It’s been quite some time since my last Unsung Joe post. That’s because I’ve been spending all my free time over at Small Town Noir, where I post weekly stories about the lives of people in mug shots that were taken in New Castle, Pennsylvania, between 1930 and 1960—yes, characters even more obscure than the least successful Hollywood extra. Small Town Noir has the same depressing air of melancholy and regret that has made The Unsung Joe such a runaway success with audiences across the world. You might like it.
I’ll no doubt return to The Unsung Joe from time to time, when I find some interesting face in the background of a movie. Meanwhile, here’s a short introduction to Ralph Dunn, one of the most prolific bit-part players I've come across.
Ralph Dunn was born in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1902. He dropped out of college to join a Vaudeville troop and performed in minstrel shows and melodramas until 1935, when he moved to California to help his mother look after his ailing father and signed up with Central Casting.
In a rare interview about his career, which he gave in his mid-fifties, Ralph said that the first film he saw himself in was Bullets or Ballots (1936). “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “They cut out all my sequences except for one scene. And the only thing anyone could see was my hand reaching into the furnace and grabbing some money before it burned.”
For the sake of a better story, Ralph exaggerated how small his role was. Here’s the shot he was talking about—he’s on the right, pumping a fire extinguisher:
Ralph was never out of work over the next thirty years, appearing mostly as a background cop or a detective, usually with no lines. He continued to act on stage, too. In 1951—a few years after his wife, a golf champion named Pat West, divorced him on grounds of infidelity (he'd come home one night with lipstick on his face)—he played an enraged father in the Broadway production of "The Moon is Blue", a role that he claimed made him the highest-paid actor per minute in the world. "I was on stage for only one minute and 57 seconds," he said. "And the only reason I got that role was because I could throw a punch without hurting anyone. That's the only thing I really learned in Hollywood."
He had a larger role in "The Pajama Game", also on Broadway, in which he played the owner of a pajama factory. When the show was made into a film in 1957, Ralph was allowed to reprise the part:
It was his most prominent appearance in a movie, and one of his last. From then on, he worked mainly in television, his least favourite medium—"Television is an ulcer alley," he said. "You never feel you've done a great job. There's a short rehearsal period and no audience reaction." Nevertheless, he kept working until he died, at the age of sixty-four, in 1967.
Below is a collection of stills from a few of Ralph's films, in chronological order. He was in at least three hundred more.
A Slight Case of Murder (1938):
Another Thin Man (1939):
His Girl Friday (1940):
I Wake Up Screaming (1941):
The Talk of the Town (1942):
The Falcon Strikes Back (1943):
Dark Mountain (1944):
Murder My Sweet (1944):
The Dark Corner (1946):
Lady in the Lake (1947):
The Golden Eye (1948):
Force of Evil (1948):
The Big Clock (1948):
The Asphalt Jungle (1950):
Sources: San Antonio Light, 13 May 1944; Syracuse Herald-Tribune, 14 July 1957; Titusville Herald, 22 May 1959, 16 June 1965, 1 April 1996.