Before They Knew What to do with Them

Have you ever watched a television show from start to finish, in real time (as opposed to “binge time”), over the course of several seasons, and when you finally go back and see the first season again, everything feels wrong? As you were watching it, everything seemed fine and appeared to be transitioning from one season to the next without incident. Only when you look back do you realize how much the characters changed as, over the years, the writers, producers, and directors realized the actors’ strengths and weaknesses and adjusted the characters accordingly. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, each misstep, each poorly targeted joke or action, seems magnified because of what the character became. The same thing happens in the movies, with actors’ careers. At the beginning, they do something that makes them a star but when we look back years later, it feels all wrong for them.


Today’s featured player on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars is Cary Grant. He’s one of many actors whose early work now feels somewhat alien to me even if he excels at it just the same. When I watch Cary Grant in something like Blonde Venus, where he plays Nick Townsend, a rich and powerful man who gets what he wants, it feels wrong for him. Of course, he does an excellent job with it (he’s required to be confident, handsome, suave, and sophisticated, so do the math) but he’s the heavy of the piece (even though, in the end, he turns out to be a decent fellow), stealing Helen (Marlene Dietrich) away from faithful husband Ned (Herbert Marshall), and for Cary, that doesn’t feel right. It was 1932 and they hadn’t yet figured out what to do with him.

Clark Gable’s another one. There’s no question that he’s good in his early works but it doesn’t feel like Gable at all. In A Free Soul, he’s a gangster and a liar and pretty much a jerk. It made him a star and it’s easy to see why: he’s electrifying on the screen and does a great job giving that despicable character loads of charisma. In Night Nurse, he once again did a superb job playing a jerk. But from 1933 on, especially after It Happened One Night, despicable characters didn’t feel right for Gable at all.

Recently I wrote about Paul Muni and mentioned his great work in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Well, in that movie Glenda Farrell plays it straight as the woman who finds out Muni’s secret (see title of movie) and uses it to blackmail him into a marriage. Glenda Farrell, a heavy? What?! By the time 1933 rolled around and Farrell was playing a fast-talking reporter with a heart of gold (now that’s more like it!) in Mystery of the Wax Museum, the studio had figured out what to do with her and when they gave her the Torchy Blane role, they had it down to a science. But in Fugitive, it feels like they were still working out the kinks.

Speaking of brassy dames from the thirties, I can’t watch Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels without furrowing my brow and thinking, “Wait, what?” Seeing Harlow play it so straight, instead of going for laughs and winks, as she would to great effect in just about everything from 1932′s Red-Headed Woman on, still jars me. When I see Harlow in Red-Headed Woman, Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Libelled Lady, and all the other later movies until her premature death, it feels right. When I see her in Hell’s Angels, it couldn’t feel more wrong.


Speaking of which, anything William Holden did before Sunset Boulevard feels all wrong to me, always. Even the star making stuff, like Golden Boy. Or Our Town. Or Apartment for Peggy. No, it’s not until Sunset Boulevard that someone finally figured out cynicism was what this guy did best. Before Sunset Boulevard, I’m not much of a fan of William Holden. After Sunset Boulevard, he’s one of my favorite actors of all time.

Actors grow into their public persona as much as a television series grows into its characters. Over time, they can change so much that early work, even if they give great performances, seems odd. I like Robert de Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly, it just doesn’t seem like Robert de Niro to me. John Wayne in His Private Secretary, a 1933 romantic comedy where he’s a playboy? Um, okay. And so on. There’s quite a few I left out but you get the point. Sometimes it takes a few movies, or a few years, to really figure out at what a specific actor is best. And sometimes, it still doesn’t matter. I’m of the mind that the second Jerry Lewis stepped into the character of Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor, an arrogant, cocky jerk, he’d found the role he should have kept playing all along. It wasn’t until King of Comedy years later that I felt he finally gave himself a second chance. Maybe sometimes we don’t want to admit what characters we play best. Other times, we’re waiting for Hollywood to figure it out.

24 Responses Before They Knew What to do with Them
Posted By Andrew : August 13, 2014 2:22 pm

Just introduced my kids to “The Thin Man” via TCM last weekend. Jimmy Stewart as the bad guy??????????

Posted By Ben Martin : August 13, 2014 2:38 pm

Boris Karloff is great in Scarface – but that doesn’t mean it feels right to me seeing him as a gangster before his reign as king of horror. (Still, 15 years later he was cast by Cecil B. DeMille in Unconquered as Guyasuta – Chief of the Senecas!!)

Posted By missrhea : August 13, 2014 3:02 pm

This sounds similar to what King Vidor wrote in his book, King Vidor on Film Making which I’m reading right now. He cites various performers and tells why they were more successful than others. Someimes it was because they essentially played themselves but others it was because they could essentially disappear into the roles they played and changed/grew with each different performance.

Posted By Bob Golden : August 13, 2014 3:41 pm

Great article, well thought out.

Posted By Everett Jones : August 13, 2014 4:34 pm

My favorite example of this kind of pre-typecasting casting is Kirk Douglas in THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES playing bookish, ineffectual characters-very bizarre to see.
And then there’s Rock Hudson as an “Indian warrior” in WINCHESTER 73, but that’s a whole other magnitude of wrong.

Posted By swac44 : August 13, 2014 5:24 pm

Because I just posted about him elsewhere, Buster Keaton is a good example, it’s so strange watching his earliest short films with Roscoe Arbuckle, where he actually smiles, and laughs, mugging for the camera. But he’d already been doing a deadpan act on stage, and he quickly realized how he could draw attention to himself by doing less, not more, in front of the camera as well, and The Great Stone Face was born.

Posted By Emgee : August 13, 2014 8:04 pm

On the other hand, when the Grant and Gable personae were finally fully established, they both never played an offbeat character again. You knew what to expect, and you got it. Which is kind of a shame; i like to see an actor stretch himself and tread unfamiliar or even uncomfortable territory.

Posted By Doug : August 13, 2014 8:42 pm

Carole Lombard didn’t start becoming Carole Lombard until “Twentieth Century” and the transformation wasn’t complete until
“My Man Godfrey” and “Nothing Sacred”.
Two who seemingly had no transition but appeared complete like
‘Botticelli’s Venus’-Laurel and Hardy. Sure, they had played other characters separately,but L&H WERE L&H seemingly from frame one.
Which is a bold opinion to express here at Morlocks where L&H Scholars reside…

Posted By gregferrara : August 13, 2014 10:06 pm

I noticed the Kirk Douglas thing, too. His characterizations before Champion were definitely of the nerdy variety. Or goofy, like his gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie.

I saw Carole Lombard in a double feature at the AFI a few years back – White Woman and Virtue – and in both she played straight dramatic roles. And she was very good, too.

Posted By gregferrara : August 13, 2014 10:15 pm

Jimmy Stewart was also asked to sing and dance in his early days with the studio. It was You Can’t Take it With You that really got the Jimmy we all know and love kickstarted.

Posted By Blakeney : August 14, 2014 2:30 am

Thoughtful post – in an indirect way this sort of touches on

I kind of agree with Emgee. Sometimes it is jarring to see an actor you know and love for a certain persona try something different ( I can never seem to get into any of Jimmy Stewart’s Westerns).

But it can also be kind of interesting. I’m not a huge Jim Carrey fan, but I’ve admired his attempts to break out of comedy over the years (I’ve always been fond of The Majestic). At the beginning of a career, an actor doesn’t have much choices. But there’s a certain nobility, not to mention courage, in trying something different once you’re established.

Posted By Emgee : August 14, 2014 8:30 am

@Blakeney: “I kind of agree with Emgee. ” In fact i mean the opposite, and Jimmy Stewart is a great example. He became a much more interesting actor after he broke with his public “golly gee gosh” persona and made those Westerns and Hitchoock thrillers.
Gable remained Gable, for better or worse.

Posted By Marty : August 14, 2014 1:50 pm

Bill Holden. There are hints of BILL in a few pictures before Sunset Blvd. But Billy Wilder saw it and using Bill instead of Clift (who bailed out)as Joe Gillis was a stroke of luck.
There’s some Holden folklore in which a minor player in one of Bill’s later pictures asked him how you really become a star.
Holden said, “well you’ve got to have IT!” The young actor asked, “What’s IT?”
Holden replied, “IT is Sunset Boulevard!”

Posted By Ben Martin : August 14, 2014 5:26 pm

Doug said – L&H WERE L&H seemingly from frame one.

Well yes kind of but I’ve observed happily that while Stan was always the slightly slower and more subservient one, in the silents he played a marginally brighter and certainly more assertive character than he did later on. I love Laurel and Hardy, but have always preferred the silents to the talkies.

Posted By Blakeney : August 15, 2014 12:24 am

Emgee – love Jimmy Stewart’s work with Hitchcock. I’ll watch Rear Window any day!. I wouldn’t mind seeing Rope again sometime soon. And I always manage to loathe his character at the end of Vertigo (and it’s pretty hard to loathe Jimmy Stewart!) It’s just his Westerns I can’t seem to get into. But I’m trying.

Posted By Jenni : August 16, 2014 12:32 am

I saw Night Nurse this past winter and was shocked-well, it was very weird- to watch Gable not only play a jerk but an EVIL jerk!

I got some of my kids to watch Laura with me and they were shocked to see Vincent Price in it-they only associate him with horror roles. It gave me a chance to remind them that their fellow St. Louisian was a stage actor and in dramas before he started appearing horror films.

I also read that when Bette Davis first arrived in Hollywood, Universal and other studios she was loaned to didn’t know what to do with her but when she got to Warners Brothers, they figured it all out.

Posted By Emgee : August 16, 2014 6:19 am

“when she got to Warners Brothers, they figured it all out.”
Except they figured wrong, and Davis had to fight the studio to get better roles. So i guess she pretty much figured it out herself.

Posted By vp19 : August 17, 2014 7:44 am

After “A Free Soul” and “Night Nurse” (which was made at Warners), MGM officials (and likely Clark himself) realized that for Gable to have a sustained career, he no longer could portray brutish heavies, but would have to play characters with texture. So while he undoubtedly plays the bad guy in “Manhattan Melodrama,” his persona is complex enough to warrant some sympathy from the audience.

As for Gable’s wife-to-be Carole Lombard, it’s apparent that if you look at her films from 1930 to 1935, Columbia (to which she was loaned out five times) gave her better material than her home studio of Paramount. Did Harry Cohn have a better idea of what worked for her? (Lombard was one of the few stars of either gender who actually liked him.) Or was it that Paramount had so many stars in its stable that it had no idea what to do with her? Think about properties such as “Supernatural” (Carole in a horror film?) or “Bolero” (Lombard had been known for her dance skills since her teen years battling Joan Crawford at the Cocoanut Grove, but had nowhere near the professional training of a Ginger Rogers). Not until “Hands Across The Table” did Lombard receive first-class treatment from Paramount.

Posted By george : August 17, 2014 7:58 pm

It’s interesting to watch Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart in their feature debut, John Ford’s UP THE RIVER. They could be any young actors. There’s nothing “mythic” or “iconic” about them. They aren’t yet Spence and Bogie.

“John Wayne in His Private Secretary, a 1933 romantic comedy where he’s a playboy? Um, okay.”

How about Charles Bronson clowning with Red Skelton on TV in the ’50s?

Posted By Doug : August 17, 2014 11:17 pm

How about Charles Buchinski (Bronson) acting with Spencer Tracy in “Pat and Mike”?

Posted By george : August 18, 2014 2:29 am

Or Buchinski/Bronson getting his butt kicked by Katherine Hepburn in the same movie. Kate’s karate chop knocks Charlie out cold.

Posted By kingrat : August 19, 2014 5:11 pm

For an early film where Warner Bros. doesn’t know what to do with Bette Davis, see the platinum Bette in FASHIONS OF 1934.

In an early Bogart film which stars Dorothy Mackaill (sorry, the title escapes me), Bogey doesn’t seem much of an actor, let alone a star, but you get a glimpse of the upper-crust young men he had played on stage. WB goes on to cast him in everything, from the Irish groom in DARK VICTORY to the Mexican bandit in VIRGINIA CITY.

Posted By The Roundup: August 18 | The Frame : August 20, 2014 4:04 am

[…] Before They Knew What to Do With Them – It took a lot of actors a while to find the right kind of roles for their skills, and Greg Ferrera looks at a few of them here. […]

Posted By george : August 22, 2014 10:35 pm

How about Clint Eastwood as a cowardly villain in a Maverick episode, “Duel at Sundown” (1959).

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

As of November 1, 2017 FilmStruck’s blog, StreamLine, has moved to Tumblr.

Please visit us there!

 Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.