Monday, September 29, 2008

Hattie McDaniel
I'm spending a lot of time with Hattie McDaniel right now, and enjoying every minute of it. The perennial answer to a trivia question (Who was the first African-American to win an Oscar?), McDaniel is a true star, and one that would certainly have been bigger, if Hollywood was willing to give lead roles to black women in the 1930s (not so much).

McDaniel's family heritage is a story that is almost too amazing to be true. Her father, Henry McDaniel, was a slave in Tennessee when the Civil War began, and escape to freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. Henry then enlisted in the Union Army and fought against his former owners. Hattie and her family moved around constantly, while she built a career as a performer and singer, eventually gaining some notoriety as a blues singer, which undoubtedly contributed to her larger-than-life persona. By the time she made her way to Hollywood, she had been playing the vaudeville and music circuit for over twenty years. She was a gifted comic an dramatic actress and more importantly, an important step forward for African-Americans in films.

On one level, the sight of an actress of McDaniel's talent consistently playing a maid for the white stars is demeaning, particularly to contemporary audiences. But Hattie imbued her characters with such strength and forcefulness of character that at times they seemed to be the ones who were in charge. No doubt this stemmed from her early days in the theater, when she not only confronted the taboo of women performing in minstrel shows, but she took the "black mammy" concept so far that it crossed over into conscious parody, a meta-performance designed to critique the perception African-Americans on stage.

For evidence of McDaniel's ferocity and comic timing, just look at this scene from "Alice Adams." Lower-class Katharine Hepburn and her family are trying to impress Fred MacMurray, and so they hire Hattie to serve dinner for them, under the pretense that they are wealthy. McDaniel is having none of the charade, and lets her contempt be known:

This is a far cry from the lazy, no'count portrayals that showed up in many films. Hattie McDaniel delighted audiences, and within the framework on 1930s society, she pushed her way into some kind of dignity. And, as she always said in interviews, "Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making seven dollars a week actually being one!"

And then, of course, there is "Gone With the Wind." As much as the film centers on Scarlett O'Hara, Hattie McDaniel's Mammy is, on one hand, a stereotype. Yet McDaniel, who had the film tailored to her talents by David O. Selznick, carries much of the weight of the film, and narratively speaking, literally keeps the family and the Tara plantation alive. She's the only character in the film that Clark Gable speaks to with true respect (in scenes heightened by the fact that they got along famously offscreen).

And of course, she won an Oscar for her role as Best Supporting Actress. I find her acceptance speech extremely moving, and an example to actors today who prattle on and on and on.

P.S. If you're interested in Hattie McDaniel and other black character actors, check out Donald Bogle's extremely entertaining book "Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks."

Suggested Viewing:
-Alice Adams
-The Mad Miss Manton
-Gone With the Wind

Sunday, September 28, 2008

R.I.P. Paul Newman
Astonishingly sad news about the death of Paul Newman. There's very little I can say that hasn't already been said about this great man, except that his modesty and sense of duty and giving back is a model to us all. Also, his Newman-Os are damn delicious.

I'd like to address Paul Newman very briefly as an actor, but more specifically, as a late-period character actor. On one hand, it's ridiculous to even think of him that way; he's literally world-famous and arguably one of the best actors to have ever acted on screen and stage (fun sidenote: when I play a game where you have to think of actors who are as talented as they are good looking, Paul Newman is one of the few people who qualifies). But Newman himself seemed to shun the spotlight, and although his talents and good looks obviously made him leading-man material, in his old age he seemed to relish moving into character roles.

Take "The Color of Money," Martin Scorsese's sequel to "The Hustler" (and in my opinion, a better film. There, I said it). Newman is obviously playing the lead, only he's playing him as a character role. His pose at the beginning of the film is as a conscious caricature of the pool-playing hustler...but as the film progresses, that veneer starts to wear down, and we see the still-proud man underneath. He is completely taken apart and rebuilt onscreen, displaying a vulnerability that few leading men ever afford themselves. Look at this scene with Forest Whittaker and you'll see what I mean, as Newman finds himself being hustled and his shame is palpable:

Additionally, "The Color of Money" is quite possibly my favorite ending to a movie - a visceral jolt that only Scorsese can provide. Watch and see what I mean.

Newman continued to experiment with his image in the 80s and 90s...doing work in "Fat Man and Little Boy," and "Blaze." But 1994 was a banner year for him. Most of the attention was focused on his starring turn in "Nobody's Fool," and it's deserved...his performance in that film is a master class in subtlety and winning an audience's affection. But I really prefer his quirky turn in "Hudsucker Proxy," an unfairly forgotten Coen Brothers masterpiece.

I'll have much more to say about the Coen Brothers later on, and especially their ability to cast character actors in the same vein as old Hollywood films. But Newman is fantastic here as the scheming, evil head of Hudsucker Industries. It's great to see him playing not just an anti-hero, but in this case, the actual villain of the story. He acts seemingly only with his cigar at moments, and his voice, now gravelly with age, is a perfect compliment to the hard-boiled businessman edge. He shows up at 2:56 min in the clip below, stone-faced and brilliant.

With Newman's death there are bound to be tributes to his work everywhere, and watch them all you should. But maybe instead of watching "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" for the fifth time, check out "The Color of Money" or "Hudsucker." And settle in with some Newman's popcorn and Newman-O's.

Suggested Viewing:
-The Color of Money
-Fat Man and Little Boy
-The Hudsucker Proxy

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ralph Bellamy (I)

Okay folks, it ends now. The constant abuse of Ralph Bellamy as the romantic foil to Cary Grant in "His Girl Friday," and his only being remembered as a footnote to this one film. It stops here, dammit! I'll have you know that Ralph Bellamy has played countless other film roles! Why, his IMDB page lists almost 200 roles! He played, uh, the guy who lost the girl to Cary Grant in "The Awful Truth!" O
r the, uh, guy who lost the girl to Gary Cooper in "The Wedding Night!"

But seriously. Ralph Bellamy is actually an interesting case of typecasting. Bellamy was a consumate stage pro, coming up from the traveling stock companies in Illinois, to Broadway work, and finally out to Hollywood. His autobiography "When the Smoke Hit the Fan" is actually a fun, readable account of a distinguished professional actor. Word on the street is that "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" was originally developed as a vehicle for him! He won a Tony for playing FDR in "Sunrise at Campobello," for chrissakes!
And yet. Part of the reason Ralph Bellamy will be forever linked to "His Girl Friday" is that he's name-dropped in it, when Cary Grant tries to describe his character to a floozy and ends up saying that he "looks like that fellow in pictures, what's his name, Ralph Bellamy." This is a typical bit of Hawksian mischief that Bellamy says he wasn't aware was going on until he saw a cut of the film.

The other reason, sad to say, is that despite Ralph Bellamy's huge career in pictures (and I certainly haven't seen even close to all of them), "His Girl Friday" is arguably the best film Bellamy was ever in. "His Girl Friday" stands up today as one of the best comedies ever made and Bellamy is the Platonic ideal of the boring-but-reliable suitor that the heroine will inevitably throw over in favor of the leading man.

But to be fair to Ralph Bellamy, he deserves better. He's never been less than excellent in the films of his I've seen, and he's fantastic in "His Girl Friday." Also, he was in both "Pretty Woman" and "Disorderlies." Watch his perplexed look as he deals with Cary Grant at 3:15 min in the clip below. And watch this space for more on one of my favorites, Ralph Bellamy!

Suggested Viewing:
-The Wedding Night
-The Awful Truth
-His Girl Friday
-The Professionals
-Trading Places

Monday, September 22, 2008

Jean Hagen

Some character actors (or "atmosphere players") play the same parts for years and years, to the point where they're not so much remembered for a specific film than for a body of work (like many profiled below, including Constance Collier, Victor McLaglen, and Ward Bond). And then there are those who break through to the public in one specific role, and to this day are remembered for it. One such example is Ralph Bellamy (the subject of an upcoming profile), who worked for years as a leading man but is remembered only for playing the schlub in "His Girl Friday." Another great example is Jean Hagen.

Hagen will forever be remembered for her co-starring role in "Singin' in the Rain" as Lina Lamont, a silent movie star unable to make the transition to sound due to her impenetrably thick New York accent. And with good reason; her scenes rank among some of the best female comic acting on film, particularly her inability to recite "I can't stand him" (see the link below). Lina Lamont is selfish, rude, and devilishly clever, and is ten times more fun than the bland Debbie Reynolds. Her accent would be parodied by Mia Farrow in "Radio Days," but it's a pale imitation. For her running time in "Singin' in the Rain," Jean Hagen owns the screen. It's ridiculous to think that she was beaten out for an Oscar by Gloria Grahame, but then again, the Oscars were as ridiculous then as they are today.

"Singin' in the Rain" was not the first film role for Hagen; after appearing on Broadway in 1946, she showed up in a small part in "Adam's Rib," and later as the would-be girlfriend of Sterling Hayden in "The Asphalt Jungle." She's especially good in "Jungle", as a down-on-her-luck call girl with no where else to turn. Hagen had a great ability to play dumb, as she does in both of these films, but "Singin' in the Rain" proves that it was all just an act.

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Yet after her acclaimed turn in "Rain," good parts were hard for her to come by. She showed up in about a dozen pictures always as the support, which strikes me as an unfortunate choice. Certainly she didn't have the classic good looks that many stars did, but she's no one's idea of unattractive, and she's certainly sexy to boot. Yet she didn't really shine again until she worked in TV as Danny Thomas's wife on "Make Room for Daddy." And here Hagen was part of an interesting footnote; having tired of the routine of the sitcom, Hagen wanted out after three seasons. So instead of replacing her, they actually killed off her character, possibly the first time on a situation comedy when this happened. Below is a link to the pilot episode of "Make Room for Daddy," including the original Lucky Strike commercials - Hagen first makes her appearance at 5:51 min, and is given very little to do. It strikes me that, appearing in 1953 two years after "I Love Lucy" began in 1951, that this was an attempt to ape the "Lucy" formula.

Afterwards Hagen did a lot of TV work and a few films, but very little of note. However, she did appear in "Sunrise at Campobello," the film version of the Broadway hit, along with fellow typecast actor, you guessed it, Ralph Bellamy. It's easy to say that Hagen was a victim of her own success, but at least she has one indelible, scene-stealing performance in her career.

Suggested Viewing:
-Adam's Rib
-The Asphalt Jungle
-Singin' In the Rain
-Dead Ringer

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Victor McLaglen
In the mid 1930s, no more unlikely leading man emerged from Hollywood than Victor McLaglen. Barrel-chested and already in his forties, he was vaulted to stardom by John Ford in "The Informer," and went on to appear in a number of Ford's best films, along with co-starring with Cary Grant in "Gunga Din."

McLaglen was originally a professional prize fighter, and even fought Jack Johnson at one point. He served in the Middle East in World War I, and after returning to Britain, began work in a lot of silent films before moving to America. After many bit parts as a cantakerous Irishman (but he was actually British!), Ford cast him as the thick-headed ex-boxer turned stool pigeon in the expressionistic "The Informer." He won a deserved Academy Award for the performance, amidst rumors that Ford actually did get him drunk for certain scenes.

But as this blog is titled, we're interested in McLaglen, the character actor, which he became in the 1940s and 50s. The last time he could be considered a leading man was in 1939's "Gunga Din" - afterwards his weight ballooned and he had a hard time getting work other than bit parts. Ford still loved the old semi-Irishman, however, and cast him in many of his best films, including "Wee Willie Winkie," "Fort Apache," and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." In these last two westerns, McLaglen was the Irishman amdist the frontier, and one of Ford's stand-ins for his own rambunctious spirit.
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However, I like McLaglen best in "The Quiet Man." Playing Maureen O'Hara's stuck-up, money-grubbing brother, he's never been bigger on screen, both physically and in terms of presence. He seems almost impossibly wide-houldered in the film, although not quite fat, either. A roiling mass of drunken muscle, he is able to pose a credible threat to John Wayne during the entire film, and that's really saying something.

All of "The Quiet Man" toes the line of Oirish stereotype, often falling over right into it. Yet McLaglen and many of the cast (O'Hara and Barry Fitzgerald especially) are working in a very heightened, almost theatrical style that gives the film an element of a fairytale. McLaglen gives what I argue might be the broadest (but still good) performance in the history of cinema (save for maybe some of Toshiro Mifune's work). The final fistfight between McLaglen and Wayne (below) is cinema absurdity at its finest, and one of Ford's most enjoyably ridiculous scenes, especially when the two men stop off at the pub for a few pints amidst the fight. Let's all hoist a glass of stout to Victor McLaglen!

P.S. Seems like I've been talking about a lot of British imports lately! Well, we'll move on to someone different next entry.

Suggested viewing:
-The Informer
-Gunga Din
-She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
-The Quiet Man

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Nigel Bruce

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Ah, Nigel Bruce. If we were to look up "befuddled" in the dictionary, surely your picture would be right there next to it. The man best known to the public for playing Dr. Watson next to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes made a fine career out of being charming confused and often in mortal danger. But he came to my attention recently while I was watching Hitchcock's "Suspicion."

"Suspicion" is a good but not great Hitchcock -- you can feel Hitchcock straining against the sensibilities of RKO and struggling to find his footing in America. There are some great moments, of course. Everyone talks about the lightbulb in a glass of milk, but to me the scrabble game is much more ominous. One of the great joys of the film is Nigel Bruce as Cary Grant's old pal "Beaky" - a professional layabout who counsels Joan Fontaine not to worry about Grant's constant lies because, after all, "that's just old Johnnie for you!"

Nigel Bruce followed a typical British actor's career path; wounded in WWI, he became well-known on the stage and in music halls, and acted in some British silents before moving to Hollywood in 1934. By 1941, when "Suspicion" was released, Bruce had only played Dr. Watson twice, in the excellent "Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." Always best at light comedy, Bruce seems to revel in the part, no doubt enjoying being surrounded by a British cast and director. And he had already worked with both Hitchcock and Fontaine on "Rebecca," playing a similar side character. In "Suspicion," a simple bit of business, like his pretending to stand in the corner after being scolded by Fontaine, is truly winning, and despite his buffoonery and uselessness, it's impossible not to care for him as a character, making him an excellent foil to Grant's oily Johnnie.
Bruce would go on to play Dr. Watson thirteen more times (in twelve features and one cameo in the inexplicably amazing Olsen & Johnson film "Crazy House"), to diminishing results. In fact, he became so associated with the role, that audiences found it hard to accept him in anything else, which meant that his acting propositions outside of Dr. Watson were limited. Which is a shame, for while he is excellent as Dr. Watson, the role rarely afforded him the chance for physical comedy. In "Suspicion" there is a ridiculous scene where Grant and Bruce try to cheer up Fontaine after one of Grant's lies, and Bruce mugs for the camera and quacks like a duck. I haven't found a clip of it online, but trust me, it's really worth seeing!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Constance Colllier

Watched "Stage Door" on TCM last night after a showing of "The Women" (which is wonderful to watch after the foul taste the ads for the 2008 remake left in my mouth). "Stage Door," a 1937 Gregory LaCava film, is pretty entertaining. It marks the first pairing of Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, the two big female stars at RKO, and has great support from, among others, Lucille Ball.

But in keeping with my tradition of picking up on small character moments, it was Constance Collier who really took my breath away in the film. Constance plays "Miss Luther," a grand old dame of the stage now living out her remaining years in a women's theatrical boardinghouse. Katharine Hepburn's character warns to her out of their shared devotion to Shakespeare, and Miss Luther instantly produces clips from her handbag to show how great she once was.

The performance is a masterpiece of puffery and self-importance, but it's also not without its pathos. Undoubtedly Collier could relate to the role as she was, in some sense, playing a broader version of herself.
Constance Collier acted on British stages from the age of 3 (in "Midsummer Night's Dream"), and was a legend on the stage for decades. She also wrote several plays, including collaborations with Ivor Novello, and was one of the great acclaimed theater actresses of her time. She also did some silent film work, appearing as Lady Macbeth in 1916, but Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with her. She played a variety of small roles, but it wasn't until the 1930s, wit Collier now in her 50s, that she hit her stride in character roles.

Onscreen Collier both celebrated and sent up the British tradition of royalty. A quick look through her resume shows countless "Lady," "Countess," and "Queen" roles. The same year as "Stage Door" she appeared in John Ford's "Wee Willie Winkie," and went on to appear in numerous other films through the 1930s and 40s, even appearing in Hitchcock's "Rope," where her theater training and timing surely came in handy.

Watching Constance Collier now, she almost seems to not be acting. The type of a matronly, regal, self-important English lady is so stereotypical now, it's hard to see the talent beneath it. But Collier is a master, and "Stage Door" is possibly her finest role in films, as it showcases the vulnerability and fragility beneath her royal exterior. Watch the clip below as Hepburn and Collier discuss "Twelfth Night" - and then do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie!

Suggested Viewing:
-Stage Door
-Wee Willie Winkie

Monday, September 15, 2008

Gilbert "Broncho Billy" Anderson

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I just rewatched "The Great Train Robbery" with an attention toward the actors, and had a great time. What struck me the most was how the bandits who rob the train and the cowboys who pursue them are all basically faceless. The film has almost no characterization, save for a few moments with the telegraph operator and a little girl, and a few little moments here and there. I was thrilled to discover that Gilbert "Brocho Billy" Anderson played both of the parts that caught my eye!

Anderson (real name Max Aronson), was a performer on the vaudeville circuit when he met Edwin S. Porter, who was directing short films for the Edison company. They collaborated on scenarios and production, and in 1903, Anderson played several roles in the landmark "Great Train Robbery." (See the link at the bottom of this entry)

Although he is credited as one of the bandits, it's impossible to tell them all apart. Anderson first makes a recognizable appearance about 4:55 min into the film. As the train passengers are being held up by the bandits, he breaks out of the crowd and makes a run for it, only to be shot down in cold blood (and in the back) by one of the gang. This killing, while it might appear comical to modern eyes, is actually extremely well-acted for its day. The fall is startling and expressive, without being melodramatic, and it contains a visceral punch. Also watch Anderson in the crowd beforehand; he nervously rocks back and forth, telegraphing his need to run without being over the top. No doubt audiences were horrified by the brutality of this act in 1903, the violence of which certainly helped the film's notoriety.

The real treat of the film comes at 7:50 -- Anderson as a city slicker (or greenhorn) enters a bar during a raucous country hoedown. Clad in a suitcoat and bowler hat, he is immediately singled out by the cowboys and forced onto the dancefloor for their amusement. As a cowboy fires bullets at his feet, he taps away at a little jig that is wonderfully expressive and hilarious, before suddenly bolting for the door. It's a funny moment - meant to show that these cowboys are no-nonsense guys, but it's also quite charming and human. In a film of trains, cowboys, and explosions, it stands out as a defining moment for cinema; the time when character began to mean something.

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In later life Anderson would not only become hugely successful with his career acting and directing in the Broncho Billy shorts, he and Gilbert Spoor formed Essanay studios, which launched the careers of such legends as Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix, and Allan Dwan. Not bad for a guy who came to the public's eye doing a fancy little jig.

Suggested Viewing:
-Any of the Broncho Billy shorts
-The Great Train Robbery (youtube link below - watch it with the sound off as the accompanying music is completely unrelated to the action of the film)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ward Bond (I)

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I've titled this Ward Bond "1" because I'm quite sure I'll have more to say about Mr. Bond as time goes on. But for now I want to get down my intitial thoughts on this fantastic, larger-than-life, barrel-chested lug.

In 1929 Ward Bond, a football player and friend/rival to John Wayne, shoved his way onto a train full of football-playing extras for John Ford. Bond insinuated himself into the Ford inner circle through a combination of syncophancy, brawling, and boozing.

But don't let than fool you into thinking that Bond was a lackey or no-talent. A big broad-shouldered galoot, he was capable of surprising depth and humanity, in addition to broad comedy. Ford may have stumbled across him, but he clearly nurtured his career just as he did Wayne's.

In 1939 alone, Bond appeared in Frontier Marshal, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Gone With The Wind. His greatest popularity would come on TV as the star of "Wagon Train" before his death of a massive heart attack.

In his book of essays "Bambi vs Godzilla," David Mamet singles out Bond's scene with Errol Flynn in "Gentleman Jim" as a moment of great all-time cinema acting. I agree, but I'd add a scene from "They Were Expendable" to that list. As the mechanic and head crew chief of a PT boat in the Pacific, Bond is overseeing repairs to his boat, as thge men swim about in the water below trying to free a stuck propeller. An officious young officer arrives to tell Bond and the men that they are all being given a high-ranking award. Bond and the men ignore him completely in a typical Fordian moment of machismo, and work being its own reward. To be honest, it's a bit much. But Bond sells the scene completely, lost in the problem of the propeller. It's a great piece of acting.

Even more interesting about Bond is that despite being an almost universally genial presence, he was in real life a rabid anti-communist. There are even allegations that Bond and the gossip columnists virtually ran the 1950s blacklist. Imagine John Huston having to beg for a job to Ward Bond! An unpleasant man in real life, yet the son of a bitch certainly could act.

Essential films:
-Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
-Gentleman Jim (1942)
-My Darling Clementine (1946)
-It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
-Three Godfathers (1948)
-The Quiet Man (1952)
-The Searchers (1957)

Richard Gaines

The Immortal Richard Gaines
Welcome to the first posting of "In Character," my blog about Hollywood character actors. I've worked in film for a long time, but only recently have I really come to terms with my love of supporting players, particularly in classic Hollywood films. And now I'd like to start by writing about one of my favorites, Richard Gaines. Who, you might say? Allow me to explain.

I was watching "Double Indemnity" in a theater when it suddenly struck me; the guy who plays the head of the insurance office is, in fact, the same guy who plays the outrageous newspaper editor in "Ace in the Hole!" His performance in Ace in the Hole had struck me because it seemed so over-the-top, even for a Billy Wilder movie, yet still perfectly matched to the sensibilities of the film. I started looking up Richard Gaines to see what I could find out about him online.

Answer: nothing. Zip. Nada. Other than extensive IMDB credits, a listing on the Internet Broadway DataBase (playing Abe Lincoln!) and a few odd mentions here and there. He was a New York actor, and that's about all of substance.

Yet he caught my attention single-handedly in just two films. The more I watched, the more I started to love him. He's excellent as the stuffy suitor in "The More the Merrier," next to an unusually drab Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur. He has a brief but memorable role in "Brute Force" as a stern prison taskmaster. He even refuses to condescend to bad material, like his strangely moving turn in Flight to Mars.

He also has a penchant for historical figures; Abraham Lincoln on Broadway or George Washington in DeMille's tepid "Unconquered." His first screen role is as Patrick Henry in "The Howards of Virginia." This would lead me to believe that he may have been spotted by a casting agent on Broadway in "Abe Lincoln In Illinois" and was brought out to Hollywood to class up the joint, as it were. But this is just speculation.

Either way, I want people to be aware of Richard Gaines. He has a pretty decent range for a classic Hollywood supporting player (unlike, say, William Demarest who only played one part, but played it brilliantly). His high-powered, big-lunged newspaper editor in "Ace in the Hole" is miles away from the subtle dignity of Col. George Washington in "Unconquered," or the blustery, toupee-wearing fop Charles J. Pendergast in "The More the Merrier."

To celebrate Richard Gaines and inaugurate this blog, I've edited a special video that includes highlights from Mr. Gaines' wonderful career. Enjoy! And please post if you have any info on Richard Gaines!

Essential Films:
-The More the Merrier (1943)
-Double Indemnity (1944)
-Brute Force (1947)
-Ace in the Hole (1951)