Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 18, 2013
Quick, how long was Clark Gable’s movie career? If you said 38 years, lasting from 1923, his first uncredited extra work in Fighting Blood, to the 1961 posthumuous release of The Misfits in 1961, you’d be correct, technically. For me, his career spanned 1930 to 1939, with Gone with the Wind as his swansong. Oh, he didn’t actually do anything of note in 1930 and he did a hell of a lot of note after 1939 but when I think of Gable, I think of the thirties. I identify most actors with a specific decade and, as box office returns would indicate, so do a great many people as actors’ careers tend to have a five to ten year period of total dominance followed by years of ups and downs.
Clark Gable made his first appearance on the Quigley Publishing Top Ten Money Making Stars poll in 1932 as did every other star on the list since that was the first poll that tallied up who the most popular draws were, according to theater owners. Gable stayed on the list for every remaining year of the thirties and made several more after that. But this isn’t about when a star made money or didn’t but the decades when they were in their prime, the years that feel like theirs, no matter how long they performed. And for me, Gable is an actor of the thirties, always will be. Despite liking much of his work afterwards, including a personal favorite, Run Silent, Run Deep, Gable’s career feels more like It Happened One Night through Gone with the Wind. Earlier movies, like A Free Soul and Night Nurse, feel like test runs for the career that would be and the movies after, like Teacher’s Pet, feel like idling down after the long race is over. And Gable’s not alone in the thirties. Not by a long shot.
Despite delivering one of my favorite supporting performances in all of movie history, in the year 1946 (as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life), Lionel Barrymore will forever be an actor of the thirties to me. From the previously mentioned A Free Soul to Dinner at Eight and You Can’t Take it With You, Barrymore was thirties, always. As was his brother, John, despite dozens of credits and major success in the teens and the twenties. John will always be the star of thirties movies, from Svengali to Twentieth Century, not the teens and twenties.
Some stars are successful for so long they seem to defy the one decade rule. Bette Davis would fit that mold as she had multiple periods to her career but I still identify her with one more than any other and that one is the 1940′s. Forget the two Oscars from the thirties, the forties gave us The Letter, The Bride Came C.O.D., The Little Foxes, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington and, at the tail end, in 1950, All About Eve. Am I the only who, despite the great performances that came after, feels like All About Eve is the cap to Bette’s career?
Another actress with a long and varied career, who nonetheless associates in my mind almost exclusively with the forties, is Joan Crawford. Her career spanned from the silents to the seventies but the forties gave us Strange Cargo, Mildred Pierce, Possessed, Humoresque and Daisy Kenyon. She achieved quite a bit before and after the forties but it was in that decade that Crawford defined herself as she would be known in years hence. It was in the forties that she became Joan Crawford.
John Wayne may be the most successful actor in history, in terms of continued popularity. He was on the Quigley list an astonishing (and record breaking) 25 times, almost consecutively (he was on the list from 1949 – yes, believe it or not, that was his first year on the list – through 1974 with only one year absent, 1958). And yet, I still think of Wayne primarily as a fifties actor because those are the movies I got to know him from. Movies like The Quiet Man, The High and the Mighty, The Searchers and Rio Bravo were the movies I associated with John Wayne and still are. I love Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, too, but it’s the fifties I link to Wayne.
Another star of the fifties, regardless of how much he did in every decade for, well, decades, is Jimmy Stewart. He won Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story from 1940 and delivered his greatest performance in It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946 but thanks to Rear Window, Carbine Williams, The Glenn Miller Story, The FBI Story, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Spirit of St. Louis and Vertigo, the man says “fifties” to me.
Steve McQueen did scant few big movies in the fifties, most notably The Blob, and several in the seventies, most notably (well, in my opinion, at least), The Towering Inferno, but in the sixties, Steve was the man! The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Cincinati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt (and I’m still leaving some off) all add up to mean I will never be able to think of Steve McQueen and not connect him immediately to the sixties.
A costar of McQueen, Faye Dunaway, made her name in the sixties and had great successes, including that one with McQueen, The Thomas Crown Affair, and, of course, Bonnie and Clyde. But the fact is, Dunaway has “seventies” written all over her. Little Big Man, Chinatown, Three Days of the Condor, Network and The Eyes of Laura Mars are some of my favorite movies of the seventies (Mars for all the wrong reasons – big, trashy, glitzy fun) and Dunaway is terrific in each one doing her usual level best at playing to the rafters.
The other actor I associate almost exclusively with the seventies, despite loads of work in the eighties, nineties and beyond, is Dustin Hoffman. Having made his name and reputation with such sixties classics as The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, he quickly became one of the most recognizable names in showbiz and one of the most in demand actors in Hollywood. Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Papillon, Lenny, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, and Kramer vs. Kramer are just some of the movies that led Hoffman’s rise to dominance in the seventies. And like Bette Davis and All About Eve, I feel like Kramer vs. Kramer is the cap to his career. He rose to fame playing a college grad and finished the arc by playing a father fighting for custody of his son during a bitter divorce.
As for actors whose careers exist solely in the eighties or nineties or aughts, who cares, this is TCM, let somebody else worry about it. Looking back, there seems to be no quantifiable trait that links an actor’s career to a decade. Gable was in the first, biggest stage of his career in the thirties. Barrymore, both of them, in the final stages of their careers. Davis and Crawford were clearly in the middle of their careers in the forties. It goes about the same for all the others I mentioned as well. Some in the beginning, some in the middle, some in the end. It often has less to do with where they were as actors and more to do with my own personal connections at the time. Someone else might associate Bette Davis exclusively with the thirties or Jimmy Stewart with the forties. Cary Grant I’d put in the fifties but I can see someone putting him the forties instead. Marlene Dietrich, thirties. Gary Cooper, forties. Bogart, forties. Bacall, too. They all had careers that spanned the decades but to me they will always be eternal stars, trapped in time.
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