Knock on Wood

“People say I’m a one-note actor, but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note.”
-Joel McCrea

I am an aficionado of wooden actors. I love them so, I ought to have splinters.  Among leading actors, Joel McCrea may be lumped in with them occasionally, but not by me. His “one-note” as he mentioned above, was well played throughout his long life on screen, bringing a naturalism to everything from Westerns to Screwball Comedies. On top of that, he was physically beautiful when young and warmly interesting, weathered and credible as he aged; as anyone who has seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) or Ride the High Country (1962) can attest. He underplayed well, and seemed to have the instincts that allowed him to make it through almost 100 movies without embarrassing himself.

Those fellows whose presence I’d like to celebrate today may have lacked that instinct at times, but they were usually highly employable during a time when the cut of an actor’s clothes as well as his ability to blend into the background allowed the more vivid players around them to shine. Often the focus of many silent crushes by film fans in their own day and even today, my own appreciation of these unsung actors has increased in recent years. I was reminded of my affection for these guys recently when I came across this article by David Thomson on “The Death of the Method” in The Wall Street Journal last week.  The brouhaha that has since occurred in the blogosphere dissecting or defending this argument is amusing, though it reminded me that, despite having grown up in the time when a murmur from Brando, a shout from James Dean, and an angst-ridden cry from DeNiro and Pacino was the standard, I was always fond of a forgotten breed too. I have been moved by each of these actors, but I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed the often forgotten fellows whose only method seemed to involve showing up looking presentable as well. These actors were the guys who bounded or glided into a drawing room asking “Tennis, anyone?”, lit a leading lady’s perennial cigarette, got her wrap for her, and commiserated with her over her emotional (and often trite) travails.

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Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.: The Pleasure of His Company

When was the last time you saw someone who could be described as debonair?

Chances are slim that the word could be aptly applied to anyone in the twenty-first century, but I hope I’m wrong about that. I think that the first time I saw a person that term might describe was as a kid. I saw a dazzling old guy on stage in a summer stock production of a frothy comedy with considerable style, The Pleasure of His Company.  The actor portraying “Pogo”, an engaged young woman’s long lost father, had a spark, verve and style that was compelling and completely unlike anything I’d then seen in reality or my brief movie-going life, (and even shorter theater-going one). That role, which the actor alternated for years in touring companies with another part that fit him like a glove, Prof. Higgins in My Fair Lady, was played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

By the time I saw him, he’d long since relinquished any claim to motion picture stardom, preferring to pursue his interests in business, the arts and a kind of diplomacy, jetting between New York, London and Palm Beach. While he’d received several offers to take productions to Broadway, where his father had enchanted pre-World War One audiences, Doug Jr. preferred keeping his hand in the family business on the fringes of the spotlight. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of this under-appreciated actor’s birth, I thought it appropriate to give a nod to this man who gracefully swept through movies and life, until he left the scene ten years ago at the age of ninety. Understanding that less is so often more, he left us one last present that only the best performers seem to understand–a wish to see his like again.

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My Thanksgiving with Dracula

I spent Thanksgiving with Dracula, and I don’t mean that creepy relative who likes to dress in black or my cold-hearted, soul-sucking “ex.”  On Thanksgiving evening, I watched the 1931 Universal film interpretation of Bram Stoker’s novel about the world’s most famous vampire, except it wasn’t the one with Bela Lugosi. Instead, I devoured the Spanish-language version starring Carlos Villarias. The Spanish Dracula, or Drácula, can be found as one of the extras on Universal’s DVD release, which is part of their Monster Legacy Collection. I was so intrigued with what I saw that I returned to the Lugosi version to compare and contrast.

In the early sound era, Universal sometimes produced two versions of the same film—one with English-speaking stars for American audiences and another with Hispanic stars for Spanish-speaking audiences. The purpose was to prevent the loss of the Spanish-speaking market because of the advent of talkies. In the silent era, producing a film for international audiences simply meant translating the intertitles into other languages. When sync-sound became the norm, international markets were far less interested in English-language talkies, and the big studios became concerned about losing foreign revenue. For a short while, Universal produced Spanish-language versions of some of their films to maintain their Spanish-speaking markets. Spanish versions of Universal films used different casts and directors but were shot on the same schedule using the same sets. I had heard about this practice back in film school, but I had never seen any of the Spanish-language Universal films until I watched Drácula.

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The Silent Robin: A Tonic for the Soul

I suppose to the eyes of the world, we were a motley looking crew as the capacity crowd flowed eagerly into George Eastman House‘s Dryden Theatre in Rochester, New York last month. Unlike the first Hollywood premiere of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1923) at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18, 1922, there were no limos, no gowns, no red carpets, no klieg lights searching the sky, and certainly no hint of a “Day of the Locust” style mob scene. However, there were about five hundred not very glam but expectantly eager people gathered on an October evening for the “World Premiere” of this restored version of the tale in the 21st century starring Douglas Fairbanks in one of his classic roles.

So, who were these people who came out to see this 87 year old film version of the English bandit’s adventures?  Among the crowd at this movie were a few who might have been just old enough to have seen a later Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. film in a movie theater, a generous sprinkling of younger cinephiles, middle aged academics, and a delightful gaggle of children of about nine years of age in the audience that Saturday.  Once thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1960s, this film’s “premiere” was a highlight of the seventh biennial conference of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies at the University of Rochester, where the historical and literary permutations of the appealing errant figure of lore were analyzed and, frankly, reveled in by the participants. Accredited scholars and hard core Robin buffs from around the world spent three days discussing the evergreen legend of this “Robin Hood: Media Creature”, trying to discern if the 700 year old hero of Sherwood Forest even existed, while enjoying an extravaganza of multi-media exhibits (including Douglas Fairbanks boots, seen below), early manuscripts, songs, and presentations discussing all aspects of the tale.

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“And 5000 Others!”, including Maria Ouspenskaya

5k
As TCM winds down a month featuring one of the greatest character actors who ever stole a picture, (Claude Rains, the September Star of the Month),  my appetite for  character actors in the spotlight has been whetted. Partly in response to repeated requests from those interested readers who frequent these pages, I thought a deserving glimpse of more supporting players might enliven the month of October. Each week this month, I’ll focus one of those actors who may not have been the stars of the show, but whose work invariably stood out from the crowd of “5000 others”. This week, I thought I’d tip my hat toward at least one of the gifted Russian émigrés who trained at the Moscow Art Theatre.

Maria Ouspenskaya, whose talent came out of that creative seedbed for some of the finest actors and boldest hams, stands out among them, despite being under five feet tall. Many of her colleagues lent their credibility and indelible gifts to Hollywood, but she may be the most readily identifiable of the bunch. While hightailing it away from the Cossacks, the Whites, the Reds, the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, the anarchists and the fascists who made life a bit too “interesting” in the first half of the 20th century from Siberia to the shores of Ellis Island, several of these actors found a pretty fair living in Hollywood, among them Akim Tamiroff, Olga Baclanova, Vladimir Sokoloff, Leonid Kinskey and Konstantin Shayne. They may never have felt completely at home in what sometimes seemed the Babylonian splendor of “barbaric” American culture in the studio era. Cut off from their cultural roots and often having lost their families and nearly their lives during the revolutionary times they lived in, these actors often proved their strength of character and professional versatility when asked to play characters of almost every class and ethnicity in American movies.

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Documentaries Fit for the King

elvis10Being an Elvis Presley fan and author, I feel obligated to acknowledge him in mid-August, which is the anniversary of his death. In Memphis, the annual commemoration of his life and career known as Elvis Week just ended, while TCM devoted yesterday to Elvis’s acting career. I thought I would cap off the festivities with some attention to the documentaries about the 20th century’s most famous singer. Whether watching them for research or entertainment, I found that these films either put Presley in a context to explain his career or presented him onstage in way that captured his charisma and energy.

If you are an Elvis fan, I am sure you have seen these films, and I would be interested in knowing your favorite documentaries; if you are not a fan, you might enjoy them because of the historical context of the content or the craftsmanship behind the filmmaking techniques.

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All Too Human a Father

John Wayne, looking worried,with good reason, in Trouble Along the Way (1953)“What do you know about love? I think love is watching your child go off to school for the first time alone… sitting beside a sick kid’s bed waiting for the doctor, praying it isn’t polio… or that cold chill you get when you hear the screech of brakes, and know your kid’s outside on the street some place… and a lot of other things you get can’t get out of books, ’cause nobody knows how to write ‘em down.”

~John Wayne as Steve Aloysius Williams in Trouble Along the Way (1953)
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The View in the Rear View Mirror

A brooding James Cagney drives his cab as if he's doing penance in The Roaring Twenties (1939), while Priscilla Lane remains oblivious to his despairHave you a favorite cab driver from classic movies?

Is he (or she) loud, pushy and aggressively seeking a faster route and big tip–maybe a Alan Hale, Sr. or Nat Pendleton type, quick with his mouth and his fists when needed? Or is the celluloid cabbie you cherish a comical “hail fellow well met” type, eager for conversation and filled with an inexplicable sense of bonhomie–perhaps played by a George Tobias, Red Skelton or Frank McHugh? Might another compelling favorite be those Charon-like figures behind the wheel, ferrying passengers across the dark city, musing philosophically about the pulse of the lifeblood of the city while guiding those in the back seat to a physical and spiritual destination–weightier characters captured by such diverse actors as Tom D’Andrea and Paul Lukas?

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The O’Hara Factor

Maureen O'Hara in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)With St. Patrick’s Day almost upon us, in this, the second of my attempts to honor women in film history during March, I need to get a bit personal.

Growing up, my red-haired sister and I always felt different, even though our parents, both of whom were of Irish descent, taught us to take a quiet pride in the achievements in arts, letters, and public life by the Irish around the world. While we adopted their low key approach to this ethnic pride as Irish-Americans, while honoring others in this melting pot, we soon learned that you just can’t blend in easily with a crowd when you have this unmanageable mop of red curls that refuse to behave. Short bobs, annoying barrettes and preventive measures to stave off the endless threat of some wickedly painful sunburns were sometimes our lot. People would literally stop us on the street to talk about this undeniable feature, asking us if we were from Ireland, much to our embarrassment.  Kids, being nature’s hard-core conformists, did enjoy pointing out regularly that we were “different.” That may not sound too bad, and it wasn’t, in retrospect, but phrases such as “red-headed stepchild” or comments about “fiery temperaments” really did make us feel a bit odd at times. Throughout history, the hair color, caused by a set of recessive chromosomes that have been reported in recent news stories as nearing extinction, has been the subject of fascination and quite often outright persecution.  I should probably be happy that I was born in a relatively benign era when titian-colored tresses didn’t get you burned at the stake, buried alive, mistaken for a vampire, or stoned at birth.  [...MORE]

Margaret Booth: Cutting Like Poetry

Margaret Booth in her prime at MGMAmid our recent hectic news cycles, the quieter news that the month of March is Women’s History Month probably seems pretty unimportant. I know it passed me  by until a friend recently remarked that it seemed “quaint and irrelevant” to him. I must admit that I could see his point. Then I started to mull over the idea of the sometimes little known contributions of my foremothers to this world. Maybe some of the women who helped to make new pathways for all of their daughters, sisters and friends of the “female persuasion” deserve a bit of a nod.

So, during March I’ll be highlighting a few of the women in film history in front of and behind the camera who made a difference. The first of them is someone whose work you’re almost certain to have seen, though remarkably few people know her name or her story. She was Margaret Booth (1898-2002) and her influence as a pioneer film editor–for good and ill–on movies extends from her first formal credit of Orphans of the Storm (1921) to The Way We Were (1973) and beyond. In 1977, when she was in her ’70s, Film Comment magazine asked her fellow film editors (many of whom were half a century younger) to name the top editors in film history. She was Number Three and still playing an active role in the film world then. To help me place this pivotal figure’s career in some insider perspective, my friend Lynn Zook, who is a present day film editor and archivist has been of great help to me. Her comments will be laced throughout this brief look at Margaret Booth‘s career.

The year 1915 was before women had the vote, could own property in most states without their father or husband’s consent, and was a time when women’s choices were often the home, the sweatshop or the street. This is when Margaret Booth (seen in her prime, above left) began to work on silent pictures.  It wasn’t a career choice for her, it was a matter of her family’s survival. [...MORE]

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