Thursday, May 7, 2009

Oscar Levant


Welcome back to In Character, after our hiatus. A lot has been happening in the character actor world, starting with my signing an agent for my book (, completing the proposal, and sending it out to publishers. What fun! Now I just have to sit back and wait for that million dollar advance. Go get 'em, Neil!

I've also been catching up on some movies I saw a long time ago, particularly ones that left me cold the first time. My thought was that many of the films I initially didn't like, I'd now have an appreciation for. Instead, I've generally just confirmed my first impression. Nowhere was this more clear to me that in my re-watching of "An American in Paris."

Now let me state for the record that I am a big Gene Kelly fan. A huge fan, even. He's my favorite male dancer, and I actually think he can be a pretty good actor too (see his dramatic work in Robert Siodmak's "Christmas Holiday"). But folks, "An American in Paris" is just no good. Kelly mugs like a madman, the plot is really dated even for 1951, and Leslie Caron is, frankly, not great. Even the final dance number, which it has some amazing cinematography is a pale retread of the ballet from Powell & Pressburger's "The Red Shoes," an admitted influence on this film. Someday I'll go into detail about why I think Vincente Minelli is overrated, but for now let's look at the real saving grace of "American," the wonderful supporting antics of Oscar Levant.

Born in Pittsburgh, Levant was a child piano prodigy who made his way to New York where he studied music and eventually worked on Broadway. During this period he even became part of the legendary Algonquian round table, which gives you a sense of his fierce wit. By the late 1920s he had made it out to California. Through his music he befriended George Gershwin who not only helped his career but inspired Levant to start composing serious music, not just pop standards. He was incredibly skilled on the piano; just have a listen to this clip of him performing Chopin:

Yet for all of his musical ambitions, Levant was also a great raconteur, one of Hollywood's prized wits, and a popular guest on radio talk shows. During the 1930s he filled the airways with piano tunes and quotes like "There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line." He was so popular that he eventually was given his own radio show and later a TV show in the 1950s (the show would be cancelled due to Levant's incessant jokes like "Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Henry Miller can eat her.").

Surprisingly, Levant didn't make much of a dent in the film industry for years, or at least he wasn't seen on screen. Levant worked tirelessly in the music department of many studios, while still composing and performing his own works with greats such as Aaron Copland. Occasionally he'd be featured on screen as an accompanist or sometimes soloist, but the movies had yet to showcase his incredible comic talent. But by the 1940s Hollywood had caught on, and began to cast Levant in small parts here and there, in "Rhapsody in Blue," "Humoresque," often films where he played a wisecracking piano-player (not too much of a stretch). In "Rhapsody" he played himself meeting Gershwin (played by Robert Alda), with his persona already fully intact.

His looks made him a natural for character parts. He looks like a live-action Moe the Bartender, and has a cigarette perpetually in his mouth. Yet Levant used his plug-ugly features to great effect, as often a simple disdainful look at the camera could say more than any scripted line.

Levant's breakthrough onscreen came with "An American In Paris." The casting for a wise-cracking piano-playing best friend was a no-brainer, and there's some discussion as to whether the role was written for him or not. Either way, Levant took scenes and ran with them, no small feat when Gene Kelly's overacting two feet away. In this dream sequence, Levant imagines himself playing all the parts of Gershwin's Concerto in F, and is also everyone in the audience. Possibly a throwback to an early Buster Keaton short, this sequence has no real place in "An American in Paris," but it's a highlight of the film:

Unfortunately Levant's best scene in the film isn't online. It's worth nothing because it's a non musical moment. In the film, Gene Kelly and Georges Guetary are both in love with the same woman. As they're sitting at a table talking about her, Levant (who is sandwiched between the two), realizes it and grows increasingly nervous. He lights cigarettes, fumbles with his coffee, and generally makes a mess of himself, while the two lovers ramble on, oblivious. He may not have been a well-known comic, but Levant is absolutely brilliant in this scene, one of the best comic performances I've ever seen.

Having established his musical chops, Levant went on to co-star in a few more big-budget entertainments, including "The Band Wagon." He ensured himself a place in MGM musical history by having the good fortune to perform "That's Entertainment" with Fred Astaire. Yet look at the way Levant carries himself during the number. He's hitting his marks, barely, showboating when he wants, slouching when he doesn't. It's all an act, he knows it's silly, and he's laughing with us:

Levant continued to appear here and there, before moving into his TV success full-time. Yet he may be making a comeback - according to Newsweek, Ben Stiller is contemplating a movie based on Levant's life. Huh. We'll see if that pans out.  

Levant's also a witty writer, with his "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" a recommended read. He's not only a great piano player, but truly a fantastic screen comic, and one that I wish had made more movies. His TV show, however, is wonderful to watch. Low-key, casual, and clearly non-scripted, it's a beautiful reminder of how engaging early TV used to be. In this clip Levant chats with Fred Astaire, who is clearly overwhelmed by Levant's patter, and is content to simply laugh and sing a song or two. Enjoy:

Suggested Viewing:
-Rhapsody in Blue
-An American in Paris
-The Band Wagon

Suggested Listening:
-Levant Plays Gershwin (available on iTunes!)

Monday, February 2, 2009

On a Personal Note

First, apologies again for not posting in a while. Pittsburgh (where I live) is chaos when the Steelers are in the Superbowl, and I've been trying to keep up with life!

Anyway, as some of you may know, I'm writing a book along the lines of this blog, entitled "Also Starring: A History of Hollywood Character Actors. It'll cover some of the same ground as this blog, but have a more narrative drive. The book also covers character actors from the silent era through to today. It's gonna be a pip! 

I'm still trying to find an agent and publisher for the book (hint: if anyone has any suggestions, drop me a line), so I've created a website that has my full proposal along with sample marketing information, a bio, etc:

Feel free to take a look, and send along any comments, suggestions, etc. Thanks! 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stepin Fetchit (Link)

An uncharacteristic pose for a 1937 studio photo, out of character...

I started this posting a while ago and just finished it, but for some reason blogger is only listing it in November, not at the top here. So, here's the link to my first Stepin Fetchit entry. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Margaret Dumont

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When thinking about actors for this blog, the first ones who often pop into my head tend to be men. Why - because I'm a chauvinist? Well, that's possible. But it's also because the films of the 1930s and 40s were written, directed, and produced by men who liked to include a lovely starlet or two, but weren't as like to give other women in supporting roles a chance to shine. Supporting actresses were often cast simply as mother figures (like the great Beulah Bondi) or vamps like Gloria Grahame. In general, female atmosphere players weren't allowed the latitude (or written as well) as their male counterparts.

But thankfully there are always exceptions to this rule, as grand dame Margaret Dumont proved. The classic example of a typecast character actor, Dumont would forever be known as the haughty matron who is the butt of jokes in Marx Brothers movies, a role she would play both onscreen and off for interviewers. Yet there's more than meets the eye to Dumont, who consciously once referred to herself as the best straight lady in Hollywood. Indeed she was.

Dumont was born Daisy Baker in 1889 and raised mainly by her godfather Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the popular Uncle Remus stories. She was already part of the literary and theatrical scene by birth and chose to study acting, dance and opera. Later rechristened "Daisy Dumont," she made her debut on stage while still a teenager. It's important to note that while in later years she would cultivate the image of a sophisticate who found the material of the Marx Brothers beneath her, Dumont herself specialized in light comedy and operetta early in he career. The oft-quoted joke, that she didn't understand the Marx Brothers jokes, is almost undoubtedly false, or else a myth that Dumont and publicists perpetuated.

Early in the 1900s, Dumont met John Moller Jr, an heir to a sugar fortune and one of New York City's most prominent bachelors. They married and she retired, seemingly for good, to be a society lady. Yet when Moller died unexpectedly a few years later, Dumont sought solace in her return to the stage, working almost exclusively on Broadway. It wasn't until she was paired with the Marx Brothers in their theatrical revue, "The Cocoanuts," that her career took off. Here she is in the film version:

As a well-regarded actress in her late 30s, Dumont was able to combine her stage experience, comedic timing, and background as a wealthy widow to create the definitive portrait of the lonely dowager. This might sound like a diss, but it's actually high praise. Comedic tropes like this were (and still are) beloved in American comedy and Dumont's regal bearing, distinct elocution, and surprising sweetness made her a perfect foil to the anarchy of the Marx Brothers. And don't forget that the Marx Brothers were not always considered low comedy either; "The Cocoanuts" was written by George S. Kaufman for the stage.
Once the Marx Brothers took the show to Hollywood to be filmed, the rest is history. Dumont was cast in most of their major vehicles, almost always playing the same role, as a rich widow romanced by Groucho Marx. Their sometimes combative onscreen presence masked a genuine affection between the two; Dumont called him "Julie" after his birthname of Julius, and Groucho himself referred to her as the "Fifth Marx Brother." Here's Dumont and Groucho in a classic moment from "Animal Crackers":

Although she didn't need the money, Dumont enjoyed the work and was quickly in demand by other studios to play variations on the same role, which she did with the precision of a champion. In addition to the Marx Brothers, she would also act with W.C. Fields, Roy Rogers, and Jack Benny. It was during the 1930s that stories about her began to circulate, that she was the same haughty society matron both onscreen and off. I can't speak to her haughtiness, but I can say that the idea that she wouldn't know she was acting in a comedy is laughable. Dumont herself knew she was playing the straight man and was proud of her talents, as she said in this candid interview in 1937: "There is an art to playing the straight role. You must build up your man but never top him, never steal the laughs." Just watch her in this clip from "Duck Soup" -- Groucho gets the laughs but only with her careful buildup and priceless reactions:

And build them up she did. Dumont continued to work during the 1940s but slowly retreated from acting in the coming years. Touchingly, her last appearance was on "The Hollywood Parade" in 1965, reunited with Groucho to perform a few bits from "Animal Crackers." She died a few days later, a grand old dame to the end."

Let's leave it with these words from Groucho Marx on th Dick Cavett show, talking about Dumont four years after her death (it starts at 7min in):

Suggested Viewing:
-The Coaconuts
-Animal Crackers
-Duck Soup
-A Night at the Opera
-Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

Friday, January 2, 2009

Thomas Mitchell (I)

Happy 2009 to all you fans of character actors! My sincere apologies for not updating regularly; the holidays and holiday work got in the way of what I really like to do: watch old movies. My new year's resolution is to update "In Character" more frequently!

Over the holidays I was flipping channels and came across John Ford's "The Quiet Man." I stumbled into the middle of the wedding scene, where Victor McLaglen, Francis Ford, and Ward Bond are all standing side by side. I was, of course, delighted. But it also made me realize that maybe I've spent too much time in the John Ford Stock Company (if such a thing is possible). So today we're expanding to deal with a versatile and hard-working actor who only worked with Ford once. I'm speaking of Thomas Mitchell.

Ford cast Mitchell in his 1939 epic "Stagecoach," as a drunken doctor stumbling towards some kind of salvation. Despite being one of the best actors of the age, Ford never again used Mitchell, perhaps because the actor stood up to his notorious bullying. When Ford attempted to jump on Mitchell about something or other, Mitchell laughed and brushed him off saying "That's okay, I've seen 'Arrowsmith'," one of Ford's notorious flops. 

This kind of cavalier rejoinder is something one could easily expect from the mouth of one of Mitchell's characters. A seasoned stage professional, Mitchell was something of a rarity among Hollywood character actors and a forerunner of the modern type: he was a true chameleon who could play the hapless Uncle Billy in "It's a Wonderful Life" just as well as the bitter newspaperman in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." He worked four times with Frank Capra, who put him on the cinematic map with a role in "Lost Horizon." He played everything from Columbo to Willy Loman on Broadway, and was the first actor to win the Triple Crown: An Oscar, and Emmy, and a Tony. In short: Thomas Mitchell was a grade-A acting bad-ass.

But today I want to focus on one year in his career: 1939. The golden year of Hollywood Production, it's my vote for the most important year in American cinema. What films did Thomas Mitchell appear in in 1939? He was in five films: 1. The movie that redefined the Western genre ("Stagecoach,"); 2. The film that gave Cary Grant his best dramatic role ("Only Angels Have Wings"); 3. A defining work for Capra, Jimmy Stewart, and America ("Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"); 4. An epic historic tale ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame"); 5. The most successful film of all time ("Gone With the Wind"). I can think of no other actor who had such prominence in this, the greatest of American cinematic years. 

We've already discussed "Stagecoach" briefly; for the record, it should be noted that while Mitchell had his disagreements with John Ford and his treatment of actors, he went on the record to say that he'd act for him again, anytime, anyplace. As a free agent (meaning he wasn't contracted to any one studio), Mitchell would have had the freedom to do so, if only the intransigent Ford had come calling. Below at 1min in, he engages in a bit of silent pantomime while the world-class blusterer Berton Churchill pontificates:

In "Only Angels Have Wings," Howard Hawks created his most archetypal presentation of men together in comraderie, and the women who love them. Mitchell was cast excellently as Kid Dabb, Cary Grant's best friend and a tough flyer who is forced to retire when his eyesight goes. Mitchell takes it hard and gives a great performance that treads the line between machismo and comedy, while also holding his own against Cary Grant (not an easy thing for anyone to do). 

Following his success with Mitchell in "Lost Horizon," Capra cast him again in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," as a boozy DC reporter whose tough exterior masks a long-held torch for Jean Arthur. Mitchell is a standout in two scenes; in the first he takes apart young Stewart's naivete by cruelly explaining to him how things really work. He's so persuasive it makes you wish he had played a true villain. But I even prefer the drunken scene where he proposes marriage to Jean Arthur; he plays it off like it's no big deal, but you can see his heart is yearning for her. In a film full of (deserved) broad strokes, it's a marvelous bit of subtlety. Sadly, I couldn't find a clip of this scene online, so you'll have to be content with this wonderful old trailer:

He has a smaller role in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," as Clopin, the king of thieves. With his roguish Irish face, he seems a poor choice to play a hotheaded leader of French gypsies, but Mitchell proves himself game for anything. He has a constant twinkle in his eyes that indicates both warmth and the face that he cannot be trusted (catch his entrance below at :45 sec in)

And finally, "Gone With the Wind." Granted, not all of these films were shot at the same time, but Mitchell's work ethic is astonishing by any stretch of the imagination. In GWTW, he plays Gerard O'Hara, Scarlet's father and the Irish head of the family quickly driven to insanity by the sacking of the South and the destruction of Tara. By all accounts, the production of GWTW was an endless process, with David O. Selznick demanding constant retakes and rewrites, driving two directors to nervous breakdowns in the process. Mitchell seems to have emerged relatively unscathed from this process, and makes the most of his small part. He's a big part of the opening of film, establishing the storybook Irish plantation feel that makes the destruction of the second half so heartbreaking. 

As you can figure out, I hope to write much more about Thomas Mitchell in the coming months. He was a big part of some of the biggest films ever made, and I clearly can't say enough about him. To leave you now, here's a clip from the bizarre 1954 game show where celebrity guests meet regular people who have the same name of them (it doesn't make any sense to me). Enjoy Thomas Mitchell bantering with the host and enjoy 2009!

P.S. Don't think that Mitchell is out of it for now knowing the name of the movie he's promoting -- actors were often the last person informed of the studio's many name changes and edits. It was eventually called "Secret of the Incas."

Suggested Viewing:
-Only Angels Have Wings
-Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
-The Hunchback of Notre Dame
-Gone With the Wind

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Vince Barnett

With family coming into town this week for Thanksgiving, I wanted to do a short little post and I've found the perfect candidate: Vince Barnett. A consummate screen-stealer, Barnett's face is so cartoonish that he seemed born to be a second banana. But instead he was born in Pittsburgh in 1902, into a show-business family of sorts. Working at first with his father, then solo, Barnett had one of the best and most ridiculous jobs I can imagine during the 1920s and early 30s. 

Known as "Old Man Ribber," Barnett would rent himself out to high society parties where the host wanted a little fun. Then Barnett would stand up and in a German accent, start insulting everyone. Or suddenly appear unable to speak english. Or show up as a waiting dumping soup on people in expensive tuxedos. He was literally a hired prankster, and more than once made good money by turning the tables on the guy who hired him. 

This kind of high-wire act, unthinkable in today's litigious world, is certainly one of the most fascinating beginnings for any actor, as his whole living depended on his quick-thinking improvisation. Yet by the early 1930s, Barnett's face was getting a little too well-known for these shenannigans. The jig was up. He had played a few bit parts in film before, but nothing memorable. 

Then Howard Hawks entered the picture. Hawks was, among many things, a great finder of talent. He brought to popular light such actors as Walter Brennan and Lauren Bacall, revealed new emotional depth in John Wayne, and helped teach Katharine Hepburn how to be funny (with a little help from Walter Catlett). In 1932 Hawks, who had seen Barnett around town at a social occasion, thought of the funny little bald man with the big ears for the part of the English-challenged secretary in "Scarface." The role was one of the few points of comedy in the grim crime drama, and Barnett pulled it off remarkably well, launching him on a long film career. Yet in addition to the comedic business (he never remembers to take a name for his bemused gangster employer), Barnett also brought some real pathos to the role. Here in his [Spoilers ahead!] death scene, he is shot but sticks to his intentions to serve his boss, Scarface (Barnett is seen right away, helping Scarface out of the car):

This role in the most controversial movie of the year quickly established Barnett as a valuable character actor and foil. He began appearing in upwards of ten films per year. Sure, they weren't all A-list pictures. In fact, most of Barnetts roles were for B studios and quickie quota films. But he always brought a bit of oddball fun to his roles, and was often a lot more interesting that the dull leads he was cast with. Playing a newspaper photographer, watch the palpable joy on his face in this scene from "The Corpse Vanishes," upon learning that a dead bride's body has been stolen (starting at around 2:26): 

Like most character actors, Bennett also found work in the short films produced by studios, often to showcase singers or standalone musical numbers. In this clip from 1941, he plays a soapbox reactionary in a toupee won over by Martha Tilton's claims that love makes the world go 'round and that's what the country needs, by gum!

Yet Barnett had his turn at memorable roles in good films as well. He played the role of Charleston in Robert Siodmak's Hemingway adaptation, "The Killers," acting against a newcomer named Burt Lancaster. Barnett is great in this straight dramatic role, especially here in his scenes as an older man, recalling his past with Lancaster in the clink:

With television taking over, Barnett's amiable mug had no trouble finding roles. He showed up on the Andy Griffith Show and its later spinoff Mayberry R.F.D., as well as a small part as the baggage man on Green Acres. One of his last roles would a small role in cinephile Jonathan Demme's "Crazy Mama," a low-budget romp for Roger Corman. Yet knowing Demme, it's highly likely that he cast Barnett on purpose, as a nod to the old days of cinema, when men with great comic timing and a silly moustache could tramp all over the silver screen. Good days indeed.

Suggested Viewing:
-The Killers
-Brute Force

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thelma Ritter

"The best of all character actresses" was how Frank Capra referred to her, and he should certainly know. Thelma Ritter was the go-to actress for sassy confidants and gritty but warm mother figures. Her New York toughness contrasted with a gentle face and bearing that made her an essential part of such classics as "Miracle on 34th St," "Rear Window," and "All About Eve."

Born in 1905 in the center of the world, Brooklyn, New York, Ritter entered the theater world during the Great Depression, no mean feat, but still managed to gain notice for several parts during the 1920s and 30s. By 1940, Ritter had seemingly retired to Forest Hills, with two small children to raise. But like something from a studio publicity release, Ritter lucked out. A chance friendship with Phyllis Seaton, wife of director George Seaton, led to her being cast in a bit part as a bedraggled shopper at Macy's in 1947's "Miracle on 34th St." Ritter had never acted on camera before and hadn't been on stage in nearly ten years. Yet her part is a standout in the film; certainly as the mother of two in New York she brought her own experience to bear, but Ritter seizes her moment and runs with, leaving a lasting impression as the New Yorker redeemed by the uncynical attitude of old Kris Kringle.

Once Ritter's performance hit the screens, the 42-year old found herself in high demand. As a contract player she was free to go from studio to studio, an arrangement that worked out well for her. In 1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast her in his sharp black comedy "A Letter to Three Wives":

After enjoying working with her, Mankiwicz brought Riter back for his next production, putting her in "All About Eve" as Bette Davis' sarcastic housekeeper. She achieved the unthinkable: holding her own against Bette Davis in scene after scene:

Enterting her film career after already enjoying a family life, Ritter was in an enviable position, and was able to pick and choose roles. Consequently she never appeared in more than a few films a year at most, but her hits generally outweighed her misfires, and Ritter herself was never less than superb. Often in life we should celebrate the simple pleasures, and if there's anything more enjoyable than watching Thelma Ritter and Jimmy Stewart banter back and forth in "Rear Window," I don't wanna know about it:

In the 1950s, Ritter would also return to her first love, the stage. She starred in "New Girl in Town," the musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" and took home a Tony for her performance. And her great performances kept on coming: "Pickup on South Street," "Titanic," "Pillow Talk,"  and co-starring with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in "The Misfits" (1961):

Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about Thelma Ritter is that she either chose not to or wasn't offered a great deal of variety in her movies roles. She was almost always cast as a working-class mother or maid with a heart of gold. Occasionally she would play an unsympathetic role, as in 1962's "Birdman of Alcatraz," but these were rare exceptions.

Some tend to look at this as a failing; I personally think it charming, as it links Ritter to the Golden era of character actors, who were lauded for inhabiting the same persona over and over. Writer Paddy Chayefsky, seemingly chafing at Ritter's inability to become an A-list star, said of her "She was a character actress, which means that they don't write many starring parts for middle-aged women." She was nominated six times for an Academy award but never won  In the book "Actresses of a Certain Character," author Axel Nissen refers to Ritter as "The Last Character Actress"and it's a fitting title to a point. Perhaps "The Last Great Classic Character Actress" would be more appropriate. Or maybe just "Thelma Ritter: Awesome."

Before we go, let's enjoy Ritter's ability to liven up an otherwise dull movie. Here she is fumbling around with Jerry Lewis in 1965's "Boeing Boeing." You're welcome:

Suggested Viewing:
-Miracle on 34th St
-All About Eve
-Rear Window
-The Misfits