British actor Edmund Gwenn is internationally best-known for his role as Kris Kringle (‘Santa’) in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. This role earned Gwenn his only Oscar win (although he was nominated once more in 1950). Prior to his move to Hollywood at the start of World War II, Gwenn was a prolific stage and screen actor in interwar London. His instantly recognisable demeanour and voice made him a reliable choice for both leading and supporting roles.
Gwenn was born in 1877 and started his acting career on the late-Victorian and Edwardian stage, specialising in supporting roles of plays written by contemporary playwrights such as J.M. Barrie and John Galsworthy. He was a successful stage actor and did not make the transition to film acting until the start of the interwar period, when films were settling into the length and narrative types that we still recognise today.
Gwenn starred in only two feature-length silent films (Unmarried, opposite Gerald du Maurier, in 1920; and The Skin Game in 1921) before giving films a rest again until talkies became the norm in the early 1930s. Gwenn likely recognised that his power as an actor required him to be able to use dialogue as a means of expression. Once sound film work was available, he took to it with a vengeance, making no fewer than 36 films in the 1930s. No mean feat for an actor who was already 53 when the decade started.
In this film work, as in his stage roles, Gwenn continued to be associated with contemporary English writers. His first foray into sound film was a remake of The Skin Game, released ten years after the silent version in 1931. Both films were based on a Galsworthy play; the 1931 version was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Gwenn stars as Hornblower, a nouveau-riche industrialist who is looking to buy a piece of land from genteel landowner Hillcrist, to build industrial works. The conflict between ‘old England’ which values rural landscape, tranquillity and honour; and the new, industrial outlook which favours trade, progress and money, is at the heart of the film. The emotions between the two men and their families run so high that Hillcrist’s wife decides to reveal a damning secret about Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, as a result of which the young woman commits suicide. Hornblower, crushed with grief, decides to leave the area. Hillcrist’s victory is hollow, however, as he contemplates the moral depths to which his family has stooped to defend their way of life.
Gwenn played a man from a different social background a couple of years later in The Good Companions, a 1933 adaptation of a popular J.B. Priestley novel. This Victor Saville-directed film remains a popular example of a British interwar comedy, and also stars Jessie Matthews and John Gielgud. In The Good Companions, Gwenn plays Jess Oakroyd, a Northern labourer who gets fired for speaking up against a malicious manager. Oakroyd decides to travel ‘south’ in search of work. In the Midlands, he stumbles across a faltering theatre troupe called the Dinky Doos. Simultaneously with Oakroyd’s arrival in the midlands, the film also follows teacher Inigo Jollifant and Miss Elizabeth Trant, who reach the Midlands from the East and West of England respectively. The three travellers join the Dinky Doos and help to make the troupe a success. The Good Companions was well-received by critics, who praised it as a ‘British’ picture at a time when the British film industry had been under considerable domestic pressure to prove it could stand up to the influence of Hollywood.
Gwenn used his non-threatening appearance to great effect in 1936’s Laburnum Grove (directed by Carol Reed), which has been discussed in detail elsewhere in this blog. In this film, Gwenn plays Radfern, a seemingly innocent and typical suburban husband who is secretly involved in an international crime network. The film is, again, based on J.B. Priestley source material. Reed directed Gwenn again in 1938, as the working-class lead of Penny Paradise. This comedy-drama is set in Liverpool, and Gwenn plays Joe Higgins, a tug-boat captain who religiously enters the ‘penny pools’ – a postage betting system in which players try to guess the correct football scores for the entire league. Miraculously, Higgins guesses all the scores correctly, and he believes himself a rich man. However, his friend Pat, who was supposed to have posted in Higgins’ winning score, forgot to post it on time. Higgins gives up his job and throws a large party for the entire community before Pat has the courage to tell him what has happened.
Penny Paradise is a fairly typical 1930s British comedy, with the expected happy ending and moral lessons for the main characters. Gwenn rounded out the decade with a very different part, in what has commonly been called the ‘first Ealing Comedy’. Cheer Boys Cheer, produced by Michael Balcon and directed by Walter Forde, was released in 1939. It follows the plight of a small beer brewery which is up against a big, capitalist brewing corporation. The conviviality of the workers at the small brewery models how Balcon planned to run his new studio. Gwenn plays Edward Ironside, the head of the industrial brewer. The film’s most striking scene (to a modern audience) is a brief shot of Ironside reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In this last role of the decade, just before his move across the Atlantic, Gwenn came full circle with his performance as Hornblower in The Skin Game: that of an industrialist intent on undermining traditional British values. The changes which Britain underwent in the 1930s, however, meant that whilst at the beginning of the 1930s it was the life of the landed gentry that was worth protecting, by the end of the decade it was the working-class community spirit that was held up as the British ideal.
Gwenn continued to act almost up to his death at the age of 81, in 1959. His later roles increasingly included incidental parts in TV series. Whilst his later, American career may have brought him international and lasting fame and recognition, his frequent appearances in British films of the 1930s made him a key contributor to the interwar cultural landscape.
 Jeffrey Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace (London: IB Tauris, 2010) p. 316
 Laurence Napper, British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2009), p. 81
 Ibid., p. 123