Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 20, 2013
One thing I like to imagine when thinking about a film I really enjoy is what the side characters do in their spare time, that is, when they’re not busy propelling the story of the main character before us. And I don’t mean what are they doing in this particular scene when they’re off-camera, I mean, “What is their life like outside of this story?” And it’s not like a find the main character dull, it’s just that sometimes that side character is so interesting I can’t help but want some more.
Taking minor characters and expanding upon them has a rich tradition in literature. From William Shakespeare to Sinclair Lewis right on up to Stephen King, playwrights and authors have consistently taken characters from one work and expanded upon them in another. Whether it’s Falstaff for Shakespeare or entire communities of characters for Lewis and King (minor in one work, major in the next), it’s a way of paying tribute to an interesting character that didn’t get enough attention the first time around. And it doesn’t have to come from the same author either. Tom Stoppard imagined the world of literature’s most famous gravediggers in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. George MacDonald Fraser found Flashman so interesting in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days that he gave him a full name (Harry Paget Flashman) and twelve books of back story (The Flashman Papers).
So forgive me if, occasionally, when viewing or thinking about a film I love I wish for a deeper portrait of characters that just don’t get the attention they deserve. One movie I just watched again recently that got me thinking of all this, Island of Lost Souls, has two characters I’d like to see more of but the one that really holds my interest dies in the end. The first character is Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), a disgraced doctor helping Moreau (Charles Laughton) with his experiments because if he returns to England he’ll be arrested for medical crimes not detailed specifically. And that’s what makes him so interesting. He’s an outcast from his profession, disgraced and forced to work for a mad man until, finally, he decides facing his punishment is better than staying on the island. I’d love to see how he came to work for Moreau and what shortcuts he took that sent him down the wrong road in life.
However, the character I’d really love to see more of is Captain Donahue, played by Paul Hurst. If you’ve watched enough movies from the thirties and forties, you’ve seen Paul Hurst. In fact, it’s a good bet that when you saw him, he stole every scene he was in. Here he plays a hard drinking sea captain for hire and I’d love to see a series of adventures following Donahue as he takes money to do the sailing jobs no one else will take. He dies in the end of Island of Lost Souls but if I was in charge of the character series, I’d make is so his character was only knocked out and badly injured. Later, he comes to outside the village that burned down, finds a flask still full in his pocket, drinks up, builds a makeshift raft and heads out for the nearest port.
As long as we’re on a sci-fi/horror bent, here’s another character I could stand to see a lot more of in another setting: Reporter Ned Scott (Scotty) from The Thing from Another World. In a movie that ranks as one of my favorites of all time, Scotty (Douglas Spencer) just may be my favorite character. He’s quick with a joke, has genuine curiosity for the world around him, and won’t back down from a story just because it’s a little dangerous. Hell, he’s perfect for a continuing series of adventures. Somebody make that happen, now (and somehow resurrect Spencer for the job).
Then there’s Major Warden, played by Jack Hawkins, in The Bridge on the River Kwai. He’s a commando in the war working for the British. He’s a man who likes his afternoon tea, says “Jolly Good” with reckless abandon and, when push comes to shove, will ram a knife straight through your heart without batting an eyelash. Even more interestingly, he’s the only member of the commando party on the bridge demolition that gets out alive. Moreover, he seems to finally let the death and destruction seep in, right at the end. One could do a series of adventures with him before the raid and a dramatic exploration of his soul after the raid. Of course, all of these rely upon the original actors (Arthur Hohl, Paul Hurst, Douglas Spencer) playing them for maximum effect and perhaps none more so than Jack Hawkins. He was a great actor and like the rest of these I’ve mentioned, the series only exists in my mind where the great original actors play the roles in the continuing series (like Tommy Lee Jones as Marshall Gerard). Without Jack Hawkins, I don’t know if the role would work.
Moving away from sci-fi and adventure, we come to the sixties sexual drama of Alfie, and the great Shelley Winters who is, let’s face it, the only woman on earth who could have played the character of Ruby, the rich American who puts Alfie (Michael Caine) in his place. Since her character is so marvelously vague, so brilliantly without any major backstory, she could really be someone for a writer to come along and flesh out in stories either before or after her encounter with Alfie. Maybe even bring the two characters back together in twenty years after they’ve both lost their sexual allure and are living sad, lonely existences. Good times!
Or how about Nancy Oliver, maid with an attitude, in Gaslight. Angela Lansbury plays her as a woman angry at her position in the world and young enough, like Flashman, that one could conceive an entire series of movies about her life after the infamous goings on at the Anton house.
And here’s two ultra-minor characters for you, one so minor she doesn’t even exist. The first comes from All About Eve and it’s Phoebe. Played by Barbara Bates in a wonderfully drawn bit part, Phoebe is, we are led to believe, the next Eve. But Phoebe is so much more than that. In just that tiny little scene, she shows more nerve, more gall, more brass than Eve ever did. Eve sat outside in an alley night after night and played demure as long as she could until she could make her way into the world of Margo Channing and take over. But Phoebe? She just shows up at the door, busts her way in, grabs Eve’s award and admires herself in front of the mirror. Eve’s mirror! Phoebe isn’t the next Eve, Phoebe is a force of nature and somebody could make a damn good soap opera out of her ruthless exploits.
And speaking of All About Eve, there’s the non-existent character of Marguerite, played by non-existent Eve Channing, in Sleuth, both directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Eh, what? Well, in Sleuth, the character of Marguerite Wyke, wife of Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) and lover of Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), is listed in the credits as having been portrayed by Eve Channing, an actress who doesn’t really exist but is a combination of the names of the two female leads in All About Eve. Also, Marguerite the character never appears in the movie. So, if the character doesn’t even appear in the movie and has a made up actress playing her, how can I possibly want more? More of what? Well, think about it: She’s married to the pompous arrogant Wyke and sleeping with stylish young playboy Tindle. And they’re both willing to destroy the other man’s life for her. Damn! I want to know more about her. Not a series, just a one off. Perhaps a small drama about a woman torn between duty to her husband and the love of her life. We never see her with them, only with her friends and at the end of the movie, when the police show up to tell her her husband is under arrest for the murder of her lover (or perhaps Wyke kills himself before they can arrest him), we finally realize it’s the mysterious Marguerite from Sleuth we’ve been watching all this time.
There are so many more but the post would go on way too long. The movies have continued character stories for years, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy realm (Doctor Pretorious from Bride of Frankenstein pops up in many different novels and movies through the years and characters from Dracula, including Dracula himself, have of course appeared hundreds of times far away from the source novel). Some authors, like Tolkien, gave extensive background for their stories and characters in other works (The Silmarillion) and legends like King Arthur have seen side characters grow in other works for years. On a lighter note, Robot Chicken all but made the sole purpose of its existence fleshing out inconsequential bit characters in Star Wars for comedy vignettes. So, yes, fleshing out minor characters has happened for years but that doesn’t mean we can’t walk up to our own imaginary Mr. Bumble and ask for more.
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