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

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stepin Fetchit (I)

There's a lot to say about Stepin Fetchit, and as this entry is #1, you can be sure that I plan to come back to High-Steppin' Sir Stepin in the future. Specifically, I plan to write in more detail about his fascinating career, one as full of highs and lows as any imaginable. But for now, let's talk about Stepin Fetchit himself and allow me to mount something like a defense for him. For while not I (nor anyone) can defend the roles he played, I can say that Stepin Fetchit was a uniquely gifted performer who earned both his fame and his infamy.

The very name, Stepin Fetchit, has come to signify everything that is disgraceful about portrayals of African-Americans in Hollywood. Everyone from the NAACP to Bill Cosby has decried Fetchit and his performances in the 1930s. On IMDB.com he is described as the most controversial actor in American motion picture history, and I'd say that's about right. He is often cut out of films when they appear on television, so he's become one of those figures where people know his name, but don't know much about him. Let's plunge right in: In the short below from 1948, he is appearing in a sort of prototypical music video for the enormously popular song "Open the Door, Richard."

The first thing you notice is that he is basically unintelligible. Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry) did this on purpose, as part of his act. He claimed that he only needed the audience to understand every third or fourth word to get across the point, and that the rest was supposed to be gibberish. It's jarring, but if you give yourself to it, it's also pretty funny. Fetchit was famous for improvising dialogue long before this was accepted in Hollywood, and he used the script merely as a guideline for his performances. As he became more famous, filmmakers and studios allowed him plenty of creative latitude, which was both a blessing and a curse. 

Left almost entirely to his own devices, Fetchit created his World's Laziest Man persona in the late 1920s and 30s and in his numerous onscreen appearances, deviated from it only once or twice. His attitude was that he had created a unique character and he played it well, so why change? And audiences did clamor for Fetchit, to the point where he appeared in as many films as possible in the 1930s. Will Rogers was a big fan and worked with him on "David Harum," "Judge Priest" and Steamboat Round the Bend." These films provide some of the best glimpses of Fetchit's work, as he fits in more comfortably in the southern settings of the films. Here he is seen with Rogers and Berton Churchill in "Judge Priest," as a chicken thief whom Rogers takes an interest in:

Setting was crucial to the perception of Fetchit; in the few all-black films he appeared in (such as 1929's "Hearts in Dixie"), his performance is much less offensive because it can be seen clearly for what it is: a send-up of white America's perceptions of "the lazy negro." But when viewed in the context of a film with white actors, there were two problems. The first is that the only roles allowed for black actors at the time were subservient: either as slaves in Southern epics, or some kind of bellboy, maid, chauffeur, or service type. So Fetchit was always playing a yes man, no matter how slow and garbled his yes might be. Second is that his drawling, stooped manner is so incongruous and different from everyone else, that it seems like he's acting in another film altogether. 

Video footage of Fetchit is scarce, because of his controversial nature. He's lampooned in this startlingly racist cartoon from 1937, which also features vocals from Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, and many more. Yet the song itself is a lot of fun, and the cartoon illustrates the ability of black performers to make the best of a situation, despite the restrictions placed upon them. I can't find any information to confirm if Fetchit is doing his own voice or if it's one of his many imitators, but you get the general flavor of how he was perceived (he shows up at 3:18).

Fetchit's career was troubled from the start; in the 1930s and 40s he went through dry spells of work where he couldn't get a job in Hollywood. On the one hand, he legitimately earned a reputation as a difficult actor by showing up late, being abusive, and unreliable. There are plenty of documented cases of this behavior, especially in the early 1930s. Yet even in the late 1930s when he got his act together, Fetchit continued to be dogged by this perception. 

In a more complicated vein, Fetchit was unafraid to show off his wealth. He was driven around town in a cadillac with his name in neon lights on the side, he threw lavish parties, and was seen at all the best spots in town. Newspaper reports from the time (in both white and black papers) decry him for acting out and being flamboyant. The implication is that Fetchit didn't know his place. Like Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champ with whom Fetchit was friends, the actor refused to stoop and bow once off the screen. Ironically, the same papers that damned Fetchit drooled over the decadent lifestyles of white stars like Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn, and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, praising them as America's new royalty.

Eventually Fetchit began to fall from favor as his refusal to alter his performing style meant that he was out of touch with a new racial pride demonstrated by actors like Hattie McDaniel.
As the years passed and he found no work, he would becoming the rallying point for criticism of Hollywood's portrayals of African-Americans.

Yet the protests against him personally are more than a bit unfair. Fetchit had his share of problems, absolutely, but he doesn't deserve to be used as an example of everything wrong with his race either. Fetchit wanted to be a movie star and that's just what he did, becoming the first full-fledged African-American star. He accomplished it through hard work, talent, and the only way open to him at that time; taking demeaning roles that are almost unwatchable today. Yet don't forget, this was the only option at the time. Theaters in the South would not allow positive portrayals of African-Americans onscreen and studio bosses capitulated to them. Stepin Fetchit was a brilliant performer who opened the doors for black actors and actresses. And African-American audiences of the day were in on the joke. They could see the sly smile behind the mask and the mocking of racial attitudes, even when that subtlety is all but vanished today.

Suggested Viewing:
-Hearts in Dixie
-David Harum
-Judge Priest
-Steamboat Round the Bend

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Raymond Walburn


To me, Raymond Walburn is it. He is the last word in comedic supporting players. He's good at accents, has a great range and dominates every scene he is in (at least in his Preston Sturges films). I just rewatched Sturges' "Christmas in July" and was struck by how he subverts the usual screwball formula in this film. Normally, screwball comedies focus on the wacky adventures of a suitably wacky man and woman (see "Bringing Up Baby," "The Awful Truth," or Sturges' own "The Lady Eve"). But here, his leads (Dick Powell and Ellen Drew) are the dullest people alive, while the rest of the supporting casts crackles with electricity and eccentricity. And Raymond Walburn is at the center of it all, bellowing "Juuuuuumping Jehosaphat!" at the top of his lungs.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Walburn was an old theater hand, not unlike his good friend Walter Catlett. Indeed, his career on the boards is just as exciting as his roles on the silver screen. Born in 1887 in Indiana to a show-biz family, Walburn made his stage debut when he was 18 for $5 a week playing a witch in a touring company production of "Macbeth." He also claimed that he was acting on stage in San Francisco in 1906 during the great earthquake, although there's no proof of this.

After working tirelessly he made his debut on the Great White Way in 1912 with "The Greyhound," a show that was on its way to becoming a big hit, but had its run cut short in the wake of the Titanic disaster. Walburn was called up to serve in World War I, having to abandon is role in "Come Out of the Kitchen" on Broadway to do so. After serving in France in the artillery corps, he returned to New York and acted in a series of successful plays, where, like so many actors, he was lured to Hollywood. After a few small appearances in silent films, he finally made the move for good in 1934.

He immediately was cast in a variety of roles. There is the perception that Walburn only played a big, obnoxious goof in most films, but this is quite untrue. In later years he adapted the loud, bullheaded persona but in his early films he played in everything from musicals to romances to dramas. In 1934's "The Count of Monte Cristo" he plays the villainous Danglars. In the clip below (at 3:41 in), Walburn arrives as part of the conspiracy to help send the Count (Robert Donat) to prison.

1934 was also the year that Walburn first worked with Frank Capra, in Capra's lackluster "Broadway Bill." He would later go on to work for Capra three times, including playing the bemused valet in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," and the judge in "State of the Union." In this clip from "Mr. Deeds," Walburn is playing alongside a murderer's row of character actors, including Franklin Pangborn, Charles Lane, and Lionel Stander:

As you can see from the clip above, studios hadn't quite figured out what to do with Walburn yet. This didn't hurt his career any, as he appeared in numerous films, usually playing a judge, professor, or some kind of authority figure. By the late 30s he was full established in this mode, and excelled at playing somewhat benevolent yet blustery blowhards, as in "Broadway Melody of 1938":

It is this template that Preston Sturges would build on to transform Walburn into the fast-talking, stuffy, blowhard, corruptible figure that he would become famous for. "Christmas in July" (1940) is not a great film but the performances in it are. Walburn plays Dr. Maxford, the head of a coffee company who is holding a contest for a new slogan. Based on Sturges own play "A Cup of Coffee," the movie never escapes its theatrical roots, which helps Walburn, particularly in a stunning set of comedic timing where he is forced to listen to Dick Powell's rambling in his office. He has an amazing gift for raising his voice on specific words in a sentence, or building within a sentence and then exploding at the end or beginning of the next one. Simply put, his performance in "Christmas in July" is a masterpiece, a standout from the rest of the film, and something that made me want to start this blog in the first place. Unfortunately I can't find clips of it online but it's on Netflix...get it now!

Walburn would take this performance even further in his next collaboration with Sturges, playing a self-important corrupt mayor in "Hail the Conquering Hero" (again, no clips online but watch it and thank me later). Here he is at the center of a hurricane of comedy, and proves up to the task of anchoring difficult screwball scenes with impeccable timing.

With his profile going up in the 1940s, Walburn put his Broadway background to good use in films like 1943's Bing Crosby vehicle "Dixie", where he receives a grand entrance and billing in the trailer (admittedly, the film looks pretty despicable now with its blackface):

After working continuously through the 1940s, Walburn finally got a starring role in Monogram's 1949 "Henry, the Rainmaker" a B picture that was so successful it was quickly spun off into a series of five films centered on the misadventures of Walburn and his family in a small town. The films paired Walburn with Walter Catlett and I haven't had the chance to see them...if anyone knows where to find them, please let me know!

Walburn retired from the screen in 1955 after acting in over eighty films. Yet his story has one final, amusing coda: in 1962 producer Harold Prince persuaded Walburn to return to Broadway for a role in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Walburn ended up playing 18 months as "Erronius" in the show, a great way for a great actor to go out. Bizarrely, when the movie version of the show was made, Erronius was played by silent legend Buster Keaton, in his last role. Sadly, he's not as good as Walburn would have been:

I leave you now with some parting words from Walburn himself:

"I am here to state that I have appeared in some of the most flagrantly putrid films of this or any other era but they have been in the minority, I believe, and it's only once in a while that I have to cringe while watching the Late, Late Show. I think that's pretty good for a fellow who's made eighty-seven pictures in twenty-one years."

Suggest Viewing:
-Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
-The Count of Monte Cristo
-Christmas in July
-Hail the Conquering Hero
-State of the Union

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ward Bond (II)

First of all, my apologies for not writing any entries for a while. Life, as John Lennon knew, is what happens when you're busy making other plans. So to celebrate my blogging return, let's return to the subject of my first entry, and certainly my favorite male character actor, Ward Bond. In particular, we're going to talk about Bond and the 21 films he appeared in in 1939.

It's true that Ward Bond got his start in films by pushing his way into the football cast of John Ford's 1930 "Salute." And Ford certainly gave Bond consistent work, often at the expense of bullying the actor and comparing his face to a horse's rear.  But there exists the idea that Bond was a big dumb lug who only appeared in Ford's movies, and that simply isn't true.

Ward Bond was a talented, physical actor with the plug-ugly puss that would forever consign him to the character actor background. Yet as he mastered screen acting, he was soon in demand, appearing in dozens of films; his popularity goes far beyond doing favors for John Ford. Bond also worked on a film by film basis; unlike the major stars of the day he didn't have any long-term contracts with studios in the 1930s and consequently was able to work almost year-round. 

Now back to 1939 and the best year ever for Hollywood movies (if you believe me). As I said earlier, Bond appeared in 21 films in this year alone, including John Ford's "Drums Along the Mohawk" and "Young Mr. Lincoln," Warner Bros' "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," Allan Dwan's "Frontier Marshal," and some potboiler named "Gone With the Wind." He might well have appeared in John Ford's "Stagecoach" as well, but for the fact that he couldn't drive horses as well as Andy Devine. 

This was also the year when his toiling away in bit parts began to pay off. In the above films Bond showed real versatility. His physical trainign gave him a macho gracefulness, he knew his way around an Irish accent or two, and he had the charm of a professional drunk. He played a genial, almost comic settler in "Drums," a loudmouth butt of Henry Fonda's jokes in "Young Mr. Lincoln," an American legionnaire in "Nazi Spy," the cowardly sheriff of Tombstone in "Frontier Marshal," and a Yankee solider in "Gone With the Wind." There was still a gruffness to his roles, but he handled comedy and drama with ease; he was at his best in "Gone With the Wind" as a sympathetic Union officer trying to arrest Leslie Howard but flummoxed by some quick thinking and fake-drunkeness by Gable:


(the embedding is disabled for this clip - my apologies!)

By all accounts Bond was an opportunistic, brash, no-good loudmouth who thought nothing of telling waitress to shove undercooked food where the sun don't shine. He was also a syncophant who laughed loudest at John Ford's unfunny jokes while emptying ashtrays and fetching more booze. Yet as I pointed out in my earlier entry, he was also a damn talented actor, and his work in 1939 seemed to convince producers and directors beyond John Ford.

In the 1940s he was getting even better roles; in 1941 he would play opposite Errol Flynn in "Gentleman Jim" and Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon." Bond had the advantage, like John Wayne, of not bothering to enlist to fight in World War II. Fewer actors around meant less competition. Yet I'm sure Bond would have been a successful actor anyway, as his talent proved time and time again.

Gentleman Jim

We'll check back in with Bond again in this blog, but in the meantime, let's leave with Bond at his best; as the boxer John L. Sullivan conceding victory to Gentleman Jim Corbett at the end of "Gentleman Jim."

Suggested Viewing:
-Drums Along the Mohawk
-Young Mr. Lincoln
-Gone With the Wind
-Frontier Marshal