What a Character Blogathon 2013: Roscoe Karns


Believe You Me, Roscoe Karns is quite a Character!

“Fun-on-the-side Shapeley.” Yep, that was the very first time I encountered character actor Roscoe Karns. And, to this day, I still roll with laughter when I see the relentless, fast-talking Oscar Shapeley trying to ‘pick up’ poor (and quite annoyed) Ellie Andrews (played by Claudette Colbert) in It Happened One Night.  “Shapeley’s the name, and that’s the way I like ’em.”  Yep, I’m chuckling right now just thinking about it!  And although Karns will forever be ingrained in my mind, first and foremost, as ‘Shapeley,’ I still get a HUGE kick out of seeing him portray all those brash reporters, street-wise detectives and wisecracking friends in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, always delivering his special brand of sarcastic quip with machine-gun like speed.

Roscoe Karns It Happened One Night Shapely

Roscoe Karns appeared in 150 film and television roles throughout his 49-year film career spanning six decades (1915-1964)

Karns began his acting career in 1906 at age 15, first performing in a stock company, then moving onto the stage. By 1915, he was appearing in silent shorts and films. In 1927, he had a small role in the very first Academy Award winning film, Wings, quickly followed by an uncredited part in the first film Talkie, The Jazz Singer. By the 1930s and 1940s, Karns was playing stronger character and support roles, most notably in the films It Happened One NightTwentieth CenturyHis Girl Friday and Woman of the Year.


Roscoe Karns as Shapeley in It Happened One Night

Karns with Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934, director Frank Capra)

“Well, shut my big nasty mouth! It looks like you’re one up on me. You know, there’s nothing I like better than to meet a high-class mama that can snap ’em back at ya. ‘Cause the colder they are, the hotter they get. That’s what I always say. Yes, sir, when a cold mama gets hot, boy, how she sizzles. Now, you’re just my type. Believe me, sister, I could go for you in a big way. ‘Fun-on-the-side’ Shapeley they call me, with accent on the fun, believe you me.”
Roscoe Karns as Oscar Shapeley in It Happened One Night


Carole Lombard, Roscoe Karn and Walter Connolly in Twentieth Century

Karns with Carole Lombard and Walter Connolly in Twentieth Century (1934, director Howard Hawks) 

“Save your dough, sire. I yield the lamp of learning to no one.”
Roscoe Karns as consistently tipsy Owen O’Malley in Twentieth Century


Roscoe Karns and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

Karns with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940, director Howard Hawks)

“Hey keep quiet down there! How do you expect us to get any work done!?!?!”
Roscoe Karns as Reporter McCue in His Girl Friday


Roscoe Karns as Phil Whittaker in Woman of the Year

Karns with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942, George Stevens)

“No women in the press box, it’s a rule as old as baseball. No women in the press box… Haven’t seen it happen in 20 years. Worst scandal since the Black Sox.” Roscoe Karns as Sports Reporter Phil Whittaker in Woman of the Year

Roscoe Karns as Rocky King, Detective

By the early 1950’s Karns was starring as Rocky King, Chief of Homicide (pictured above), in the popular weekly television series Rocky King, Detective, and from 1959 through 1962 he played Admiral Walter Shafer in the CBS drama series, Hennessey, starring Jackie Cooper in the title role.

You can watch an entire episode of Rocky King, Detective (“Murder Scores a Knockout”), via this legal download at the Internet Archive (original airdate July 13, 1952)


Roscoe Karns Mans Favorite Sport

Karn’s last film was Man’s Favorite Sport? starring Rock Hudson as fishing ‘expert’ Roger Willoughby (1964, director Howard Hawks)

Unpredictable fellow that Willoughby — real genius.” –John McGiver
as William Cadwalader
Yeah, something’s wrong with him” –Roscoe Karns as ‘fisherman’ Major Phipps


Roscoe Karns and Todd Karns, father and son character actors

Oh, and last but not least, for those of you who may not know, Roscoe Karns is the father of Todd Karns who played George Bailey’s (James Stewart’ s) younger brother Harry in It’s a Wonderful Life.  🙂


A big Thank You to the fabulous Kellee (@IrishJayhawk66) of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen for hosting this fun What a Character Blogathon event! There are so many more wonderful Classic Bloggers participating in this event so please be sure to check out the other entries.

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub


This entry was posted in Blogathons, Character Actors, Posts by Annmarie Gatti and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to What a Character Blogathon 2013: Roscoe Karns

  1. No one could deliver a line quite the way Roscoe Karns could. I started laughing when you talked about him in “It Happened One Night” — he’s one of the things that makes that movie delightful.

    Didn’t know he was the father of Todd Karns. The resemblance is remarkable!

  2. Pamela Fallon Thornley says:

    Great Post!!! I had only heard his name recently when I watched “It Happened One Night” a few months ago, but it was great to learn more about the rest of his career. I love the Todd Karnes connection.


  3. Wow, 150 films! Now that is impressive. Karns always seems to pop up in the greatest films. He must have had an instinct to the quality of a film project before he even excepted the part. The earliest movie my sister and I remember seeing him in was “Man’s Favorite Sport” as Major Phipps. Thereafter we would always say “Look! It’s the major again!”. I really enjoyed your post, and I did NOT know that his son was involved in acting too. Amazing.

    • Thanks for reading! I’ve always had a soft spot for “Man’s Favorite Sport” — no matter how big or small Karns’ roles are, he always ‘stands out in the crowd’ for me! Love his sarcastic wit.

  4. FlickChick says:

    This was one memorable character. He seemed to have been everywhere! Thanks for a very entertaining post an that great tidbit of info about his son.

  5. kellee says:

    What a fab pick! He had some of the BEST lines and iconic character roles in the biz. That Shapely role is a perfect example of that. And I had NO clue that was his son- I love learning little classic film nuggets like that. GREAT post, Annmarie! You’re a fantastic supporter for our blogathon- thanks for contributing!

    • It was such fun to write! I could actually hear Karns’ voice in my head as I was typing his quotes. Thanks so much for hosting this event — and I can’t wait until the 3rd Annual What a Character Blogathon next year!

  6. Paula says:

    Thanks for this super-interesting post, I had no idea Roscoe was the father of Todd. I always think this is who Mel Blanc was imitating when Bugs Bunny would answer the phone and say, “Start talking, it’s your dime.”

    • Love those Bugs Bunny references — between Karns rapid-fire talk and Gable eating those carrots! Thanks so much for co-hosting the Blogathon; it was such fun to write this post 🙂

  7. You had me chuckling all through the post. Roscoe Karns is always a treat. In anything he does, he seems to walk through the film as the lead. He’s a guy you always remember.

    PS: I can’t wait until this year’s viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” when I spring that bit of father-son trivia on the hubby.

  8. Jenni says:

    Didn’t know this actor’s name but I knew him immediately from your descriptions from It Happened One Night-fast line delivery, you are so right! I am glad when Gable’s character rescues her from Roscoe’s clutches, so to speak, and again when Gable scares him into not revealing what he knows about Colbert from the newspaper Roscoe happens to read the headlines from. Enjoyed your post!

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read the post. It Happened One Night is one of my all-time favorite movies ever since I was a kid, and to this day I still get a huge kick out of Shapeley! 🙂

  9. Aurora says:

    What a fun post, Annmarie!! Love it! I was smiling all the way through the IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT comments. And now that I know he’s Harry Bailey’s dad I see the resemblance!! Great fun! Thanks so much for submitting this on this great character!


    PS – You just KNOW I’ll be taking a look at “Rocky King Detective” ASAP!!!

  10. Le says:

    How cool! I remember him best from It Happened One Night, too. It’s curious how he came to play so many reporters!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

  11. Chris says:

    I just recently saw “It Happened One Night” and so I’m glad I could enjoy those jokes 🙂

    Also enjoyed that interesting connection to “It’s A Wonderful Life” — nice post!

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