Posted by Susan Doll on July 7, 2014
While researching a film from the 1930s costarring Melvyn Douglas, I was reminded of how suave and handsome he was when he was a young star of romantic comedies (at left). This was not the Melvyn Douglas that I knew when I became an avid movie goer in the 1960s. Bespectacled and white-haired, the elder Douglas was a respected character actor during the Film School Generation, often playing the difficult, hard-line patriarch. He won an Academy Award as the stern, honorable father of Paul Newman’s Hud, the ultimate cad. It is hard for me to reconcile the two ends of Douglas’s career. The handsome charmer who could make even Garbo laugh in Ninotchka is miles removed from the stubborn, scowling old men in I Never Sang for My Father and The Candidate. For me, it’s as though Melvyn Douglas is really two separate actors, equally as talented but with little in common. I have dubbed this incongruity the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome.
I don’t always find this kind of disconnect between the two ends of a movie star’s career. Handsome, sophisticated Cary Grant epitomized every woman’s fantasy from the 1930s till his death in the 1980s. Stars such as Henry Fonda, John Wayne, William Powell, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers became senior citizens during my youth, but I never had any problems connecting their early careers with their later years. I accept the evolution of Crawford’s stardom from the shop girl in Grand Hotel to the hardened saloon-keeper in Johnny Guitar to blind matron in the premiere episode of Night Gallery. Likewise, William Powell was as smooth and distinguished as the ship’s doctor in Mister Roberts as was in The Thin Man series. Even when Henry Fonda played against his star image when he starred as the cold-blooded gunfighter in Once Upon a Time in the West, it did not interfere with my appreciation for his long career playing principled protagonists who did the right thing because it was the right thing to do.
Perhaps the divide I see in Douglas’s career has something to do with his absence from the big screen during the 1950s and early 1960s, when he starred in television anthologies and worked on the Broadway stage. During that time, his leading-man good looks gradually faded and his voice became more gravely, but the movie audience was not witness to the evolution over the years. However, that would not be the case with another actor who has the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome—Walter Pidgeon. I remember Pidgeon as the straight-backed, cultivated Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet or the equally rigid but refined Florenz Ziegfeld in Funny Girl. This Walter Pidgeon could not possibly be the same actor who donned fancy uniforms to play singing princes in costume operettas in the early 1930s, such as Kiss Me Again, Sweet Kitty Bellairs, and Viennese Nights. Pidgeon spoke florid dialogue and sang operetta tunes in a pleasing baritone while romancing the likes of Vivienne Segal and Bernice Claire. In Kiss Me Again, his cohort in romance was Edward Everett Horton, unrecognizable under layers of makeup as the romantic second lead wooing a shy, aristocratic girl. This Horton was far different from the comic sidekick in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals just a couple of years later.
The Melvyn Douglas Syndrome predates Douglas himself. During the silent era, William Boyd was a matinee idol who made $100,000 per film and wooed beautiful starlets—a variation on Francis X. Bushman or even John Gilbert. In 1931, a case of mistaken identity put a damper on his career when he was erroneously identified in a newspaper article. The article ran a photo of him alongside a story about another actor with the same name (known in film history circles as William “Stage” Boyd), who was arrested for gambling and alcohol. Radio Pictures canceled Boyd’s contract. Though, he was not the actor who had been arrested, he did revel in the high life. Between 1917 and 1930, he married and divorced four times, gambled, drank, and spent his considerable earnings. After he lost his contract, he was broke and unemployable. In 1935, Harry “Pop” Sherman gave the 40-year-old actor the role of Hopalong Cassidy, and Boyd began to live by the code of morals espoused by the character. It is hard to reconcile the straight-laced, avuncular Hopalong Cassidy with the sexy matinee idol William Boyd.
Walter Matthau became everyone’s favorite comic actor when he played cranky slob Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, costarring with Jack Lemmon. The two friends made several comedies together, most notably for Billy Wilder. Matthau earned full-fledged movie stardom with a series of comedies during the late 1960s and 1970s—Cactus Flower, A New Leaf, Plaza Suite, House Calls. He also played against that image in the occasional cop drama—The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three. So, I was shocked the first time I saw him in the Elvis Presley movie, King Creole. Matthau played cruel crime boss Maxie Fields, who pushes teenagers into lives of crime and sadistically keeps girlfriend Carolyn Jones under his thumb. Early in his career, Matthau tended to play the heavy or other shady characters. He was the whip-cracking bad guy in The Kentuckian, a waterfront gang boss in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and a phony spy out to get Audrey Hepburn in Charade. It’s hard to think of craggy, slouching Walter Matthau as a deadly villain. From shoving Elvis around in King Creole to cracking one-liners with Jack Lemmon, Matthau had a wider range as an actor than his later star image might suggest.
As for actresses, Jane Fonda is a good candidate for the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome. The outspoken actress with the shag haircut, whose politics during the Vietnam War are still controversial, seems far removed from the blonde starlet who debuted in 1960 as a cutesy college girl in Tall Story. Throughout the 1960s, Fonda’s career consisted of the types of roles available to Hollywood starlets: American sweethearts (Barefoot in the Park; Period of Adjustment; Cat Ballou; Sunday in New York) and lusty bad girls (Hurry Sundown; The Chase). The turning point came with her role as Gloria in Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which sealed her reputation as a serious actress. Roles became meatier; her cachet in Hollywood more powerful; and her politics more strident. Her hairstyle changed from the long, blonde locks of a Hollywood starlet to the boyish shag of an independent woman. Though Fonda tends to denigrate her movies prior to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, I enjoy the films from both ends of her career, especially the romantic comedies.
Are there any recent stars who may be candidates for the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome? Well, it is harder these days to find bona fide movie stars who experience lengthy careers. Movie stars are becoming scarce as the young viewers whom the studios work so hard to please prefer pre-established characters from other sources (comic books; graphic novels; teen lit) to actors who are interpreting a role. However, I might suggest George Clooney—the Cary Grant of our generation. Unlike Grant, Clooney began his career as a semi-regular on a couple of television sit-coms. He played a handyman on Facts of Life for 17 episodes, beginning in 1985. And, he was cast as plant foreman Booker Brooks on Rosanne for four seasons. Smarmy and obnoxious, Brooks regularly harassed Rosanne’s sister, played by Laurie Metcalf. Even George Clooney must wonder if that skinny guy with the unruly head of hair is really him. I’m sure Melvyn Douglas understands.
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