George Bailey and Clarence Oddbody don’t belong in Pottersville, and Nick the bartender knows it. He doesn’t like these hick types wasting his time and bothering his regulars. He tells them straight: “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.”
Which is sort of amusing, given that this scene in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is stuffed with them. The transformation of Martini’s place in the Bedford Falls part of the film to Nick’s bar in the Pottersville segment seems mainly to have been achieved by removing the respectable-looking mom-and-pop types from the background of the scene and replacing them with a busload of hard-faced molls and mean-eyed goons -- extras like the heavyset thug casting an unfriendly glance at George and Clarence in this still:
You might recognise him if you read the piece I wrote about him in November. He’s Irving Cohen, a gangster who fled for his life when his bosses decided to have him killed and who supported himself while he was in hiding by working as an extra in Hollywood under the name Jack Gordon. I noticed his appearance in It’s a Wonderful Life the month after writing about him.
It’s great to see Irving there in Nick’s bar. People often observe that one of the problems with the film is that, to modern eyes, Pottersville doesn’t look too bad at all. Certainly, it looks a lot more fun than Bedford Falls. Pottersville’s main street is bright and full of life and frivolity, big-band jazz fills the air, there are burlesque clubs, pool halls, bowling alleys and dozens of busy bars. The main street in Bedford Falls, on the other hand, is square.
That's true, as far as it goes. But behind its alluring glamour, Pottersville is an awful, rotten place, and we're shown that it’s sucked the joy and kindness from every decent character who we met in the first part of the film. Ma Bailey is an embittered, lonely widow; old man Gower is an alcoholic vagrant; Bert the cop viciously shoots at an unarmed man in a crowded street. And if we needed any more evidence, we could take a trip to that hip little joint just outside town with the boogie-woogie piano player and the wise-cracking bartender, where we would find, sitting alone at the bar, the unsettling figure of Irving Cohen, formerly of Murder, Inc, a gang that spent the 1930s killing for money and ditching corpses in the dark, quiet roads and fields around dozens of little upstate New York towns just like Bedford Falls.
Not a lot of fun.
Anyway, I'm posting this now because, last week, I was contacted by Fabián Cepeda, who writes for the Spanish-language website Hollywood Clasico. He said he'd come across The Unsung Joe while looking for information on Irving Cohen, who he'd noticed in tiny parts in several films, and offered to send me the screen captures that he'd made of Irving's appearances. Here they are, along with others I've collected -- see if you can find him:
Prison Train (1938):
Another Thin Man (1938):
Full Confession (1939):
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943):
Margin for Error (1943):
Criminal Court (1946):
The Spanish Main (1946):
The Long Night (1947):
Some Like it Hot (1959) - this one's quite hard, so I'll point him out. He's on the extreme left:
And one from his last recorded job, on Bonanza, in which he was a stand-in for Hoss Cartwright and a regular figure in the background of crowd scenes. This screenshot is from the episode, "Ballad of the Ponderosa", first shown in 1966:
Note that the first three stills are from the period when Irving was still hiding from his old gang associates, who wanted him dead, and the police, who wanted to charge him with murder. He's quite hard to make out in Another Thin Man and Full Confession, but in Prison Train, he's quite hard to miss. What was he thinking?
It's also interesting that, in that scene, he's playing a gangster in a car full of gangsters who are driving along a country road on their way to murder another gangster, which is broadly the story of the night that ended up with him fleeing for his life through the woods and which led, indirectly, to his movie career.