Born on the 27th of June: Remembering Moroni
Known as one of Hollywood’s most dependable character actors, the mustachioed and balding Moroni Olsen frequently was seen in his films as a clergyman, doctor, or cop, but he holds a special place in cinema history for a far more unique performance – providing the voice for the Magic Mirror in the 1937 Disney classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Aside from this fanciful role, Olsen was featured in nearly 100 films during his 35-year career, appearing alongside such stars as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy. His credits include a number of first-rate screen gems, including The Song of Bernadette (1943), Notorious (1946), and Father of the Bride (1950), as well as five entries from the film noir era: The Glass Key (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), Possessed (1947), The High Wall (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948).
Born on June 27, 1889, in Ogden, Utah, Moroni Olsen (spelled “Maroni” at birth, according to his family’s 1900 census form), was the youngest of three children born to Norwegian immigrants Edward Olsen and his wife, Martha. Although he reportedly never saw a stage play until the age of 13, Olsen was immediately captivated by the theater and determined to make his living as a performer. Shortly after playing his first stage role during his senior year of high school, Olsen organized a group known as “The Strollers,” which presented one-act plays for residents of remote settlements in the area.
After his high school graduation, Olsen enrolled at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, but spent most of his time playing bit parts in a local stock company. He eventually received his degree from the Leland Powers School of the Theater in Boston, then returned home to teach speech arts at Ogden High School. Two years later, he was tapped to direct and perform in the traveling tent shows known as the Chautauqua Circuit. In 1920, while performing in one of the chautauquas, Olsen was spotted by director Maurice Browne and cast in his Broadway debut, playing Jason in Medea.
Off stage, Olsen continuing to share his skills and expertise with future thespians, heading the drama department at the Cornish School of Music in Seattle, organizing the Moroni Olsen Repertory Company, which toured the country for nearly eight years, and returning to his alma mater, the Leland Powers School in Boston, where he served as director. He resumed his Broadway career in 1933, earning acclaim for his portrayal of John Knox in Mary of Scotland, and later appearing with Katherine Cornell in Romeo and Juliet and The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
Olsen’s success on the Broadway stage attracted the attention of Hollywood; in 1935, he signed a contract with RKO, debuting on the big screen as Porthos in The Three Musketeers (1935). Also that year he portrayed Buffalo Bill in Annie Oakley (1935), starring Barbara Stanwyck in the title role, and two years later, he entered Disney immortality as the voice of the Magic Mirror in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Olsen entered the realm of noir in 1942, with The Glass Key (1942), starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Here, Olsen portrayed Senator Ralph Henry, a political candidate whose daughter, Janet (Lake), becomes involved with the loutish but powerful Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) in hopes of winning his support for her father’s campaign. The ambitious politician makes no bones about using Madvig for his own gain, telling his daughter, “Paul’s support means the governorship for me. You must be nice to him, Janet – at least until after the election.”
His second noir came in 1945, when he played a featured role in Mildred Pierce. In this first-rate offering, Olsen portrayed Inspector Peterson, a no-nonsense detective investigating the murder of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the profligate spouse of the title character (Joan Crawford). Although most of the film’s accolades were reserved for Crawford’s Academy Award-winning performance, Olsen was singled out by several critics for his portrayal of the crafty lawman, including the reviewer for The Hollywood Review, who termed him “really excellent,” and Red Kann of Motion Picture Herald, who found Olsen’s performance to be “especially effective.”
Following such hits as Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman; It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), where he was heard as the voice of the angel who dispatches Clarence to earth; and Life with Father (1947), a delightful comedy featuring William Powell, Olsen was seen in a trio of films noirs, Possessed (1947), The High Wall (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948). In the first, he portrayed a doctor who treats Louise Howell Graham (Joan Crawford), a home care nurse whose obsession with her former lover leads her to madness and murder.
Next, in The High Wall (1947), Olsen was again cast as a physician, this time as the head of a psychiatric hospital. Olsen’s final film noir, Call Northside 777, focused on the unflagging efforts of newspaper reporter Jim McNeal (James Stewart) to exonerate a man, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), who was wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a police officer 11 years before. With time running out, McNeal stumbles upon a new police technique that helps to prove Wiecek’s innocence and convinces the pardon board, headed by Olsen’s character, to set the man free.
Despite his relatively minor roles in these back-to-back noir features, Olsen turned in solid performances in each, earning his best reviews for his role in Possessed; in the Hollywood Citizen-News, Lowell E. Redelings noted his “top-notch” performance, and Harrison Carroll of the Los Angeles Herald-Express including the actor in his praise of the film’s “distinguished” supporting cast. Carroll offered similar accolades for the picture itself, terming it “a powerful film, holding a morbid fascination for the onlooker.”
During the next several years, Olsen continued to appear in a number of critical and commercial successes, including Samson and Delilah (1949); Father of the Bride (1950) and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951), appearing in both as the father-in-law of Elizabeth Taylor; and Lone Star (1951), in which he portrayed Sam Houston, first president of the Republic of Texas. Between films, the actor resumed his stage career, appearing on Broadway opposite Helen Hayes in Mary of Scotland and directing numerous productions for the famed Pasadena Playhouse, including First Lady, starring Dana Andrews, and Merrily We Roll Along, with Robert Preston. He also made a rare television appearance on an episode of I Love Lucy, portraying a judge who hears a case where the Ricardos were sued by the Mertzes over a destroyed television set.
During the summer of 1954, he returned to his home state, directing outdoor musical pageants in Salt Lake City and Ogden that depicted the progress of Utah pioneers, and later that year was seen in the popular big screen comedy The Long, Long Trailer (1954), starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Sadly, the film would be his last. On November 22, 1954, after complaining of feeling “ill and tired,” Olsen was found dead in his Los Angeles apartment. The coroner’s office attributed his death to natural causes, but more recent sources indicate that Olsen died after suffering a heart attack. At the time of his death, Olsen was directing rehearsals for Trelawny of the Wells, scheduled to open the following month at the Pasadena Playhouse. The actor, who never married, was 65 years old.
Moroni Olsen was once aptly described as possessing a “strong, rugged face, a voice of deep and powerful timbre, and a physique that takes the world in its stride.” Although his name is all but forgotten by today’s audiences, the character performances delivered by the actor in his impressive body of films serve as a lasting and memorable testament to his versatility, dependability, and talent.