Posted by Richard Harland Smith on February 1, 2013
It doesn’t have to be a manifesto every Friday (he says to himself, justifying the feeling of not wanting to spend a lot of time here today). Sometimes it just comes down to a whole bunch of ideas and opinions, some of them hare-brained, some of them half thought-out, and all of them mine. Dig…
Arthur Byron is kind of dead weight in THE MUMMY (1932) so it took me by surprise to observe how righteously bad-ass he is as the Warden in 20,000 YEARS AT SING SING (1932). He’s not as abrasive as Walter Huston was in THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) — Byron had played Huston’s role on Broadway — or as steel rod stiff as Lewis Stone in THE BIG HOUSE (1930); in fact, he’s kind of a slouchy dude who would prefer to take people at their word and likes to chill and watch his kids play. But when shit gets real back at the cellblock, out comes the .38. I like that he dons a hat to attend a prison riot. That’s class. Byron made surprisingly few movies, being more of a stage actor. He was President of Actor’s Equity between 1938 and 1940.
Joe Sawyer is always welcome. You know who I’m talking about, right? I’m talking about Joe Sawyer! There he is in the center of the frame above, to the right of that day player with the quizzical look on his face. You may remember Joe from such films as THE INFORMER (1935), BLACK LEGION (1937), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), SERGEANT YORK (1941), and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), where he and Russell Johnson got duplicated by aliens. I only recently found out that Sawyer was Canadian, born in Guelph, Ontario, hometown of my Video Watchdog compatriot John Charles. Sawyer (who got his start in Hollywood as sandy haired jocks in college films) usually played jerks but I light up whenever he walks into the room. He died the same month as Warren Oates. Man, how hard did April 1982 suck?
Aline MacMahon was so beautiful and, yeah, know what you’re thinking: “But what about your thing with Eve Arden?! What about your thing with Gale Sondergaard?! What about your thing with Mary Treen?!” I know! I love my dark, smart women! And, yeah, you’re probably thinking “Okay, but what about your thing with Miriam Hopkins?!” Miriam is an anomaly and she knows that and she understands and it’s all good between us. Anyway. Aline MacMahon… oh, but I grow weak-kneed just thinking of her. Look at that stony perfect face! That dimpled chin, those heavy-lidded eyes (that missed nothing. Nothing!) and that pursed Ipswitch mouth, from which such barbs were launched. Oh, to have been pinioned by her! To have been put in my place! To have been taken off at the ankles with a well-turned rejoinder and an arched eyebrow! She made her Broadway debut in 1921 and was still at it in 1975, in a Joe Papp revival of of TRELAWNEY OF THE WELLS opposite John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, and Mandy Patinkin. I got to see Gale Sondergaard on the stage when I was a kid but never Aline MacMahon and I’m all the poorer for it now. We lost Aline in 1991, but at a ripe old age, bless her. Watch an Aline MacMahon movie today!
Resolved: J. Carrol Naish was always up to some bullshit.
I don’t know nearly enough about Noble Johnson. A busy ethnic character actor in Hollywood from the dawn of feature films who was often called upon in Hollywood to play heathens, savages, ogres, and aboriginals of every stripe, in such films as MOBY DICK (1930), MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), THE MUMMY (1932), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1933, pictured), KING KONG (1933), and a bunch of red Indians, Johnson was a childhood friend of Lon Chaney and a pioneer African-American film producer, whose THE REALIZATION OF A NEGRO’S AMBITION (1916) seemed a more than reasonable response to D. W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). Movie star handsome, Johnson was too often buried under weird makeup for his Hollywood films, the last of which he made in 1950, after thirty-five years in the business. I’d read his bio. Is anyone writing his bio?
The more movies I see featuring Boris Karloff pre-FRANKENSTEIN (1931), films in which he is able to speak and movie and behave like a normal human being (albeit at times in the service of un-good) and wear nice clothes, the more remarkable his career-defining turn as Mary Shelley’s man-made man seems to me. Karloff got his big break at Columbia in the prison drama THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) but his murderous trustee Galloway was a silent stalker very much in the mode of Ardeth Bey in THE MUMMY (1932), where his disquieting physiognomy stole focus from his abilities as an actor. Karloff had a lot more fun, and had a lot more to say, as Robert Young’s gangster father in THE GUILTY GENERATION (1931, pictured), as a dapper, gay-coded hitman in GRAFT (1931), as a street corner pimp named Sport in SMART MONEY (1931), as Depression era do-gooder Richard Dix’s poetry-quoting right hand (the left hand was Paul Hurst) in THE PUBLIC DEFENDER (1931), and as a lecherous divinity school dropout who discovers his true calling as a disreputable newsman in FIVE STAR FINAL (1931). Karloff is so good, so compelling, so magnetic, and often so funny in these early roles that to go back to FRANKENSTEIN on the other side of them is a completely different experience. Take the test and see for yourself – watch Karloff’s pre-Code films and then throw James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN on the turntable and see if you’re not seeing the film — and Karloff — with an entirely new set of eyes.
That’s enough out of me today.
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