When I heard about the What a Character! Blogathon focusing on character actors I knew just who I wanted to write about – the gentle giant, ‘Rags’ Ragland.
‘Rags’ Ragland was born John Lee Morgan Beauregard Ragland in 1905. Hailing from Louisville, Kentucky he worked various odd jobs (boxer, truck driver, film projectionist) before becoming a comedian on the burlesque circuit. Burlesque was one of the main outlets for early 20th century comedians and ‘Rags’ honed his skills on various stages around the country. Eventually he made his way to the top of the burlesque circuit becoming the featured comic in the famed Minsky’s revue. In 1940 he made his “legitimate” theatrical debut in the Broadway show Panama Hattie starring Ethel Merman. Shortly after he moved west to try his hand in the picture business.
Essentially typecast as a lovable oaf ‘Rags’ Ragland spent his entire film career at MGM starting with the Ann Sothern vehicle Ringside Maisie. In 1942 he would rejoin Sothern and reprise his Broadway role in the film adaptation of Panama Hattie.
Thinking back I can’t recall my first introduction to Mr. Ragland. It may have been Abbott and Costello in Hollywood – one of the duo’s few MGM films. Or it could have been Anchors Aweigh – Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra’s first pairing. I do know I first became a fan of his gentle comedic talent in the Whistling film series starring Red Skelton and Ann Rutherford.
This trio of films truly showcases ‘Rags’ comedic skills. Playing the dual role of Chester and Sylvester ‘Lester’ Conway ‘Rags’ really shines.
Neither character is particularly bright but Sylvester is a legitimate hood while Chester is his above board twin brother. Interestingly, both brothers are featured in only one of the films. In Whistling in the Dark we only know the criminally minded Sylvester, in Whistling in Dixie both brothers are continually mixed up and in Whistling in Brooklyn we enjoy Sylvester alone as he acts on the right side of the law. It’s a true delight to watch Ragland shine in these madcap roles.
‘Rags’ Ragland continued his career in supporting roles in such classics as The Canterville Ghost, Du Barry Was a Lady and Girl Crazy.
Girl Crazy is a particular favorite of mine. In it Ragland is cast as…wait for it…’Rags.’ A ranch hand at rural Cody College he pairs well with the film’s stars Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. In one particular scene Ms. Garland sings the Gershwin classic But Not for Me to a visibly moved ‘Rags.’ I dare you to watch the scene without shedding your own tears.
Sadly, ‘Rags’ film career would end a few years later with his untimely death at the age of 40. A longtime carouser he grew suddenly ill after a bender in Mexico with Orson Welles. His liver and kidneys destroyed from years of alcohol abuse he died of uremic poisoning on August 20, 1946. A beloved figure in Hollywood his funeral was well attended by his peers including Frank Sinatra who sang in tribute.
Although his film career was very short his talent endures. A skilled comedian his performances are a joy to watch nearly 70 years after his death. He remains an integral part of Hollywood’s Golden Age.