Even if you love old movies, there’s a good chance you won’t recognize the name George Winslow.
And that’s unfortunate because Winslow, a former child star who died on June 14 at age 69, was one of the funniest film actors of the 1950s – in any age group.
With a deadpan demeanor and husky voice that suggests a kid version of comedian Steven Wright, “Foghorn” (as he was sometimes credited) had a brief but prolific career, appearing in ten films released between January of 1952 and August, 1958. But in that short span he managed to steal scenes from heavyweights like Marilyn Monroe (in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, as Henry Spofford III), Richard Widmark (MY PAL GUS), Cary Grant (ROOM FOR ONE MORE and MONKEY BUSINESS), Clifton Webb (MISTER SCOUTMASTER) and Jerry Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS) before retiring in 1958 and receding into anonymity as a Northern California postal worker.
Born George Karl Wentzlaff on May 3, 1946, Winslow got his start on the NBC radio game show People Are Funny, auditioning in hopes of winning a free bicycle. He briefly became a semi-regular, and his unscripted interactions with genial host Art Linkletter caught the ear of Grant, who was set to star in Norman Taurog’s ROOM FOR ONE MORE at Warner Bros. Taurog cast him as Teenie, youngest son of George (Grant) and Anna Perrott Rose (Betsy Drake), a New Jersey couple who achieved national fame in the 1930s and ’40s as advocates for foster care.
And now I interrupt this obit for a confession: when I had seen ROOM FOR ONE MORE previously, I had dismissed it as a heavy-handed message movie, with laughs that were only unintentional. And then I re-watched it the day after I learned Winslow had died.
Here’s a Pro Tip for the film fan seeking to memorialize a recently departed actor by watching one of his films: don’t pick a tearjerker. Because you just might just lose your shit.
Based on Anna Rose’s popular memoir of the same name (published in 1949 after serialization in Reader’s Digest), ROOM FOR ONE MORE opens with the author visiting an orphanage with a group of prospective adoptive mothers. Administrator Miss Kenyon (Lurene Tuttle) explains how long the waiting list is for an infant, then reveals a snowy playground teeming with unclaimed tweens and teens.
“But you must be able to find homes for some of them?” Ana insists.
“We’d like to be able to find homes for all of them,” Miss Kenyon replies.
And before you can say “Angelina Jolie,” the Roses have welcomed a troubled adolescent girl into their already crowded home. But Jane (Iris Mann) isn’t just another orphan, she’s an abused teenager who has survived multiple suicide attempts. Jane is soon followed by Jimmy John (Clifford Tatum, Jr.), a polio survivor so emotionally damaged he has lost the ability to speak (until he starts shrieking at night when left alone).
Despite the metal braces on his legs, 12-year-old Jimmy John insists on hiking through the snow to earn his stripes as an Eagle Scout – an award which is presented in the elaborate ceremony that concludes the film, with his new family in attendance.
Seriously, I can’t even type this right now without choking up.
Yes, my mother and father were foster parents (undoubtedly influenced by the Roses) and that led to them adopting me in 1969 and my sister (from South Korea) in 1973. And yes, I was a Boy Scout who spent many an evening at Pinewood derbies and merit badge ceremonies in the basement of our church. But despite the schmaltzy classic film that is my own real life, I’d always been able to shield myself from the sentiment of ROOM FOR ONE MORE with snarky bravado.
But not this time.
“Are you okay?” my girlfriend asked, as she looked across the couch at me sniffling.
“Shut up,” I said. “Remember, you’re adopted too.”
Here’s the thing about George Winslow: he is exactly what ROOM FOR ONE MORE needed. As a five-year-old rookie he does the heavy lifting, ably carrying the comic relief of a movie that gets far heavier than your average family film of the 1950s. He’s so good, in fact, that Warners essentially upped him to co-star status with Grant and then-wife Drake on the film’s poster, where his character is cheekily identified as “Teenie the Meenie” (a reference that never appears in the film, as far as I remember).
It’s fairly well accepted that Howard Hawks’ GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES is Winslow’s best film, and ROOM FOR ONE MORE won’t change anyone’s mind on that score. But ROOM is an excellent introduction to the extraordinarily natural talents of George Winslow before the movie business turned him into a self-parody.
ROOM FOR ONE MORE is a touching, old fashioned film that will give you a good, cathartic cry if you let it. And come to think of it, what better way is there to honor the best of classic Hollywood’s deadpan kids than with a sloppy show of emotion?
Winslow was once quoted as saying he didn’t like acting, which is probably why he didn’t continue with it into adolescence and adulthood. But I hope he understood how much he means to many classic film fans, and this one in particular.
ROOM FOR ONE MORE (1952) is available on manufacture-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive and is available for digital rental at Amazon Instant. Hat tip to Citizen Screen for being the first to report Winslow’s passing. You can read her tribute to him here.