When I think of character actors, Allen Jenkins is always the first person that comes to mind. With over 150 credits to his name in the worlds of film and television, Jenkins is a favorite of mine thanks to his many “sidekick” roles from the ’30s and ’40s.
Today we’ll be taking a look at some of those roles for the wonderful, fourth annual What a Character! blogathon, but first… who was Allen Jenkins, the person?
The answer to that question is kind of unclear. Allen Jenkins was born in Staten Island, New York. Different sources report his birth name as either Alfred McGonegal or David Allen Curtis Jenkins. He apparently came from a family of performers, though information about his parents is difficult to track down. No biography was ever written of the man, and even TCM’s database has little information about him!
What is certain is that Jenkins studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and got his start on the stage in the ’20s before being recruited to make the big move to Hollywood.
Marking his arrival in the “City of Angels,” Allen’s first roles were small ones in pre-codes like The Girl Habit (1931), Three on a Match (1933), I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang (1932) and Employee’s Entrance (1933). These weren’t necessarily “blink and you’ll miss ‘im” roles, but they were very minor parts, never drawing much attention away from the films’ lead players. Chain Gang, for instance, belongs so much to Paul Muni that I completely forgot Jenkins was in it!
Though he was never destined to become a box office draw or a suave leading man, Jenkins did see his roles grow over time. By 1934, he was recognizable to audiences as a frequently-used supporting player. He began having his name listed among the top supports in posters and ads for films like Twenty Million Sweethearts and Happiness Ahead.
He starred in a little bit of everything — musicals, romances, and of course the gangster flicks that he’s perhaps best remembered for by today’s film fans. (“Comic gangster” parts, as The New York Times described them.) The Gay Falcon (1941) had him starring alongside a very charming George Sanders, George as the title-character sleuth and Jenkins as his accident-prone right-hand man — one of my favorite recent mystery-comedy discoveries.
By the late 1930s and through the 1940s Jenkins would really perfect his shtick as the lovable sidekick in many a crime flick, though he continued to take work in other dramas and lighter films as well. The 1945 Deanna Durbin mystery-comedy vehicle Lady on a Train had Jenkins appearing as an author’s chauffer rather than a gangster. In 1938’s Racket Buster, he actually plays a trucker who resists working with Humphrey Bogart’s leading-role gangster. In 1952’s Chained for Life, he even starred as the manager of vaudeville-performing conjoined twins!
Jenkins’ film career slowed in the early 1950s, but he would appear in nine more films before his death in 1974, including Pillow Talk, starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson; a policeman role in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, one of my long-time favorites from childhood; and The Front Page, his final film. He also did plenty of work in television during the later decades of his career, making appearances in Bewitched, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and even I Love Lucy.
His career was one of surprising variety, given the fact that his “comic gangster” persona has outlasted and overshadowed the wider scope of his talent. But the more we explore his filmography, the more we learn — Allen Jenkins was one heck of a solid supporting actor, whether clumsily assisting a sleuth, playing right-hand man to a crime boss, or swindling his way through the stage circuit as a crooked producer. What a character!