Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 13, 2013
I recently did a post on great dual performance movies, that is, movies where two actors go head to head, both in the movie and as actors. I brought up Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in All About Eve, Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in Sleuth as well as many others. Readers followed up with a lot of great match-ups themselves and I recommend giving them all a read. But as Al Capone, played by Robert De Niro, famously said in The Untouchables, “I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.” (psst, after he says that he whimsically crushes some poor sap’s skull in with a baseball bat) And so this post isn’t about head to head, it’s about elbow to elbow and hand in hand. It’s all about working together but not in the way you’d think. Forget Nick and Nora, Oscar and Felix, Dorothy Gale and those three lugs. This all about my favorite little teams, the ones that no one ever celebrates… until now.
Two things first: One, this isn’t “The Best Mini-Teams Ever” or the “All-Time Most Successful Mini-Teams Ever” so if I don’t include yours, by all means, bring it up in the comments. Two, how mini am I talking? I’m talking a few minutes, maybe a few scenes but nothing that might qualify as big-time supporting roles.
Let’s get right down to it, starting with probably the biggest of my mini-teams, Charters and Caldicott, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, respectively. They first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes as avid cricket fans on their way across Europe to catch a match in England. As they encounter delayed planes and trains, unacceptable hotel accommodations and missing women, cricket remains at the front of their thoughts. And their conversation remains absurd throughout. Early in the film, they discuss how they missed the train in Budapest:
Charters: If only we hadn’t missed that train at Budapest.
Later in the film, when Iris (Margaret Lockwood) is trying to enlist their help in finding that vanished lady (Dame May Whitty), she makes the mistake of belittling cricket by wondering how “a thing like crickett” could make them forget someone to which Charters responds, “Oh, don’t you? If that’s your attitude, there’s nothing more to be said! Come Caldicott. A thing like cricket!” Michael Redgrave has the punchline when he scolds her by saying, “Wrong tactics. We should’ve told him we were looking for a lost cricket ball.”
Charters and Caldicott soon appeared in other film, Night Train to Munich, and later appeared in multiple movies together under different character names. They were even supposed to appear in The Third Man but had their roles written out over a contract dispute.
But even Charters and Caldicott seem too big and well-known a team for my purposes here so let’s turn to one of my favorite mini-mini-teams ever, the two grave diggers in Plan Nine from Outer Space. Yes, that’s right, the two grave diggers. Plan Nine from Outer Space is a movie filled with so many delights that it’s hard to come up with a list of favorite moments that doesn’t just include the whole movie. That notwithstanding, I quote the two grave diggers almost daily and that’s more than I can say for any other character in the movie. Here’s their dialogue, in toto:
1st Gravedigger: You hear anything?
The third line of the first gravedigger? ”Maybe we’re getting old.” That’s the one I say daily, in his amazing cadence. I could credit the actor (either J. Edward Reynolds or Hugh Thomas, Jr – the credits don’t distinguish one from the other like I did with my inclusion of “1st” and “2nd”) but it’s so clearly overdubbed that I don’t even know if they spoke those lines. All I know is, whenever my wife or I make any comment whatsoever related to age, I say, “Maybe we’re getting old.” Ed Wood, God bless you.
I almost don’t want to include this next mini-team because they are so famous but the purpose is to list my favorites and I’ve got to be honest, they’re among my favorites. I refer, of course, to Bert and Ernie from It’s a Wonderful Life. Played by Ward Bond and Frank Faylen, these two guys, a cop and a cabbie, are such a good team that even when George has been sent to his alternate reality and they’re technically against him, you still like them. For instance, when George gets in Ernie’s cab and starts talking crazy, Ernie sees Bert and signals him about the crazy guy in the back seat. Even in the alternate reality, they have an unspoken bond. I mean, really, when you think about it, their relationship is the only thing that doesn’t change when George sees the other world without him. Nothing can break up that team, not even a world without George Bailey.
Or how about Lovett and Barnard (Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell) in Lost Horizon, from 1937? At first, Lovett can’t stand Barnard, who just wants someone with whom he can have a decent conversation. But soon enough he warms up to him and you get the feeling the two will be close friends the rest of their lives, even if they live to be 180 (it is Shangri-La, after all).
And then there’s the movie with several great mini-teams, though they are main characters, too. Let me explain. It’s American Graffiti and though all the characters are a combination lead/supporting, none have real dominant screen time. And several great mini-teams are created: Charles Martin Smith and Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips and Paul LeMat, Richard Dreyfuss and the gang he encounters, The Pharaohs. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t subdivide this one degree further and give props to the guy who teams up with Charles Martin Smith ever so briefly to get him a bottle of rye. He ends up robbing the convenience store but still gets Martin his rye. Now that’s a guy you can depend on!
That’s just a sprinkling of the mini-teams out there in filmdom’s cosmos but mini-teams are abundant and malleable. They can be measured in minutes of screen time or mere seconds. Several scenes or just one. There really is only one hard and fast rule: That they work together, become friends and get the job done because that’s what a team does. Even a mini-team.
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