Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 5, 2014
Dodsworth plays tonight on TCM and it remains a personal favorite, a movie I emotionally connect with and a lead performance, by Walter Huston, I find to be quite amazing. Walter Huston has always been a favorite of mine and when I think of him, three performances come to mind, and Dodsworth is one of them. In fact, what I try to do with a lot of favorite actors is pick out the three performances that I would show to a newcomer that would best illuminate that actor’s talent, range and versatility. Even if they never stray very far from a given characterization, there might be three performances of those that best exemplify who they are and what they do.
Back to Walter Huston. If I had to pick three performances to initiate a Huston recruit, the choices would be easy. I’d pick the three performances that, for me, show the three faces of Walter, so to speak. The first would be Dodsworth. This is the Walter Huston that plays the noble, stoic characters in movies like Abraham Lincoln and Yankee Doodle Dandy. His character in Dodsworth probably best mirrors who Huston was as a person or, at least, I’d like to think so. Dignified and responsible but also emotional and passionate. It’s a great performance in a great movie but it doesn’t scratch the surface of what he could do.
Did someone say “scratch?”
Yes, the next performance would be from the great The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka, All That Money Can Buy). Huston plays Old Scratch, who happens upon a poor farmer down on his luck and willing to sell his soul for a chance to turn it around. Huston is so energetic and devilishly(!) wonderful in this I still have a hard time accepting he didn’t win Best Actor for it. But he did win an Oscar for the final of my three, only it was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and what support it was.
For the third performance, I’d choose Huston’s Oscar winning turn in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His old prospector is full of life and energy in a way so optimistic and good-humored, it provides the perfect counterpoint to Old Scratch and shows his ability to range from stoic and noble in Dodsworth all the way out to craggy and grizzled in this one. Another great performance, another great movie.
But Huston’s just one actor and there are so very many to cover. I expect there will be lots of disagreement on these, and maybe a few favorite performances won’t be mentioned, since I’m going for roles that “explain” the actor, for lack of a better word, to someone unfamiliar with them, but also shows their range. Let’s get to it.
Humphrey Bogart: I’m going to leave out some big ones, some really big ones, but keep in mind, I’m going for understanding and range. For Bogart, who had so many cynical hero roles, I’d have to pick Casablanca as the one to exemplify them and leave out a host of others, from The Maltese Falcon to The Big Sleep. Next, to show his ability to play the weasel or unflattering jerk, I’d go with either Dead End, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, In a Lonely Place or The Caine Mutiny. Very tough choice but I’d go with Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Finally, to show the lighthearted side of Bogie, I’d go with The African Queen.
Bette Davis: I’d like to pick the performance that first brought her big time recognition, Of Human Bondage, but honestly, it’s not really representative of Davis at all. Neither is Jezebel. The thing with Davis is, she really played a lot of different roles that were notable performances but also not necessarily what one would call a representative Davis performance. What was unique with Davis was her willingness to play very unflattering characters or brutally honest characters and so coming up with three performances to define Davis is difficult. But here goes: The Letter, All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Interpret that how you will.
James Cagney: One cannot give anyone an idea about Cagney without including his gangster roles and while Public Enemy put him on the map, it was White Heat where he truly ramped up the terrifying gangster role to its horrifying conclusion. And then there’s Cagney the hoofer. We all know the role to include for that: Yankee Doodle Dandy. Finally, Cagney the mean, old man: Mister Roberts.
Barbara Stanwyck: Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, Ball of Fire. There’s a fourth Babs, the older, matriarchal one of Titanic, Executive Suite and, later on television, The Big Valley. But I think the three given represent the best of Babs, from self-sacrificing to conniving to carefree and spirited. Substitute at will.
Ingrid Bergman: Casablanca, Notorious, Anastasia. Bergman won Best Actress for Gaslight, and she’s great in it, but she’s better in Notorious in the same (very roughly speaking) imperiled woman waiting for salvation from handsome hero. Notorious is a deeper, richer character.
Cary Grant: Picking North by Northwest is easy. Picking the other two is hard. For comedy Grant, I suppose I should go with Bringing up Baby but I think his comedy talents in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House are on better display. Serious Cary? Hmmm, Penny Serenade might be an obvious choice but, like the previous entry, I’m going to go with Notorious. Not the same kind of serious, but a bold hero performance that showed what Cary could do.
Katherine Hepburn: Woman of the Year, Summertime, Lion in Winter.
John Wayne: Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers.
Marlon Brando: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather. And then there are the dozens of oddball, singularly unique performances he gave that, each one on its own, wouldn’t give any clear idea about him (Reflections in the Golden Eye, The Young Lions, Mutiny on the Bounty, Julius Caesar). He and Bette Davis encounter the same problem in selection.
Marlene Dietrich: The Blue Angel, Destry Rides Again, Touch of Evil.
Jimmy Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Irene Dunne: Theodora Goes Wild, Love Affair, I Remember Mama
Claudette Colbert: It Happened One Night, Since You Went Away, The Egg and I
Clark Gable: It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, The Misfits
Boris Karloff: Frankenstein, The Black Room, The Body Snatcher
Greta Garbo: Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Ninotchka
Judy Garland: The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star is Born
Gregory Peck: Spellbound, The Yearling, To Kill a Mockingbird
Norma Shearer: The Divorcee, Marie Antoinette, The Women.
Spencer Tracy: Boy’s Town, Father of the Bride, Bad Day at Black Rock
Joan Crawford: Dancing Lady, Mildred Pierce, Johnny Guitar.
Fredric March: Design for Living, The Best Years of Our Lives, Seven Days in May
Peter Lorre: M, The Maltese Falcon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Elizabeth Taylor: National Velvet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Claude Rains: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington
Jean Arthur: Easy Living, Only Angels Have Wings, A Foreign Affair
And… and… I’m going to stop there. If I continue, including all the Ritter Award winners of a previous post, we’d be here all month. And, yes, I know, I’ve left off tons of big stars, too. Feel free to fill them in. I imagine there won’t be anywhere near full agreement on any of these but that’s what so engaging about selecting these kinds of things: Halfway through the post, I realized I didn’t agree with myself on some of these and starting changing them. Then I realized I disagreed with my reassessment and switched back. I mean, Joan Crawford?! Are you kidding me?! Three performances?! I didn’t even mention Humoresque or The Women which each give, I think, a completely different side of Joan than the three I selected. But if I made it five performances or ten or twenty, it wouldn’t be as challenging. There’s something about trying to select the perfect three performances to encapsulate a performer’s career that makes you rethink what their talents were and what movies best utilized them. Once you do that, you’d be surprised where you end up, often leaving off some of their best known work because, somehow, it doesn’t feel as representative. Acting is great that way. One performance, captured on film for eternity, can change before your eyes if you live long enough.
Oh, and since she’s our Star of the Month…
Mary Astor: Other Men’s Women, Dodsworth, The Maltese Falcon.
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