Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 13, 2014
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.
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