Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Berton Churchill

Just look at the picture above - in the 1930s there was no one more stern, stentorian, and judgemental in pictures than Berton Churchill. Yet looks could be deceiving; in reality, Churchill was a founding activist in both Actor's Equity and the Screen Actor's Guild who overcame being blacklisted by Broadway producers to become one of the great fixtures of Hollywood.

Born in Toronto in 1876, Churchill's commanding presence and firm, declamatory voice marked him right away as a candidate for the theater. After tiring of regional acting in Toronto, he made the move the New York sometime after the turn of the century. After toiling for several years in smaller parts and shows, he finally made it in Broadway in 1909 and was soon a fixture on theatrical row, including productions of "Julius Caesar," "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine," and "Adam and Eva." At this point he was often billed as "Burton Chuchill," although whether this was a mistake or a conscious decision is unclear.

Popular with his fellow actors, Churchill became involved with the newly formed Actor's Equity organization in 1913. Emboldened in 1919 by recognition from the AFL-CIO, Equity called the first nationwide strike in the history of American theater, demanding recognition by producers to negotiate better terms for actors. Churchill was at the center of this firestorm from his position in the New York office, and he worked together with actress Marie Dressler (the president of Equity) to organize the strike and hold out for better wages and treatment. A proud moment for Churchill, which would be repaid by his blacklisting by New York theatrical producers for almost three years.

Yet Berton would not be kept down. Already in his mid-forties, he moved on to character roles with great acclaim, soon returning to Broadway and beginning to appear, briefly, in the movies. He made a few brief appearances in silent films, but with a booming voice like his, he was made for the talkies. By the early 1930s his career exploded, moving quickly from shorts to feature films. In 1931 Churchill would say goodbye to Broadway and moved out to Hollywood for good. 

With his white hair and voice of authority, Berton would quickly be cast in authority roles; a perusal of his over 100 roles in 10 years turns up plenty of judges, senators, and even a President or two. He scored a coup in the prestigious "I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932) as the judge who wrongfully convicts the innocent Paul Muni. And he had the good fortune in 1933 to hook up with that great lover of characters, John Ford. Ford cast Churchill as the belligerent brother of Will Rogers' lover in "Doctor Bull." Churchill's self-important bluster was the perfect counterpart to Rogers' laidback cpountry charm, and they would duel onscreen in three more films, "Judge Priest," "The County Chairman," and "Steamboat Round the Bend." Below he's in fine form 17 sec in, trying to convict Stepin Fetchit as a chicken thief:

Yet he's even more entertaining as the revival "New Moses" in "Steamboat Round the Bend," a southern fire-and-brimstone preacher whose testimonial alone can save Rogers' nephew from death. Occasionally Churchill would play a likable character, as he did in "Every Day's A Holiday," but it was rare. He was simply too good as a blustery buffoon.

In 1933, the old Union organizer proudly aligned himself with the Screen Actor's Guild; Churchill was one of the original founders and played a big role in the development of the guild, no doubt based on his experiences with Equity in New York. This time, gladly, his career didn't seem to suffer one whit.

In the mid 30s Churchill found himself in the position that many character actors faced: as a well-known figure they weren't quite popular enough to anchor an "A" picture, but might well take the lead in a B pic, such as "The Dark Hour," where Berton plays a retired detective called out to solve a murder mystery. The film is creaky fun, especially with Quickie Queen Hedda Hopper on hand (before she picked up her poison pen and began writing gossip). It's enjoyable to see Churchill as the straight lead as well - the whole film is on youtube, but I enjoyed this excerpt starting at 5:15 when Berton meets Hedda. Also--"The Dark Hour" was produced by Chesterfield Motion Picture Coporation, a division of Chesterfield cigarettes. Truly, a different time.

The Churchill juggernaut rolled on during the 1930s, averaging 9 films for 1936, 1936, and 1938. Then in 1939 came a role that Berton would remain best known for, as banker Henry Gatewood in John Ford's "Stagecoach." Churchill was at his two-faced best, playing a banker who absconds with funds, yet still considers himself the moral superior of everyone on the coach, especially Claire Trevor's prostitute character and the outlaw John Wayne. In the trailer below at 1:28 in, he lashes out at everyone in the coach, oblivious to his own hypocrisy. It's a great performance in a film filled with great performances. 

Churchill continued to work in films and at the same time was preparing to return to Broadway at the age of 64, to star in Kaufman & Hart's "George Washington Slept Here." Yet he died during rehearsals, depriving him of the chance to bestride the Great White Way one last time. Still, the legions of actors who hold their Equity and SAG cards owe a little something to Berton Churchill, the man who made being hated a career.

Suggested Viewing:
-I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang
-Steamboat Round the Bend
-Kid Millions

P.S. Berton Churchill co-starred in 1934's "Kid Millions," as a greedy relative trying to get some of Eddie Cantor's money. While he doesn't appear in the ending to the film, I present it below as a tribute to how insanely crazy Hollywood films can sometimes be. Also, enjoy the 3 strip, mind-blowing Technicolor:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lucille Ball

The standard response whenever some asshole makes the claim that women aren't as funny as men, Lucille Ball actually enjoyed a long and varied career as a dancer and non-comic actress before the explosive success of "I Love Lucy." Ball's resilience in an industry that praises youth and beauty over experience and talent is remarkable; consider that she was already 40 by the time "Lucy" hit the air, and she would remain a fixture on television through the 1980s. But let's start not with Lucille Ball the television pioneer; instead let's look at Lucille Ball the Ziegfeld girl.

Born in 1911, Ball proclaimed her amibitions as a performer at an early age. When she was seventeen she was sent by her parents to the Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City, where she took classes alongside Bette Davis (what a combination!). After attending for a few months, she was told she had no future and was sent back home. Oh hindsight, is there anything you can't make amusing?!
By 1932 she was back in New York working as a model for dressmakers. This was the age when women buying clothes would sit and have models walk out wearing the various dresses for them; Ball would later perform this task on film (uncredited) in 1935's "Roberta." Eventually she began to work her way into various theater productions, but she was never the runaway success she would later lead some to believe. In truth, Ball was fired fairly quickly from several shows, including a Florenz Ziegfeld revue and a Shubert Brothers production.

Fortunately the roving eye of Saumel Goldwyn found Ball and recognized something in her. The statuesque Ball (still moving back and forth between brunette, blonde, and redhead) was a looker with dance training and she knew how to carry herself. She was cast as one of "Goldwyn's Girls," the group of women used by Goldwyn and MGM to populate their musicals. Other actresses who would emerge from this roster included Paulette Goddard, Betty Grable, and Virginia Mayo. After some modest success as a chorus girl, Ball was signed by RKO.

At this point, Ball was still following the standard pattern of stardom for up-and-coming actresses. She was appearing in big-budget films such as "Broadway Bill," "The Whole Town's Talking," and "The three Musketeers." But she was having a hard time moving past roles like "Hat Check Girl," "Leggy Blonde," or "Telephone Operator." Her friendship with Ginger Rogers, established on the set of "Roberta," helped some, but she wasn't getting the big roles. Ball was definitely an odd commodity; very beautiful but in a unique way, she didn't have the usual glamour-girl looks. And while she was a capable actress, most casting directors and producers didn't know quite what to do with her.

Gregory LaCava's "Stage Door" offered her one of her best roles, as the wise-cracking best friend to Ginger Rogers (below at 3:30 min, she and Rogers head out as "companions" for two businessmen). Here she began to perfect her comedic timing that would serve her well, which lead to her being given the lead in RKO's B picture "The Affairs of Annabel," about a publicity hungry actress. The script was poor, but Ball's performance made the film a hit, enough that she would reprise the role in "Annabel Takes a Tour." She would toil in films like these all through the 1930s.

By the 1940s Ball had fallen into a pattern that it seemed she would never escape. Everyone agreed that she had talent, but parts for comedic dancers with a good figure and a strange look were hard to come by. Eventually Ball would become known as the "Queen of the Bs". There were bright spots, of course. Her performance in Dorothy Arzner's proto-feminist "Dance, Girl, Dance" was a bright dramatic spot. And performances in "Du Barry was a Lady" and "The Big Street" showed off her versatility, comedic smarts, and dance chops. But the big breakthrough just never happened. In the clip below, from "Dance, Girl, Dance," Maureen O'Hara is working as a burlesque dancer being heckled by the men for her ballet moves, when saucy Ball appears at 2:08 min:

In 1949, believing her film career over, she signed onto CBS radio's "My Favorite Husband," playing a wacky housewife. The role showcased her straight comedic chops and was an instant success. Recognizing the potential for a TV series, Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz put together a pilot for a television series entitled "I Love Lucy." But CBS didn't find it worthwhile. Even at the cusp of her greatest success, Lucille Ball still had to fight for recognition, taking a version of the show out on the road. The tour's success finally convinced CBS to take a chance on Lucille and Desi.

CBS would end up with the biggest hit of television's infancy, and the standard-bearer for all sitcoms to come. Ball and Arnaz would showcase their business acumen by becoming the producers of the show and eventually the entire studio. And Lucille Ball would finally become a grade-A star, after years of toiling in the character actress and B-list mines. It was worth it.

Suggested film Viewing:
-Stage Door
-Dance, Girl, Dance
-The Big Street
-Du Barry Was a Lady

Suggested TV Viewing:
-Virtually any episode of "I Love Lucy."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Francis Ford

Francis Ford began a career in Hollywood early, making his way out to California via rough-and-tumble means before finally landing in Hollywood as an actor-for-hire. As a brash 28-year-old he talked his way into acting in early shorts, including working for George Melies, in one of his rare Westerns in the states. Soon Ford would find himself in demand in this new industry, and quickly became a star in the cliffhanger serials of the day. He became so successful that his kid brother John, thirteen years his junior, would eventually make his way out join him when he was twenty.

Cinema history is full of what happened next; Francis, full of himself and flush with success, bullied his kid brother and kept him on set as a whipping boy. Never as athletic as his older brother, John Ford struggled to get by and fashion himself after his brother, a tough rogue who'd do anything to get by. Jack took acting parts (including a role in "The Birth of a Nation" as a Klansman with glasses on) and soon began directing shorts by the end of the second decade of the 20th century. As to vogue for campy serials began to wane, Francis found himself out of fashion, as John's career flourished with the rise of the feature film. Eventually the name "Ford" became synonymous with John Ford, and Francis was but a bitter footnote. As John continued his rise to become arguably the greatest American director (he has my vote), Francis resorted to character acting, including work for his little brother. Jack reportedly even kept Francis on set and gave him small parts just to taunt him and make him pay for his few years of torment as a young man. Indeed, for the next thirty years, Francis would barely have speaking roles in Jack's films, and always small parts.

A fascinating backstory. Yet despite the sordid details and the dispiriting image of one man publicly humiliating his brother for over thirty years, Francis Ford was actually a great character actor, and far more than just a capable veteran. His history with silent films meant that he was skilled at pantomime and naturally fell into broad comic roles. Yet his face had a sadness to it as well, ironically best used by Ford.

Much of Francis' early screen output is lost now or unavailable to view. Like many directors in the 1910s and 20s, he directed and starred in dozens of films per year. Later he would be promoted to Head of Universal's Shorts and Serials department under Carl Lammele. But as the talking vogue moved in, Francis was unable to cope with the change in technology and directed his last film, the middling "The Call of the Heart" in 1928.

Yet he immediately moved to work as an actor. His leading man-looks now gone, he grew a beard and was working right away as a supporting or atmosphere player. His grizzled looks made him a natural for period pieces, like Cecil B. DeMille's "Abraham Lincoln" and a village in the original "Frankenstein." Stiil these were mainly walk-on roles or background bits, often with no dialogue. He was rarely billed in the credits.

By the mid 1930s, John Ford began to cast his brother in slightly bigger parts; perhaps it was a gesture to show Francis who was the bigger man, or maybe just because he knew Francis was a gifted actor. Either way, Ford cast him in three of his Will Rogers vehicles, "Doctor Bull," "Judge Priest," and "Steamboat Round the Bend" which began to solidify the image of Francis as the grizzled sly old dog character that he would perfect. Ford is especially good in "Steamboat," as the riverboat drunk, who stumbles around the steamship. 

Soon Francis would appear in almost all of John Ford's films, stealing little scenes as an often-drunken rapscallion. Curiously he would almost never have speaking lines, either due to his silent film experience or brother Jack's disdain. He would also appear in numerous other movies, almost always Westerns. He's hilarious in courtroom scenes in "Judge Priest" and "Young Mr. Lincoln." And he's especially good in "The Ox-Box Incident," as a mentally deranged old solider accused of theft and murder.

For my money, one of his best scenes is also his most outlandish. In "The Quiet Man" (1952), he plays an ailing Irishman on his deathbed, who finds the strength to leap out of bed to watch the donnybrook between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen (below at 6 min in):

His last film would be "The Sun Shines Bright" for his brother Jack. By this point his health was on the wane after years of acting, drinking, and brawling. Touchingly, the name of his character in "The Sun Shines Bright"  was "Feeney," which was the Ford brother's birth name. An attempt at reconciliation? Who knows. Either way, without Francis Ford there'd be no John Ford. That's good enough for me.

Suggest Viewing:
-Judge Priest
-Steamboat Round the Bend
-The Ox-Bow Incident
-The Quiet Man

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Walter Catlett

Anyone who's seen "Bringing Up Baby" knows that it's a virtual-who's-who of supporting player talent, including Charlie Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald, Asta the dog, Mary Robson, and even a brief appearance by my favorite, Ward Bond. Yet one bit player strides through the film with ease, his hijinks smoothly surpassing even the stars. I speak of course of Walter Catlett. 

Catlett is a great example of someone whose name evokes a "who?" from nearly everyone. His picture might remind a lucky few and certainly he's best known for "Bringing Up Baby." Yet no less an authority than Howard Hawks cites Catlett as one of the most important people on the "Baby" set. He was the one who taught Katharine Hepburn how to be funny.

He certainly had plenty of experience. Born in 1889, Catlett was a distinguished veteran of vaudeville and Broadway while cinema was still in its infancy. As a song-and-dance man equally gifted at comedy, Catlett appeared in numerous revues on the Great White Way, including The Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, 1918's "Follow That Girl," and Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" in 1924 where he introduced the title song. Clearly not a lightweight. (Below, try out Ella Fitzgerald's take on the song to give you a taste of Catlett's background and because everybody can use some Ella in their day):

Catlett made his way out to Hollywood and appeared in a few silents, but with his expressive face and voice he needed the coming of sound to really make a name for himself. His career exploded in the 1930s and soon he was working on upwards of a dozen films per year. The consummate character actor, he would show up briefly, usually playing a character of vague dishonesty but rarely an outright villain. Early successes included Lewis Milestone's "The Front Page," Jack Conway's "A Tale of Two Cities," and Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," cast as the poet Morrow who takes Longfellow Deeds out on a bender.

In 1938 Catlett would have his biggest success to date when he was cast in Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby." Initially he had only a small role in the production as the dim-witted and easily confused Constable Slocum. Yet Hawks realized he had a ringer on hand, as well as a solution to a vexing problem.

In 1938 Katharine Hepburn was in the midst of her "box office poison" phase. Her casting in a screwball comedy opposite Cary Grant, who had just come off the meteoric success of "The Awful Truth," was the last thing anyone would expect of the actress touted for her dramatic roles. Hawks saw that she was having trouble with the tone of the role and needed a solution. He first asked Catlett if he would be willing to advise her in broad, fast-paced comedy of which he was a master. Catlett replied that he'd be glad to, but he didn't want to suggest it to her himself, figuring he might be refused by the haughty Hepburn. The crafty Hawks then visited Katharine and told her that Catlett would be just the man to give her advice, but only if she asked him nicely. 

The partnership was sealed and Catlett became Hepburn's unofficial comedy tutor. As a result, his role in the film was greatly expanded to give him a reason to stick around, resulting in his unbelievable series of turnarounds at the climax of the film. It is comedic acting at its finest, and while it may have been equalled, his performance here has never been surpassed. Don't believe me? Check it out below, with Catlett attempting to interrogate Hepburn:

Despite "Bringing Up Baby"'s box office failure, Catlett found himself in high demand for the rest of his career. He showed up as a flustered theater manager in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and helped creep out a generation of children in Disney's "Pinocchio" as Honest John the Fox. Later he would work as part of Disney's live-action stock company, appearing in "Davy Crockett" and "Disneyland" among many others. Catlett also worked with the legendary Raymond Walburn in the "Father" series of comedies, resulting in what must have been an astonishing screen pairing. Anyone have video of any of these? 

As the vaudeville and live theater business began to decline in the 1930s and 40s, many great actors were forced out of business and into early retirement. Fortunately some actors like Catlett, were able to take refuge in Hollywood and turn in some of the classic scene-stealing performances. What might "Bringing Up Baby," and Katharine Hepburn's career, have been like without Walter Catlett? Thankfully we'll never have to know. 

Let's close with a bizarre and rare treat: Catlett, alongside Arthur Treacher, Sterling Holloway, Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour, and my personal favorite Veronica Lake, performing "A Sweater, a Sarong, and a Peek-a-Boo Bang"  from 1942's "Star Spangled Rhythm." The song starts out as a parody of the women's respective "talents" and ends up in a much weirder place. Enjoy (the song's a bit out of sync but bear with it): 

Suggested Viewing:
-The Front Page
-Bringing Up Baby
-Yankee Doodle Dandy

Monday, October 13, 2008


Asta at Work

This versatile actor has shared the screen with the likes of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and a big leopard. For a brief period in the thirties he was the toast of Hollywood, invited to all the best premieres and earning $200 a week. He possessed great comedic timing and was often able to steal the scenes right out from his counterparts. And of course, he was a dog.

Asta the dog was given the name "Skippy" at birth, but due to his casting as "Asta" in the "Thin Man" series, the little wire-haired terrier became known by both names. While his exact date of birth and death are lost to the ages, we do know quite a bit about the brief but fantastic film career of the single greatest dog actor of his generation.

His first appearance was in 1934 as "Asta," the dog of detective-and-wife-team Nick and Norah Charles in "The Thin Man." In the best character actor fashion, he showed a great ability to steal the scenes from his principals, executing some truly impressive work. Just check out his entrance to the film, here at 3:13:

This work is all the more remarkable when you consider the rigorous shooting schedule; "The Thin Man" was shot in just two weeks, which meant that the crew would not have time to wait for Asta to execute his tricks. Like his human co-stars he needed to hit his marks the first time. Ironically, the lovable dog who inspired a boom in the breeding of wire-haired terriers, was not able to fraternize with his co-stars. William Powell and Myrna Loy were both told not to make friends with Asta, as it would hurt his concentration.

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Much of this credit can go towards his owner and trainers, Henry East and Gale Henry East. Today many animal experts will train different animals for different tasks; for instance, there was one Benji good at closeups, one good at running, one good at catching, that sort of thing. But Asta did it all with no doubles, reportedly even "playing" with a declawed-but-still-dangerous leopard in "Bringing Up Baby."

With the enormous success of "The Thin Man," Asta was signed on for the sequels (although there are rumors that in the last two films, "The Thin Man Goes Home" and "Song of the Thin Man," he had been replaced by his own son). Credits in other films, including "Lottery Lover" and "Sea Racketeers" would follow, but Asta had his next biggest triumph in Leo McCarey's 1937 romp "The Awful Truth."

Cast as "Mr. Smith," the dog whom Irene Dunne and Cary Grant both want custody of after their divorce, Asta once again rises to the challenge, performing a brilliantly timed duet with Cary Grant at the piano (below at 3:25 min). Asta was always the professional, not breaking character even when Grant slipped and called him "Skippy" on film, suggesting that the dog still answered best to his true name.

Having established a clear rapport with Grant, Asta joined the cast of Howard Hawk's "Bringing Up Baby" as George, the mischievous pup who steals Cary Grant's intercostal clavicle and buries it in the yard. George has more screen time here than anyone other than Grant & Hepburn, and he handled it like the pro he was. He even got the band back together with Cary Grant for another sing-along:

After an appearance in "Topper Takes a Trip" (1939), Asta returned to the "Thin Man" series. It's possible that he made more appearances in other films, but most credits don't mention the little dog so it's hard to know. As as dogs sadly don't live forever, it's uncertain where the true Asta left off and his doubles took over.

Nonetheless, Asta has my vote for most talented screen canine. Also, he is adorable. See below at 8:10 min, where it appears that the little guy has been cuckolded by his "wife." Case closed.

Suggested Viewing:
-The Thin Man
-After the Thin Man
-The Awful Truth
-Bringing Up Baby

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford

While not as common in the old days as today, sequels were still fairly common business, as a star was often asked to reprise a role from one of their most popular movies. But how often are the supporting players such a hit that they get their own spin-offs? Well, that's exactly what happened with Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford.

Both men had been appearing in films throughout England in the early thirties after some stage work. Neither had worked together before Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" brought them together in 1938. The duo played the roles of Caldicott (Wayne) and Charters (Radford). Radford had previously appeared in Hitchcock's "Young and Innocent," but "The Lady Vanishes" would vault the two men into a new kind semi-stardom.

Caldicott and Charters are the comic relief in the film, two Englishmen completely obsessed with getting home in time for the cricket match. They probably represent Hitchcock's own satirical view of himself and his countrymen, as the two bumble through the film, being embarrassed to be in the same room with a woman changing clothes, and simply being bewildered and confused the entire time. Their performances together are magical, a kind of alchemy that happens when two performers play off each other instinctively (see Laurel & Hardy). They duo are among the first characters seen in the film, as they make their entrance into a crowded hotel waiting for a snowed-in train, and then express displeasure at Margaret Lockwood being shown to a hotel room before them (below at 4:30).

The duo were such a hit that their characters were written into the next film by screenwriters Frank Laudner and Sidney Gilliat, "Night Train to Munich" (directed by Carol Reed), and later were spun off into their own film, "A Crook's Tour." This charmingly slight film is thoughtfully provided by the good folks at Criterion on their two-disc version of "The Lady Vanishes," and while the film is a bit of a Hope/Crosby globe-trotting knockoff, the duo are wonderful and actually work quite well as anti-heroes bumbling their way through a spy ring.

Wayne & Radford would reprise their roles (sometimes named Caldicott & Charters, other times not) in many other film, and even had their own radio show for a while. And after their death, the characters were even resurrected by the BBC for a short-lived Agatha-Christie-type TV show.

To me this is fascinating, that a random grouping of two actors, undoubtedly cast very quickly, could go on to become so successful that they transcend their creators and take on a life of their own. It's a tribute to the magic that can happen when too good performers strike sparks off each other, even if those sparks are in a decidedly reserved, British nature.

Suggested Viewing:
-Young and Innocent
-The Lady Vanishes
-Night Train to Munich
-Crook's Tour

Monday, October 6, 2008

Jane Darwell
In retrospect, we tend to remember most supporting players for only one or two specific roles. Ralph Bellamy in "His Girl Friday," Hattie McDaniel in "Gone With the Wind," or William Demarest in Preston Sturges comedies. Yet these singular roles are often the apotheosis of a career filled with hard work that shouldn't be overlooked. Such is the case with the fantastic Jane Darwell. Known to most as Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath," her long and distinguished career is actually full of great performances.

Darwell was born in Missouri in 1879, the daughter of a railroad magnate. Her family resisted her acting ambitions, which might be why she didn't start acting until comparatively late in her career. She appeared in several shorts starting in 1913, but later returned to Chicago for stage work. It wasn't until she returned to Hollywood in the Golden Age that studio executives figured out what to do with Darwell, now in her fifties.

As a contract actor with 20th Century Fox, she appeared in both "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" as the Widow Douglas, a great boost to her career. She continued playing bit parts through the 1930s, including six pictures with Shirley Temple. In the trailer below for "Captain January," Darwell is billed as part of Shirley's "All-star cast":

For the most part, these films made good use of her combination of matronly warmth and spark of playfulness. She was cast memorably against type in "Gone With the Wind" as Mrs. Dolly Meriwether, one of the town's high society gossips.

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Obviously, though, it was her part in "The Grapes of Wrath" that won her the best acclaim of her career. Playing Ma Joad, the stubbornly determined head of the impoverished dustbowl settlers, Darwell brought a new sense of drama and fierceness to the role that had rarely been seen in her light comedy/drama films. Supposedly Henry Fonda had to insist on Darwell's being cast in this role, and she must have seemed like unconventional casting. But her performance (for which she won an Oscar) is spectacular. Everyone loves her final speech, but personally I think this clip of her preparing to leave her home in Oklahoma is much more moving (it starts at 2:31 in):

Despite a brief lull after winning the Oscar (Variety reported that "Jane Darwell, who received the award last night for supporting actress for her work in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ has worked only five weeks since appearing in this picture and has been unemployed for the past seven months"), Darwell moved on to more interesting work. She played a hard-bitten, sarcastic frontier woman in "The Ox-Bow Incident," and John Ford liked her enough that he cast her in several more films, including a brief but memorable role in "Three Godfathers" as a man-crazy old hoot.

Failing health meant that Darwell slowed towards the end of the 40s and 50s, doing more television work before semi-retiring. Her last appearance was at the personal request of Walt Disney; something made him think of her for "Mary Poppins," and she appears, looking very frail, as the bird lady in "Feed the Birds," a gracious and charming end to a wonderful career.

Suggested Viewing:
-Captain January
-Gone With the Wind
-The Grapes of Wrath
-The Ox-Bow Incident
-Three Godfathers

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Raymond Massey

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For many readers, Raymond Massey may be best known for his appearance in the long-running show, Dr. Kildaire. But for me, I'm intrigued by his fascinating body of film work in my favorite decades, the 1930s and 40s. Unfortunately not much of his work is online, but I urge you to check out some of his films (Netflix or TCM anyone?).

Massey was a Canadian who served in the first World War, and afterwards made his way to London where we started out in the theater. Soon he was playing small roles in films, and worked his way up to semi-starring roles, even playing Sherlock Holmes in the first sound film based on the supersleuth, "The Speckled Band." Afterwards, Massey was signed by Alexander Korda, and he began to appear in bigger, prestige projects.

The most notable of these early films is the overwhelming "Things To Come" from 1936. The film was adapted by H.G. Wells from his own book, which purportedly sprung from his dissatisfaction with the naivete and simplistic nature of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Make no mistake, however; "Metropolis" is the stronger film. "Things to Come" is a mishmash, clearly butchered by trimming from 130 min down to 100. However, the opening scene of an air-raid on a British town is frighteningly prescient of the Blitz, and the films does create a truly vivid atmosphere of terror. Massey plays two roles, the first as a gentleman aviator who helps lead mankind out of the dark ages following a world war that lasts for over thirty years, and then his own descendant in the future 2103 sequences.
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"Things to Come" is a flawed masterpiece, worth seeing alone for its fantastic design and genuine desire to present a vision of a future ruled by science. Massey is clearly hamstrung by the proceedings, however, and acts as though he is on the stage (although not as bad as Ralph Richardson, who gives what might be the hammiest performance in cinema history). The problem is that while the film is a technical marvel, and its montages equal some of the great Soviet works, "Things to Come" treats its actors like window dressing, or toys in this gigantic futureworld set.

Massey, however, would develop his cinema acting craft. His unusual features and tall, gaunt look meant that while he might play the lead role in a film, he was hardly anyone's idea of a leading man.
He originated the role of Abraham Lincoln on Broadway in "Abraham Lincoln in Illinois," and then played it in the 1940 film. Massey is, obviously a dead ringer for Abe, and his performance is excellent. However, the film itself is a mishmash of sentimentality, hagiography, and a genuine desire to probe beneath the surface of the Great Emancipator. It certainly fairs poorly compared to John Ford's 1939 "Young Mr. Lincoln." Massey's scenes of folksy charm come across as a bit forced, but he conveys the inner torment of Lincoln brilliantly. Listen to this clip of Massey performing Lincoln's "A House Divided" speech, and ignore the ridiculous youtube animation of Lincoln talking:

To me, however, his best moment to date comes at the end of Powell & Pressburger's "49th Parallel." The film is an awkward one, but full of great moments as it tracks a German submarine crew's attempts to escape through Canada to America (who, when the film was made in 1941, was still neutral). Massey's appearance is at the very end of the film (note to readers: I can't describe this any further without giving away the ending, so skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know what happens. Then get Criterion's excellent disc of the movie!). He plays an Canadian solider gone awol, who meets up with the last German office to elude capture (the magnificent Eric Portman). The two men have both jumped a train from Canada to the US, and Portman steals Massey's uniform, determined to pass himself off as an Canadian soldier and escape. But as events take a turn, and the German is defeated, the last shot of the film is of Massey, telling Portman that he'll take his uniform back and that "he's not asking." With his fists raised, Massey moves toward the camera in an indelible image that not only foreshadow's America's entrance into the war, but is one of the great cinematic endings of all time.
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Massey would enjoy many interesting character roles for the rest of his career, including appearing as abolitionist John Brown in "Santa Fe Train, a spoof role in the uproarious "Arsenic and Old Lace," working with Powell/Pressburger again in "A Matter of Life and Death, and playing James Dean's father in "East of Eden," and much much more. Because of his looks, he was often cast as a heavy or a villain, but his best roles are often those where he transcended that limitation. And yes, he was a conservative who campaigned for Barry Goldwater, but seriously, who cares now? Massey is a great example of how good character actors with great talent can become stars in their own right.

Suggested Viewing:
-Things to Come
-Abraham Lincoln In Illinois
-49th Parallel
-Arsenic and Old Lace
-East of Eden

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Edna May Oliver
Ah, Edna May Oliver. If there was any actress in the 1930s that better trafficked in nosy, pushy, New England aunts and busybodies, I'd like to see her. Often unkindly referred to as "horse-faced," Oliver has a charming onscreen presence that hints at a great warmth behind her often sarcastic exterior.

Oliver was born a Massachusetts woman (and a descendent of John Quincy Adams, if the interwebs are to be believed) and got her start on the Broadway stage. Moving to Hollywood in the 1920s, she did some character work in the 20s, but was one of those great number who didn't hit their stride until sound came in. Oliver had a fantastic voice, with the tones of a puritan and a little bit of tartness mixed in. One of her great successes in the 1930s was playing female sleuth Hildegarde Withers, much in the Agatha Christie Miss Marple vein.

But Oliver could play in almost anything, appearing in "A Tale of Two Cities," "Little Women," and even the bizarre live action "Alice in Wonderland," playing The Red Queen. Watch the clip below and marvel at the insanity of the film, and Oliver's willingness to wear a costume and squeal in falsetto:

Her character in "A Tale of Two Cities", Miss Pross, is typical of her mastery of the long-faced disdain. But Oliver also excelled at comedy, as John Ford found out when he cast her in "Drums Along the Mohawk." Oliver played a New England widow who takes in Henry Fonda and an embarrassingly miscast Claudette Colbert, whose farm was destroyed by rampaging Mohawk indians. The film is good-but-not-great John Ford, which means that it's still miles better than most others. Edna May Oliver brings the full combination of her talents to bear in the film, which combines comedy and drama seamlessly. She enjoys a semi-ironic flirtation with Ward Bond, whom she refers to as a "great big good for nothing loudmouth fool!" and at the same time she is memorably determined while tending to wounded soldiers.
I could only find the trailer for "Drums" but she shows up in a choice scene at 58 sec in. And the film itself is in gorgeous technicolor, so don't let this b/w trailer fool you. Oliver was so good she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to, you guessed it, Hattie McDaniel.

Rumor has it that Edna was originally up for the role of Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath" and that would have been a fascinating choice. On the one hand, I can't imagine anyone other than Jane Darwell, especially in the first scene of her burning family heirlooms. Then again, Oliver would have matched the physical description better, and if she could tone down the hi-hat in her voice, she might have worked wonders with the final "We're the people" speech.

Alas, it was never meant to be. Still, Edna May Oliver left a brief but remarkable filmography that I urge you all to investigate, or else feel the wrath of Edna herself!

Suggested Viewing:
-A Tale of Two Cities
-Little Women
-Drums Along the Mohawk