Born Leon Waycoff in America’s heartland (Indiana) the actor who would later change his last name to Ames helped to form the Screen Actors Guild in 1933; he would serve as its President from 1957-1958. Though he played many parts in more than a hundred movies since his film debut as a hood in Quick Millions (1931) Leon Ames would become typecast in fatherly roles on the big screen and later on TV after he played Alonzo Smith dad to Judy Garland Margaret O’Brien Lucille Bremer Henry H. Daniels Jr. and Joan Carroll (and Mary Astor’s husband) in the Arthur Freed production directed by Vincente Minnelli Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) an essential family musical which earned four Academy Award nominations and was added to the National Film Registry in 1994. Ames’s character is a banker that works earnestly to provide a nice upper middle class home for his kids and domestic assistance (Marjorie Main) for his spouse but isn’t really involved in their day to day lives; therefore he’s befuddled by several events that he doesn’t fully understand until the end when he becomes more emotionally connected to them (David Tomlinson plays a similar part as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins (1964)).
Though the actor played a variety of other parts in more than twenty movies in between Ames returned to play a notable (if largely absent from the majority of the story) father role in the first Technicolor version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1949). Astor again played his wife and O’Brien one of his daughters (weak Beth) along with June Allyson as Jo March (which had been played by Katherine Hepburn in the Oscar nominated Little Women (1933)) Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh. Two years later he played another banker George Winfield in a Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)-like period piece set in the actor’s home state of Indiana – On Moonlight Bay (1951) – which was followed a couple of years later by the (rare better) sequel By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953). In these Ames plays father to head-liner Doris Day and Billy Gray and husband of Rosemary DeCamp; Mary Wickes plays the family maid while Gordon MacRae plays Day’s boyfriend come fiance. Adapted from Booth Tarkington’s popular “Penrod Stories” both of these family features include musical numbers and comic sequences with stories that utilize at least one holiday season – the first is set before World War I (MacRae’s character is off to war as a doughboy at its end) and the second portrays a (somewhat) more mature post-WW I environment. Ames’s character is similar to before loving if rather clueless about the exploits of his rascally son Wesley (Gray) but he’s more involved and available in his children’s lives and the two stories.
Ames would go on to play Clarence Day the title role of the television series based upon the movie Life with Father (1947) from 1953-1955 and Stanley Banks (a part that earned Spencer Tracy the fourth of his seven twice rewarded Best Actor Oscar nominations) in the short-lived TV series “Father of the Bride (1961)”. The only formal accolade he ever received was a SAG Lifetime Achievement Award in 1981. His last onscreen appearance was as Kathleen Turner’s grandfather in director Francis Coppola’s fantasy comedy Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) opposite Maureen O’Sullivan. Ames died of a stroke at the age of 91 leaving behind his wife of fifty-five years and two children.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog