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


Anonymous said...

RE: 49th P - I'm pretty sure Massey plays a Canadian soldier and going to America is the last thing on his mind.

Matthew Buchholz said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I mistakenly said that Raymond Massey was an American soldier in 49th Parallel when he was in fact a Canadian. It's changed now, thanks to the mutable powers of the interwebs!