June 27, 2014
“The great strength of the movies in the 1940s,” Manny Farber once wrote, “was the subversive power of the bit player.” Few had more such power than the character actor SKELTON BARNABY KNAGGS (1911–55). With Jack Elam and Rondo Hatton, Knaggs was one of the most memorably unattractive men in the history of movies. Emaciated, pockmarked, with waxy skin and bulging eyes, Knaggs had the face and manner of a dried-up tangerine. Born in Yorkshire, he came to prominence on the London and New York stage, portraying backward young men and mentally damaged criminals. In his twenty-year career in film, he never escaped the background, playing grumbling villagers, barmen, cabmen, villains, mobsters, killers, and freaks. He is most memorable in small roles in a few of Val Lewton’s B movies. In Bedlam, he appears as a loathsome dandy with a parrot. In Isle of the Dead, he plays a Cockney travelling salesman who dies of the plague almost as soon as he opens his mouth. But in The Ghost Ship Knaggs plays the conscience of the film, Finn, a mute sailor who narrates the action through his internal monologue, beginning with the words, “I am a mute… I am cut off from other men, but in my own silence I can hear things they cannot hear, know things they can never know.” The performance is a morbid gem. More than that, it’s a step into life unlived, a reminder of a time when Knaggs was hailed for his ability to transform “physical dissonance into spiritual beauty.” An alcoholic, he died of cirrhosis of the liver at 43.
READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).