Posted by Moira Finnie on October 28, 2009
Careening across the countryside in a gypsy wagon, a lovesick hunchback cries out piteously for release from his twisted form. A hardworking Jewish-American father tries to appease his young son on his birthday, seeking to interest him in a baseball bat rather than an expensive violin.
A tired general on the Western frontier finds a few moments of solace in soldiers’ singing. An Italian soldier, willing to do anything to get back to his wife and baby, is stranded in the war-torn desert. A stoic Indian chief joins a wild west show, finding a way to keep his dignity despite his reduced circumstances. A broken matador tells an up and comer some hard truths. A Mexican dictator regretfully but decisively goes to war. A Japanese editor tries to correct his American-educated son’s corrupt Western ways. And a half-monkey, half-man broods endlessly about his plight, especially since he’s stuck being an unpaid houseboy for his creator.
What do each of these diverse (and sometimes pretty outlandish) characters and at least 200 more have in common? Character actor and changeling J. Carrol Naish (1896-1973). I can’t possibly touch on the range of Naish‘s roles in this blog, but his remarkably productive career includes an enormous range of characters, far beyond the roles as heavily accented types he is often best remembered for today.
Since Halloween is almost at our throats once again, a brief appreciation of Naish seemed appropriate for this week’s character actor nod. Joseph Patrick Carrol Naish, (called “Joe” by those who knew him), appeared in ghoulish roles in movies ranging from the unwieldy but strangely memorable House of Frankenstein (1944), which featured the actor as a murderous hunchback looking for love, (seen at right with the fickle light of his character’s life, played by Elena Verdugo). As a Mad Doctor, the Wolfman, and an anemic Dracula, monster veterans Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr. and John Carradine were also along for the ride in this entry in the franchise. While much of this movie seems to have a script that might have been jotted on the back of a paper napkin during a long coffee break at Universal, it is fun to watch, in large part because of the verve brought to the thin material by Karloff and Naish, whose tag team antics wreak havoc as they break out of a madhouse and make their way to the ancestral home of the Frankensteins, looking for revenge, romance and the answer to some slippery metaphysical questions of identity, (i.e. if Naish‘s character can ever get the procrastinating Karloff to transfer his brain into a new and supposedly better body, will he be more cheerful? Will he finally get a date?). In the end, the more foolish, and entertaining aspects of the plot seemed to fade in light of the sincerity of Naish’s performance. His plight seems to rise above this movie mulligan stew. His Daniel the hunchback comes to life with hope and despair memorably expressed in his posture, his pathetic yet touching responses to Verdugo’s toying with his emotions, as well as his constant manipulation by Karloff.
Naish was equally at home in an earlier horror movie, the obscure Return Of The Terror (1934) in which he played an asylum attendant whose charges threaten to overwhelm him; as well as a role in Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942) as a passive-aggressive Javanese houseboy with a simian air, (a movie celebrated delightfully by RHSmith here last Fall).
Joe Naish was even persuaded to come out of retirement for a last monster hurrah in 1971 to appear together with Lon Chaney, Jr. in a strangely enjoyable if often atrociously cheesy movie, Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). The latter casts an elegiac mood on most viewers fond of both Naish and his co-star, a largely mute but game Chaney. Despite the fact that both actors were facing a host of soon fatal illnesses in real life, their professional approach to the ludicrous script and the resulting film have achieved a kind of cult status, which is discussed at length here.
Apparently never a man to turn down a role, no matter how odd, Naish, “the man of a thousand races”, also appeared in movie serials such as Batman (1943), in which he threatened the nation as a Japanese spy with zombies at his command (see photo at right), brought one of his sometimes controversial portrayals of Italian Americans to radio and tv in Life with Luigi in the late ’40s and early ’50s, played a nemesis of Mr. Moto in Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937), and even essayed a version of Charlie Chan on a television series for a brief time in the ’50s. Interestingly, within the context of the times, Naish’s portrayal of the Luigi character in particular, which began to follow the fictional immigrant’s quest to become an American, included heavily accented comments such as “Some-a country when a Washingtona-drive off in a Lincoln!” A few years later, however, the actor gave a compelling gravitas and dignity to the supposedly cliched role of Joe Buco, an Italian mob boss on the skids in a 1960 episode of The Untouchables called “The Noise of Death” that you can see beginning here on youtube. The violence associated in the popular imagination with the Italian-American community is not absent, but the role is enhanced by the older Naish‘s effective acting, especially in his exchanges with the polished Elliot Ness played by Robert Stack.
While this was acceptable on radio for the general public, as time went on, and when the program was transplanted to television, it came under greater attack for its sometimes condescending depictions of Italian-American life, emphasizing a volubility, emotionalism and a desire to become assimilated among Luigi and his neighbors. Naish’s The New Adventures of Charlie Chan (1957-1958) was received with less vocal criticism, perhaps because the Asian community had yet to find its collective voice in American culture, and due to Naish’s more realistic portrayal of the quietly intelligent detective. By the time of his portrayal of the Mexican leader, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana in the 1955 version of events around the time of the Alamo in The Last Command, the actor’s commanding presence and humanizing portrait suggested that the somewhat inaccurately written but historical figure was a complex person, driven by ambition, pride and strategies that were understandable, thanks to Naish‘s nuanced portrayal of Santa Ana in this less well known film, overshadowed by John Wayne’s epic version a few years later.
Wildly politically incorrect now, Naish‘s myriad appearances in all media of such varying quality may have contributed to his lack of status in the Hollywood hierarchy of his day, even though his jaw-dropping work ethic and sometimes unintentionally insulting imitations of other races and ethnic backgrounds now look increasingly outré to us. I think these parts actually give us a pop culture window on general attitudes about those who are different than a supposedly more homogenized “us” in our past.
One of the horror movies most fondly remembered by me featuring J. Carrol Naish was the atmospheric The Beast With Five Fingers (1946), directed by Robert Florey at Warner Brothers in his usual florid style, aided by a script filtered through the imagination of Curt Siodmak. Competing against ostensible leads Robert Alda and Andrea King, and the likes of adept camera hogs Peter Lorre, Victor Francen, and Charles Dingle for screen time–not to mention a creeping hand that could play a mean piano–Naish‘s “Police Commissario Ovidio Castanio” might have been a colorless cipher in the background of this rather queasy comic tale of occult terror, murder, greed and mayhem in a gloomy Italian palazzo. Instead, Naish makes his impatient, quite dim and officious bureaucrat touchingly pompous and intolerant of any breach of his authority, even if the miscreant might be beyond the reach of his temporal authority. His characterization of this Italian character is among the more broadly drawn characters in the movie, but it adds an oddly welcome note of humor to an often lugubrious movie.
As he did in his many horror movies, the New York born actor may have rarely played a leading role, but his presence in a cast insured some style in the final product, no matter what the budget or genre of a film. His many movies provided a festival of ethnic types, sometimes seeming to reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes, occasionally humanizing society’s outsiders, and often transcending the material he was handed.
Over the years the actor, who specialized in almost every ethnicity but his own, repeatedly told reporters that “When the part of an Irishman comes along, nobody ever thinks of me.” Most of the time he was hired to play one of the dozens of Italian, Hispanic, Native American, Polynesian and even Asian roles required in movies between 1926 and 1971, but even he must have forgotten that he did play an Irish-American character at least once, when he gave a good, muted performance as a pensive Gen. Philip Sheridan in John Ford’s Rio Grande (seen at the left), a real life Civil War veteran, who, in the context of the frontier, is struggling to reconcile his responsibilities with his warrior instincts. Naish plays the officer as a canny but weary figure who suggests a man haunted by sometimes painful memories, but determined to find a way around the diplomatic boundaries of his limited power as a federal government representative. Actually, that memory lapse about his Irish role is pretty understandable given the range of parts that Naish played over time.
Born in New York City into a middle class family of Irish descent, (with some reported Spanish antecedents as well), the dark, curly haired actor, standing well under 6 feet tall, was blessed with an intensely expressive face, lit by alert brown eyes and a gift for mimicry that became his bread and butter. He began his path away from the Naish clan’s traditional careers in civil service and business when he reportedly ran away from home at the age of 16 to join the U.S. Navy, just before the eruption of the First World War. After service in the signal corps, and, experience in the cockpit of early fighter planes, (at least according to some suspect studio bios), Naish roamed the earth with the merchant marine, acquiring several languages in the many countries he visited in his travels, and observing the manners and customs of a vast array of humanity. In the mid-twenties, finding himself stranded in California while his ship was in dry dock for repairs, he began to pick up extra work in the movies, including an uncredited appearance in What Price Glory? (1926-Raoul Walsh).
Becoming enamored of acting as a career, he somehow found a spot for himself with a traveling stock company appearing in theaters throughout the country. Eventually he earned a spot in the cast of the then scandalously edgy melodrama, The Shanghai Gesture, (how much would you want to bet this role gave him a chance to try out his ethnic wings in an Asian role?). Naish was quite well known in the theater community by 1929, with no less a friend than the legendary Mrs. Leslie Carter , who became the godmother of his and actress Grace Heaney‘s only child, a daughter, Carol Elaine Naish. When the talkies began to take advantage of his versatile way with dialects and his chameleon-like ability to portray many ethnicities on screen.
He appeared in a dizzying number of large and small movies, and struggled to rise above many a moth-eaten script, poverty row production values, and a series of melting pot cliches. Today, many of his more outrageous exaggerated characters–especially his Italian and Asian portrayals–are seen for the caricatures they often were–on paper. Yet he clearly tried to imbue his characters with something ineffably his own, humanizing the many sinister and benevolent characters he played with the zeal of a man trying to keep his working life interesting and alive to every dramatic and comedic scrap tossed his way. So why hasn’t he received his due among classic film fans?
Perhaps it is due to the fact that Joe Naish does not appear to have had a long term studio contract at any of the plusher dream factories, but freelanced at just about every studio, with numerous appearances at Warner Brothers, a studio that might have seemed a natural home for his earthier working class characters and racially diverse depictions. One of the most interesting parts he played very early in his movie career, was the role of a Chinese immigrant “Sun Yat Ming” who had prospered in California in director William Wellman‘s fascinating pre-code, The Hatchet Man (1932). Leading man Edward G. Robinson, also playing in “yellowface”, was a hit man designated by the local Tong society to mete out justice to his “closest friend, a man who” had traveled from China by boat with him–Sun Yat Ming.
The stoic Naish character prepares for his own predicted demise meticulously, accepting his fate in such a way that he forgives and understands Robinson‘s position. While by today’s standards this melodramatic movie of culture clash would hardly seem realistic, it is difficult to fault Naish‘s uncanny ability to submerge his recognizable self into his character’s demeanor, dress and essence while making him into a human being. The actor even seems taller and thinner than his reported height of 5’8″ in The Hatchet Man (1932), which will be shown on TCM on Jan 21st at 9:00AM EST, (I don’t believe that it is yet available on commercial DVD).
In the same period, Naish worked for Howard Hawks in the director’s fifth talkie, Tiger Shark (1932) a movie that provided the template for a kajillion other Warner Brothers movies about two friends, one a warmhearted buffoonish braggart and the other a sincere young man. Naish plays neither, but has an exceptionally vivid part in one scene, appearing as a lecherous “paisan” type named Tony who was interested in co-star Zita Johann. As in The Hatchet Man the roles of the leading characters are drawn from a supposedly exotic ethnic group–in Tiger Shark it is Portuguese fisherman. While Naish‘s sleazy character is not as broadly sketched as Robinson‘s hearty sailor, the character actor must have been taking notes. Both characters alerted the film industry to the presence of a new type of utility player in their midst, capable of delivering a He recreated another salty dog, Mediterranean style, playing “Socrates”, a sponge fisherman twenty years later in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953).
Other, later Asian characters were somewhat more sinister and disturbing, especially as the war approached. One of these roles came along in the World War II melodrama from RKO, Behind the Rising Sun (1943), when Naish played a disillusioned Japanese citizen and father of Tom Neal (also playing a Japanese) in a movie that now seems very odd, even though in its time it brought “true to life” details about Japanese society in the grip of militarists to the screen under the guidance of director Edward Dmytryk, in one of his earlier directorial efforts.
Naish‘s character is an observer of his disintegrating society, witnessing the destruction of all social ties in the totalitarian and again he humanizes a role that might have been a shrill, one note affair if he had not been able to invest his fairly nuanced character with some self-awareness, drawing a viewer’s empathy for the enemy only two years after Pearl Harbor. The cast, rounded out by Philip Ahn of Korean descent, and Chinese-American actor Benson Fong, was largely composed of white actors in Asian makeup, but managed to imply that the Japanese people were human beings at a time when many popular American films exaggerated their qualities as aggressors, fostering racist beliefs in their audience that arise in every war about an enemy.When the part called for it, as it did in MGM’s Dragon Seed (1944), Naish was required to play the one dimensional part of an imperialistic Japanese officer managing a kitchen, while being tempted by and unlikely Katharine Hepburn (as a Chinese woman resisting the Japanese invasion) his entertaining turn as the lecherous invader made his dramatic but abrupt demise a pity, since he seemed to bring one of the few signs of fun to an overly dramatic and oddly cast adaptation of a Pearl Buck novel.
By the late ’30s, Naish started to pop up in numerous B movies at Paramount, notably in an interesting programmer in which he played a hoodlum who is one of the Persons in Hiding (1939) with Patricia Morison (in her first movie). This brief but engaging movie has a seedy but intriguing proto-noir premise allegedly penned by none other than J. Edgar Hoover; but given a dash of desperation by Naish in one of his rare anti-hero roles. Later work even allowed the actor to appear in a few musicals, notably at MGM, where he appeared twice with Mario Lanza in That Midnight Kiss (1949) and The Toast of New Orleans (1950), playing appropriate variations on his ethnic shtick as an Italian and an Arcadian. According to one source, when making the latter movie with David Niven in the cast, the bubbly flowed on the set thanks to the British actor’s sense of fun. By mid-afternoon, on such days, Lanza was glassy-eyed and Joe Naish was napping in a corner between shots, while Niven showed no effects!
During the ’40s, Naish also appeared in numerous movies at Columbia, Republic, Monogram and PRC, winning some interesting roles that allowed him more time in the spotlight, helped him to escape some of the limitations of notably in the Waterfront (1944) as an erudite optometrist who may be a spy, but whose sense of isolation and superior presence in the fogbound setting add more to the atmosphere than the smoke machine and the bleak settings. Another interesting movie from this period was made at Columbia in the first of The Whistler movies, in which he plays Richard Dix relentless nemesis. Dix, in a moment of despondency after learning that his wife is probably dead after being captured by the Japanese, hires “The Killer” (J. Carrol Naish) to eliminate an individual–himself. As the film progresses, the Dix and Naish relationship becomes more intense and strained, especially after Dix tries to cancel the contract. The film’s overwhelming sense of dread, dark streets and cheap sets all contributed to the lingering effect of this movie.
Despite a lack of a powerful publicity machine provided by the studio flacks and a consistent type of role for audiences to remember, the war years gave J. Carrol Naish more opportunities to display his versatility. Two of Naish‘s most sympathetic roles in the 1940s allowed the actor to use his skills as a chameleon and to play characters with their own dignity beyond the usual Hollywood stereotypes. They also won the actor two Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe in 1946.
The first film which garnered Naish a nomination was Sahara (1943), directed by Zoltan Korda, (and based on a 1937 Soviet film set during the Russian Civil War between the Whites and the Reds, called Trinadtsat, directed by Mikhail Romm). This tale, set during the sturm und drang surrounding the battle for North Africa, follows a WWII united nations of English, French, Sudanese and American soldiers on their trek across the desert. Working with emerging star Humphrey Bogart as the commanding sergeant of a lone tank, Naish portrayed Giuseppe, an Italian everyman who is seen as a person caught up in the fascist nightmare, despite his lack of interest in politics and his rather poignant desire to escape his desperate state. The character is an exceptionally sympathetic creation for a film in the middle of the war. The Italian infantryman; cut off from his own army, missing his family, and eager to share water and the companionship of the troupe of wandering Allies, is both pathetic and ennobled by his simple gratitude to his rescuers and eagerness to be of use to them. Acting in the company of the salty tongued Bogart, a stalwart Bruce Bennett, the skilled Dan Duryea, a youthful Lloyd Bridges, and the charismatic Rex Ingram, by the unexpected end of Giuseppe’s ride with the Allies, his comical and touching presence has grown beyond the one dimensional character he might have been. You can see a key sequence in this film featuring Naish in the center spotlight here:
Having given one of his finest performances in Sahara, the actor soon went on to another role which earned him great notices, but unfortunately is very rarely seen anywhere today, which is especially vexing considering its pedigree.
A Medal for Benny (1945-Irving Pichel) was written by John Steinbeck with Jack Wagner as a commentary on the distortions and hypocrisy bred by war. When a young Paisan in California’s Salinas Valley, a screw-up named Benny, who is never seen, is run out of his town after burning all his bridges, he leaves behind his father (J. Carrol Naish) who loves him despite his failings, as well as his girlfriend (Dorothy Lamour). After he is drafted into the army. When he is killed under fire, a Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded to him posthumously, garnering the town considerable prestige and causing a turnabout in their attitude toward Benny in retrospect. Lamour, who is becoming attracted to a local man, (Arturo de Cordova), finds her loyalties torn between her realistic memories of the shiftless Benny and her concern for Naish’s feelings, and she tries to protect him from the truth.
The “respectable” townspeople, including such familiar character actors as Frank McHugh, Grant Mitchell and Douglas Dumbrille complicate matters more by trying to exploit their community’s new-found fame, despite their underlying contempt for Benny, and the Paisan population in general. While Naish’s character is called Charlie Martin, (pronounced mar-teen), his lovable character is a bit long on folksy sayings, which is how Naish played him. (The paisanos, btw, were usually of mixed Indian and Spanish blood). While most contemporary reviews said that the “characters are colorful vagrants, amoral and full of small deceits”, the film tries to show “their frailties are those of average humans. And, deep in their hearts, they are good. This spirit has been glowingly translated pictorially in Frank Butler‘s script and in the brilliantly naturalistic direction of Irving Pichel. The performances are exceptional. J. Carrol Naish is warm and picturesque as the ignorant father” while he received good support from Dorothy Lamour (who surprised many with her sincere manner after appearing in so many comedies and spectacles). Though Naish was nominated for an Academy Award, as was Wagner and Steinbeck for their story, he had to settle for a Golden Globe for this performance, which, as far as I can discover, was never issued on commercial home video in any form. Interestingly, J. Carrol Naish appears to have given some of his finest performances in ensemble pieces in which he had other actors to work with, bolstered by strong writing and sensitive direction.
One outstanding example of Naish‘s gifted ensemble work was in Don Siegel‘s formal directorial debut at Warner Brothers. Siegel, an ambitious and talented man whose innovative work in creating montages in the special effects department at the studio had led to a lack of advancement, described the film short Star of the Night (1945) with some contempt in his autobiography, A Siegel Film. Assigned by Jack Warner to the small scale re-telling of the nativity story set in the Arizona desert at a roadside inn, the director, who would go on to direct gritty stories such as Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and numerous Clint Eastwood films, felt little affinity for this Christmas-themed tale. Despite this, Siegel created a warm and simple 25 minute movie out of Robert Finch and Saul Elkins‘ spare story, with J. Carrol Naish as the exasperated owner of the roadside business. Playing a heavily accented Nick, he is a deeply cynical man, fed up with the complaints of his guests and the world in general. As he tries to get a lighted star in place to advertise his diner, a mysterious hitchhiker (Donald Woods) stops by on Christmas Eve asking for a few moments to warm himself inside, the bilious innkeeper expresses his contempt for all those who celebrate the holiday one week of the year, only to return to the world’s callousness again, despite the stranger’s talk of goodwill toward men on that night.
“What-a you talk, goodwill? There’s-a no such-a thing.” barks the man. “You see that-a sign? It cost-a me plenty money. Even-a second-hand cash. I can’t a-buy ‘em with goodwill – I can’t a-buy nothing with goodwill, see?”
In contrast to Nick, his wife Rosa (Rosina Galli) radiates a warm spirit, explaining when he is out of earshot that she decided to marry Nick when she saw him weeping over a horse who had collapsed in the street. A series of bitter and self-centered guests (played by a fine collection of character actors, including Irving Bacon, Dick Elliott, and Virginia Sale) stream through Nick’s diner, until a certain Jose and Maria Santos (Anthony Caruso and Lynn Baggett) stop by just as Maria goes into labor. When the formerly mean-spirited clients return to learn of this event, they demonstrate an unexpected and heedless generosity to help the couple, leading to Nick’s realization that despite all that goes wrong, there is still good in the world, as he silently turns out the light in his business and looks out the window. Perhaps the best analogy for this movie for those who haven’t seen it might be to compare it to an exquisite, slightly corny but nevertheless touching episode of The Twilight Zone. While the Oscar that this little movie won may have galled the director a bit, he did express his appreciation for those who contributed their talent to this film, with chief among them, J. Carroll Naish.
Years later actress Mary Nash, recalled the actor’s helpfulness when she met him on the set of Jean Renoir’s portrait of The Southerner (1945), in which Naish appeared as Devers, a greedy farmer. While she played his daughter, he encouraged her to remember that it was important to support her fellow actors in scenes to give them something concrete to play off, a lesson the grateful neophyte treasured. Naish was also remembered by the exotic Acquanetta (born Mildred Davenport in Wyoming), an aspiring actress on the set of Jungle Woman, one of the numerous B movies he played in during the thirties and forties.
“[J. Carrol Naish] helped me more than any actor or actress that I ever worked with, because he was a fabulous actor.” she explained. “I think one of the greatest. Why he didn’t achieve stardom other than as a character actor, I don’t know. [Hollywood] missed the boat. But he was always offering suggestions and being very helpful and kind and gentle. What a nice man…”
Despite the simplistic writing characteristic of many of the movies he appeared in from a 21st century viewpoint, the rushed schedules which must have compelled some thumbnail portraits, and the attempted stereotyping of a gifted actor by a sometimes unimaginative industry, it might be fairer to see this talented character actor’s overall career as a bridge between a period when newly arrived immigrants were regarded with suspicion and the ability of movies and those who made them in his time to make those who were different somehow more acceptable and fully human.
Upcoming Movies with J. Carrol Naish on TCM can be seen here.
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