Posted by Moira Finnie on December 16, 2009
“People say I’m a one-note actor, but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note.”
I am an aficionado of wooden actors. I love them so, I ought to have splinters. Among leading actors, Joel McCrea may be lumped in with them occasionally, but not by me. His “one-note” as he mentioned above, was well played throughout his long life on screen, bringing a naturalism to everything from Westerns to Screwball Comedies. On top of that, he was physically beautiful when young and warmly interesting, weathered and credible as he aged; as anyone who has seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) or Ride the High Country (1962) can attest. He underplayed well, and seemed to have the instincts that allowed him to make it through almost 100 movies without embarrassing himself.
Those fellows whose presence I’d like to celebrate today may have lacked that instinct at times, but they were usually highly employable during a time when the cut of an actor’s clothes as well as his ability to blend into the background allowed the more vivid players around them to shine. Often the focus of many silent crushes by film fans in their own day and even today, my own appreciation of these unsung actors has increased in recent years. I was reminded of my affection for these guys recently when I came across this article by David Thomson on “The Death of the Method” in The Wall Street Journal last week. The brouhaha that has since occurred in the blogosphere dissecting or defending this argument is amusing, though it reminded me that, despite having grown up in the time when a murmur from Brando, a shout from James Dean, and an angst-ridden cry from DeNiro and Pacino was the standard, I was always fond of a forgotten breed too. I have been moved by each of these actors, but I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed the often forgotten fellows whose only method seemed to involve showing up looking presentable as well. These actors were the guys who bounded or glided into a drawing room asking “Tennis, anyone?”, lit a leading lady’s perennial cigarette, got her wrap for her, and commiserated with her over her emotional (and often trite) travails.
If they are remembered, these actors may be noted for their singular lack of brio, despite the fact that they had long careers and, once in a blue moon, gave an unexpectedly good performance to an audience. Btw, few women seem to fall into this admittedly arbitrary category, unless they are frozen faced comic singer Virginia O’Brien in just about any movie or perhaps Lizabeth Scott in her less animated, but very cool roles such as her parts in Pitfall and Paid in Full. I have a friend who would cite none other than Greta Garbo as one of the least expressive actors, distaff division. I might have joined in that chorus too, if I hadn’t seen her silent films a few years ago and begun to appreciate her expressiveness beyond words. In some ways, I suspect that Greta began to be a bit stiffer once the Talkies forced her to speak somewhat awkward English, though I’ve always suspected that she was thinking in Swedish.
But let’s not waste time on the big honking movie stars. My concern is with those who showed up each day on the set for years and years, often playing the same or similar characters over and over as the studio sought to make a profit by reproducing scripts that had once been fresh. The Wooden bunch tend to do too little onscreen thanks to underwritten roles, inhibiting directors, apathy and, yes, lack of imagination and talent on occasion. Sometimes the wooden fellows lurch out of their comfort zone and do pull off a few fine performances. They cannot become auteurs as well as actors, as, arguably, Humphrey Bogart eventually did during his long apprenticeship at Warner Brothers, rising above hackneyed scripts occasionally, signaling that there was someone home inside those early movies that are unspooling on TCM this month. Interestingly, the theatrically trained Bogart seemed to create a style uniquely his own in developing his screen persona. Many of the actors mentioned in this blog shared a similar background in theatrical performance, but, for whatever reason–lack of opportunity, creativity, and inner fire–they seemed to have less luck in developing an ineffable connection with the people in the audience, though I am fond of some of them.
A Note on Hams:
The Hams may have begun as good actors with real talent, some training and decent instincts, but somehow–bad luck, the development of bad habits, (personal and professional)–they became more florid over time, embellishing where muted eloquence would suffice, though once in awhile, they pull off a startlingly good performance. The King of the Hams in the studio era, btw, is probably Lionel Barrymore, an actor who elicits a certain amount of affection for all the over-the-top performances he gave–as well as just surviving being a Barrymore. He also made up for his sins of excess repeatedly with such beautiful performances as his work in On Borrowed Time (1939-Harold Bucquet) as the grandfather who traps and bargains with Death (Cedric Hardwicke) in order to protect his grandson (Bobs Watson). No, a Barrymore could probably never be accused of being wooden, though they could go as far as need be to milk tears from a stone when they found themselves in a particularly unwieldy dramatic vehicle.
No, I’m interested in the likable stiffs, the empty suits, the pompous sorts who inhabited movies for decades. Some would believe all British actors in the ’30s and ’40s as belonging in this category, led by Leslie Howard, according to some friends. I’m partial to that diffident style, and find Leslie Howard redeemed himself in the ironic and wistful moments of his performances. In addition, I have to like a guy whose comments on his best remembered part of Ashley Wilkes in GWTW were quite funny, so I will forgive him what now seems dated about his acting. There was something indefinable about him in his best roles, and any guy who could write the following after seeing himself photographed in costume as Ashley: “I look like that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire, a fine thing at my age.” Self-awareness such as this was not a hallmark of a truly wooden actor, but might have been one reason why Howard was so interested in moving behind the camera.
How to Identify The Wooden on Screen
Their appearance in a scene became a code that communicated to the audience that this guy is present to:
a.) Be taken down a peg or two by the nimble, much more exciting hero or heroine.
b.) Represent entrenched, outmoded attitudes in society.
c.) Represent quaint notions of honorable behavior that proves far more lasting by The End than any thrill offered by dangerous fellows.
d.) Be arm candy for the heroine.
e.) Like Malvolio in Twelth Night, the characters they play often misunderstood what has occurred under their noses, or were so concerned with their own petty status. In their self-involvement, they often overlooked the virtue and need of the hero or heroine.
Wooden Hall of Famers: Please feel free to add your own favorites. These are just some of the ones I enjoy encountering of in my cinematic journeys.
George Brent (1899-1979): The King of the Woodpile
Irish-born George Brendan Nolan, whose nearly narcoleptic screen performances involved accompanying flamboyant leading ladies on their adventures, may have been a far more colorful fellow off screen. Allegedly a minion of the I.R.A.’s Michael Collins with a price on his head while still a teenager, he was an aviator, raised thoroughbred horses and must have been better company in real life than in the movies. He married four times–the first three unions were all with actresses, Ruth Chatterton, Constance Worth and Ann Sheridan, and none of them lasted longer than 20 months. His last try was a much more successful match with a civilian outside the show biz ranks to Janet Michaels. The couple had two children and remained together until her death in 1974. Numerous female co-workers seem to have formed long lasting attachments, including Bette Davis and Greta Garbo.
George Brent‘s most high grade, teak-like performance: The Great Lie (1941-Edmund Goulding). His finished, most highly polished wooden moment comes when we witness Brent‘s phlegmatic reaction to some startling news near the end of this intricately plotted paean to mother love, (I guess that’s the theme). When it is spelled out for George that the toddler he had believed was the fruit of his union with warm-hearted home girl Bette Davis was actually the result of his earlier liaison with brittle career gal and piano-playing dynamo Mary Astor his reaction is as startled as if he’s just been told that “the fine little chap” needs a nap…which might actually be his character’s most deeply felt craving in this movie. To be fair, he’s trapped between two actresses having a field day in this movie. Gentleman that he was, he seems to have let the ladies go first, as usual.
George Brent‘s most surprisingly life-like performance: ‘Til We Meet Again (1940-Edmund Goulding), with Brent and Merle Oberon in a very sensitive remake of One Way Passage (1932-Tay Garnett), made earlier with Kay Francis and William Powell in the story of a mortally ill woman’s shipboard romance with a condemned murderer on his way to the gallows. Maybe it was the experience of working with Merle Oberon at the height of her fragile beauty or the fatalistic flavor of the material, but Brent‘s ardor helps to make this gossamer thin story unexpectedly touching.
Clive Brook (1887-1974): The Master of the Stiff Upper Lip School
This British actor, whose remarkably stony expression rarely changed from film to film, may be best remembered for his less than fervent wooing of Marlene Dietrich in one of her iconic films made with Joseph von Sternberg, The Shanghai Express (1933), yet there is a restrained self-mockery in his playing of that restrained character that makes me wonder how Lili (Dietrich) could have thrown herself away for him…and yet, when the pair are reunited on that train through China, their terse, contemptuous conversation is filled with longing as well. The son of a mine owner and an opera singer, with several years of military experience in World War One under his belt, he’d tried insurance and journalism before stumbling into acting, where his military bearing was utilized in a series of roles. Though he’d been appearing in movies in his native U.K. since 1920, he arrived in the U.S. by 1924 working for Thomas Ince, playing a variety of parts in silents, with one of his better appearances as “Rolls Royce” Wensel in von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927). In that film, which presaged the gangster genre of the 1930s Brook appeared as gangster George Bancroft‘s dissolute lawyer, whose life is further complicated by the thug’s girlfriend, Evelyn Brent. The arrival of sound seemed to calcify his acting style, at least for a time. His career lasted a remarkable 44 years, with his last appearance in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963-John Huston) as a haughty marquess, naturally.
Clive Brook’s most memorably stiff role: In Cavalcade (1933-Frank Lloyd), a stagy adaptation of Noel Coward‘s slightly acid valentine to the British Empire was an early Academy Award winner. As the husband of Diana Wynyard, Brook plays the head of the Marryot family, a stiff-upper-lip crowd who muddle through three decades of history, bucking each other up as they oversee the destruction of their family in the Boer War through the First World War, all sacrificed nobly in the belief that their loss will only make the Empire endure–somehow. While mouthing Coward‘s under-stated epigrams neither Brook nor Wynyard seems to have been encouraged to shade their lines with any subtext, though there is a tenderness that is expressed in their body language (no thanks to the director). In the end, the emotions in the family seem to be expressed most openly by the lower classes, personified by the servants below stairs–Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin, who, thankfully for moviegoers, were imported from England to Hollywood for these roles, staying many years to add humor and life to numerous films in the studio era.
Clive Brook‘s least plank-like appearance: On Approval (1944-Clive Brook). His performance in this fresh and very funny film, based on Frederick Lonsdale’s play and directed and adapted by the actor, is ostensibly the framework for one of Beatrice Lillie‘s all too rare appearances on film, (see the genuinely wonderful, far too little known Exit Smiling (1926-Sam Taylor) for the comedienne’s best work in movies). Concerned with upper class maneuvers toward a “good marriage” (meaning profitable) in the 1890s, this movie follows the adventures of four people, (Brook and Lillie are joined by Googie Withers and Ronald Culver in this quest) who “live together” for a period of time to explore possible alliances in marriage. Amazingly well played by all, especially Brook and Lillie, whose bickering is still spicy and funny. Available on DVD and an occasional item on TCM, this movie will change your evaluation of Brook forever as might the wonderful quote attributed to him describing Hollywood as “a chain gang [where] we lose the will to escape. The links of the chain are not forged with cruelties but with luxuries.”
Brian Donlevy: Tough Guys Can Be Wooden too
Love that guy, though he gave some awfully good imitations of wood in his day, as I’ve described at length previously here.
John Loder (1898-1988): An Oak Treated like an Acorn
In the 1940s, this underutilized, very good looking but apparently supremely inflexible actor asked “Why is it that I’m not able to get the roles they give Clark Gable? They always say, ‘You have no name. But when you have one, come again.’ By that time I’ll be old and stiff, A kind of poor man’s Aubrey Smith.” Once again, for all intents and purposes, we meet another tall, handsome fellow who seemed to have little expressiveness on screen, though his real life was as action-packed as any adventure novel. His life was almost too full of incident and coincidence to believe, which he described matter of factly in his 1979 autobiography, “Hollywood Hussar.” Born into a military family in London, he attended Eton and Sandhurst and he fought at Gallipoli and the Somme, endured a stint as a POW in German internment for a time. He was also a first hand witness to the aftermath of the devastating 1916 Rebellion in Dublin. Loder was the son of General Lowe, the man who accepted Padraic Pearse‘s surrender at the end of the Easter Rising and he personally escorted Pearse to Kilmainham Gaol. After a time in post war Germany running a pickle factory, the neophyte got the theatrical bug when he landed a few roles in German movies, including an early appearance on screen as an extra with an uncredited Marlene Dietrich in the German made Madame Wants No Children (1926).
Landing in Hollywood during the height of its pip-pip phase enshrining the adventures that accompanied the building of the British Empire, he arrived in LA just in time to co-star with Rin-Tin-Tin in the canine’s first talkie The Man Hunter (1930) where, improbably and politically inappropriately, “the white man’s burden” is taken up by “the white man’s dog” in Africa. Mr. Loder‘s long career began to gain steam when he returned to Britain to appear in Hitchcock’s underrated Sabotage (1936) in a good role, despite the fact that the director had wanted Robert Donat for the role. He then starred in one of his early (and few) personal hits, appearing as Alan Quartermain in the first sound version of King Solomon’s Mines (1937), co-starring Anna Lee and Paul Robeson, along with Cedric Hardwicke. Returning to America eventually, he appeared in some 100 movies over time, adding his manly presence to movies such as Old Acquaintance (1943) as a rather passive object of desire for decades of screen time with Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis. In Passage to Marseille (1945), he won a necessary but dully written part as a journalist in that messy, flashback-happy and occasionally stirring movie. Btw, Mr. Loder seems to have been a favorite of many ladies off screen since he was married five times, including a union with the legendary beauty, Hedy Lamarr that produced two children. Why were none of these incredible activities and evident charisma ever effectively transferred to the screen?
John Loder‘s Most Finely-Grained but Inevitably Wooden Role: Eliot Livingston in Now, Voyager (1942) featured Loder as a Boston Brahmin (in the movies of that period, these Americans were invariably played by Brits). Playing a widower and father of two sons, he courted the transformed Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), almost reaching the altar with the skittish but striving daughter of a repressive mother (memorably acted by Gladys Cooper at her chilliest). Eliot seems to be a tad naive for a man who had been previously married, since he visibly blanches when Charlotte proposes that they pursue a few moments of gypsy abandonment to shake things up before their nuptials tuck them in for a long life’s nap together. Despite this trace of Puritanism in this paragon of American aristocracy, I still like him better than Jerry (Paul Henreid, who was a bit wishy-washy for my taste).
John Loder‘s Most Well-Planed Timbered Role: Ianto Morgan the Welsh miner in How Green Was My Valley, who, along with his brothers, is a reluctant but principled challenger to the authority of his father (Donald Crisp, in his finest role), suggesting a lifetime of love and frustration with his family’s financial and social restrictions. Director John Ford used Loder‘s physical presence as he did the buttes and ridges in the landscape of Monument Valley in his Westerns. Though I probably wouldn’t want to know what manipulation he may have used with Loder on the set, the actor achieves just the right balance of emotion in this film and is very moving in this great movie.
Jeff Chandler (1918-1961): The Great Stoneface
I sometimes think that it was torture for Jeff Chandler to speak, but his rich sonorous baritone was only part of his charm, which also included chiseled features, an athletic form and curly gray hair. Yeah, who cared if he couldn’t show much emotion? As Joan Crawford‘s character says in one of the wooziest of fifties movies, Female on the Beach (1956-Joseph Pevney), the chiseled Chandler was born to play characters who had “the instincts of a stallion and the pride of an alley cat.”
Jeff Chandler‘s most lumbering, mahogany-like role: Sadly, this actor’s appearance in one of his last films, Return to Peyton Place (1961-Jose Ferrer), probably deserves the nod as his most agonizingly stiff. Playing a character who is a cross between Maxwell Perkins and Bennett Cerf, he is clearly uncomfortable in his clinches with the Alison MacKenzie-Grace Metalious character played by the very young Carol Lynley. Chandler appears equally pained when he tries to straighten out the bluenose philistines in Peyton Place who are trying to ban his author’s bildungsroman from their school shelves.
Chandler‘s most fluid moments: His best parts may have been when he, appropriately enough, played a stoic, dignified Cochise in one of Hollywood’s better attempts to treat the American Indian with respect, in Broken Arrow (1950-Delmer Daves) and in the scenes when he interacted with a small child, in the person of Tim Hovey in The Toy Tiger (1956-Jerry Hooper).
Other actors who deserve honorable and affectionate mention in our hall of wooden fame might be Kent Smith (1907-1985), a terminally nice straight arrow who ignores so deliberately all the signals that Simone Simon was sending him in Cat People (1942-Jacques Tourneur), but who might have leapt on his chance to howl in Nora Prentiss (1947-Vincent Sherman). Unfortunately, for reasons that were not entirely his fault, his career settled in for decades long appearances on screen as an exemplar of the conventional, a straw man who could be unmanned by any facile screenwriter (see The Fountainhead and The Damned Don’t Cry for excruciating evidence of Smith‘s martyrdom at the hands of filmmakers). Some seemed content to be just working actors in Hollywood, even though they occasionally showed they could do much more than “phone it in”.
Herbert Marshall (1890-1966) might join the Wooden Brotherhood if it weren’t for his comedic gifts for droll commentary on his conventional characters and his ingenious escapes when working with gifted directors such as Lubitsch in Trouble in Paradise (1932), Wyler in The Good Fairy (1934) and The Little Foxes (1941) or a middling director with considerable flair, like Curtis Bernhardt in High Wall (1947). (We should probably note in passing that the velvet voiced Mr. Marshall came by his “woodeness” honorably, having lost a leg in WWI and using an actual wooden prosthesis after that event).
As the Second World War approached, draining Hollywood of their stars, some run of the mill actors demonstrated their utility and some hidden gifts as well. Even Robert Cummings (1910-1990), who was often dismissed as an unimaginative lightweight, could be surprisingly adept at comedy as he proved –believe it or not–opposite Deanna Durbin in the delightful gem, It Started with Eve (1941-Henry Koster), as well as the much better known The Devil and Miss Jones (1941-Sam Wood). Cummings’ apparent conventional banality was used to great advantage during the war when an admittedly reluctant Hitchcock used him in Saboteur (1941) and Sam Wood surrounded his earnestness with great talents like Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya in King’s Row (1942). Unfortunately, Cummings turned back to his wooden roots in later films, particularly when he had some flamboyant competition from actors such Steve Cochran in The Chase (1946-Arthur Ripley) and Ray Milland in Dial M for Murder (1954-Alfred Hitchcock).
Now, today’s crop of wooden actors, from the burly Sylvester Stallones, Vin Diesels and even aged wood such as Clint, pardon the pun, Eastwood don’t really interest me. There’s a difference between being wooden and stylish and just being a big block of knotty pine who takes up room on the screen. Even current under-player Clive Owen sometimes flirts with becoming a well carved hunk of mahogany. If you’ve seen him in King Arthur as I did recently you might know what I mean. Of course, when he’s cast in a well written role that requires a man to keep his emotions bottled up, as he was in Croupier, that “lack of affect” works to his advantage. I guess I’ll stick to noting those studio era actors whose conventional good looks and lack of flexibility as actors inspires some affection–if not in the hearts of critics, apparently in those of casting directors and slightly silly viewers like me.
I hope that you’ll throw in your own nominees for the Wooden Acting all of Fame.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Films Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond James Cagney Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies mystery Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns