MR. 880 (1950), directed by Edmund Goulding
Burt Lancaster as an FBI agent and Dorothy McGuire as a woman who comes to his attention when she becomes the recipient of a counterfeit bill have top billing, but this is Gwenn’s film as much as Miracle on 34th Street was his film. He plays the FBI’s “Mister 880”, an inactive counterfeiter who starts up his sideline once again when he runs out of money. The actor brings his infectious charm to this whimsical character who does his work on cheap office paper and even misspells Washington on one of his bills. The role earned him a second Golden Globe and a second Oscar nomination.
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock’s endearing black comedy is a constant treat. Gwenn’s relationship with the director went all the way back to 1931’s The Skin Game and included his memorable villain in Hitchcock’s 1970 film, Foreign Correspondent. Here he is top billed as a retired sea captain in which he must bury, then dig up, then re-bury and re-dig up the titled Harry’s corpse which keeps disappearing and then reappearing. The film is also notable for being Shirley MacLaine’s first film, and she’s perfectly cast as the single mother of the boy who first discovers the corpse. He’s played by Leave It to Beaver’s Jerry Mathers. Also lending their star power are John Forsythe as the local artist and MacLaine’s paramour, Mildred Natwick as the local spinster, and Mildred Dunnock as another local in this autumn in New England charmer.
EDMUND GWENN AND OSCAR
- Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
- Mister 880 (1950) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor