Robert Ryan in ‘God’s Little Acre’

acreposter2The Morlocks’ tribute to Robert Ryan, which leads up to Turner’s multi-film celebration of the actor on November 10-11, has not only offered insightful comments on some of his most famous performances but also shed light on his lesser known films. Interestingly, there has been a notable preference for Ryan’s dark characters—the bigots, the villains, and the self-centered predators, probably because his antagonists were never two-dimensional bad guys with the black hats and two-day beards but all-too-real humans with hidden demons. However, Ryan’s choice of film roles was too eclectic not to recognize the diversity, so I selected a less-acknowledged film in his filmography to write about—God’s Little Acre.

God’s Little Acre was a box-office success when it was released in 1958, making it one of Ryan’s most popular films with movie-going audiences of his day, though it is virtually unknown now. The movie was based on the 1933 novel by Erskine Caldwell, which was controversial during the Depression for its explicit sexual scenes. When the novel was first published, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice took Caldwell and Viking Press to court for disseminating pornography. Many writers, editors, and critics of the day rallied to support Caldwell, and the judge in charge of the case ruled in the book’s favor. The case was a famous First-Amendment-rights battle, which undoubtedly helped make the novel a best-seller. However, it took 20 years and the relaxation of the Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code for the novel to come to the big screen.

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J. Carrol Naish, Changeling

Careening across the countryside in a gypsy wagon, a lovesick hunchback cries out piteously for release from his twisted form. A hardworking Jewish-American father tries to appease his young son on his birthday, seeking to interest him in a baseball bat rather than an expensive violin.

A tired general on the Western frontier finds a few moments of solace in soldiers’ singing. An Italian soldier, willing to do anything to get back to his wife and baby, is stranded in the war-torn desert. A stoic Indian chief joins a wild west show, finding a way to keep his dignity despite his reduced circumstances. A broken matador tells an up and comer some hard truths. A Mexican dictator regretfully but decisively goes to war. A Japanese editor tries to correct his American-educated son’s corrupt Western ways.  And a half-monkey, half-man broods endlessly about his plight, especially since he’s stuck being an unpaid houseboy for his creator.

What do each of these diverse (and sometimes pretty outlandish) characters and at least 200 more have in common? Character actor and changeling J. Carrol Naish (1896-1973). I can’t possibly touch on the range of Naish‘s roles in this blog, but his remarkably productive career includes an enormous range of characters, far beyond the roles as heavily accented types he is often best remembered for today.

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Gladys Cooper A Natural Aristocrat Part 2

Gladys Cooper in her early California yearsGladys Cooper was a bit of a snob.

Not in the usual social way that you may infer from that remark, but as a working woman she had an attitude that hers was a job, like any other, a way of making a very good living at times.  Sometimes it meant acting in The Letter, or The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, or even Peter Pan at the age of 35. She was unacquainted with idleness, revelations of inner torment, and too many expressions of emotion off stage, taking pride in her toughness and the pleasure she derived from her work and her family.  Wearing Molyneux gowns and hawking some bloody face cream with her name on it was all part of the game, giving her an independence that very few women of her time would ever know. It also gave her a chance to do much more than the average woman as well–including bringing up her children, helping her extended family and friends, and having some very good times indeed traveling and indulging her greatest pleasure of creating a comfortable home wherever she was at the time.

At other, more meager times, being an actress was a discipline to be endured and “gotten on with” rather than analyzed or draped in much mystery. As a result of this refreshing no-nonsense attitude and the fact that she was her own producer for so many years when she ran her Playhouse in London, challenging plays and classical roles were not in her background as they were for her contemporaries Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans. Her fellow actress, Dame Edith once confessed envy of her peer, commenting that she used to stand in the wings just to watch her face under the lights on stage, transfixed by Cooper‘s youthful beauty that was, she claimed, essentially unphotographable but  “enough to stop a bus”.

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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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The Duke vs. The Dust Bowl

A 1930s Dust Storm

Above: A WPA image of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s

A certain influential Mr. Turner–no–not the estimable Ted, but Frederick Jackson Turner the American historian, once pointed out that “the forging of the unique and rugged American identity had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. The dynamic of these oppositional conditions engendered a process by which citizens were made, citizens with the power to tame the wild and upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality.” That was at the end of the 19th century, just as the American Western frontier was closing, but the impact of that view of America still has resonance today.

Watching the distinctly different Three Faces West (1940-Bernard Vorhaus) as part of the John Wayne Day for Summer Under the Stars celebration on TCM, the scholarly Turner’s sometimes controversial ideas came back to me out of the blur of my increasingly distant undergraduate days (or is it daze?). This Republic studios movie is among the least known of Wayne‘s movies, but one of the more interesting–since it came at a time when he was just beginning his ascent to a plane somewhere between a movie star and a force of nature. It incorporates ideas old and new, some of them still contentious, in the course of a brief 79 minute story that effectively portrays the savagery of that wilderness as it affected the lives of Midwesterners in the Depression era.
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Creative Loafing on Film

A Depression era couple getting some bad news (Depicted by artist Russell Patterson for the cover of Life in 1929)There do seem to be a few hopeful signs of life in the economy lately. This is despite the recent flurry of talking heads who have had a field day comparing today with the era of 80 years ago.

Maybe it is feeling awfully 1929ish for some of us. Since I’ve already gone through a quiet tailoring of my own expectations, thanks to several rides on our society’s never-ending carousel of economic mobility, I set my cap at a rakish angle and decided to enjoy my personal freedom from the burden of luxury some time ago. Consequently, I am always curious about the alternating airs of despair and elation and hope heard in movies of the 1930s.

No matter what this new world brings, I suspect that many of us will inevitably turn to classic movies to look for some sense of perspective on this experience. So, if you are ready to don that hopeful, brave mask, let’s breeze through a look at a unique movie, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) that was made by people who were surfing on the crest of an economic tsunamis–classic Hollywood style.
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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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Gilbert Roland: “Amigo”

Gilbert Roland, photographed by George Hurrell 1939.

Elementary school teacher Alma Bartlett was never famous, she never made a movie, or dazzled others with her wit and beauty. Yet, in her first years as a teacher in an El Paso, Texas school, she built a rapport with a gangly boy whose frequent absences from school frustrated her. The friendship they forged would last for over forty years. Her former student returned to El Paso in years to come, as he would many times. Then he would be a world famous man, renowned for his good looks and for squiring great beauties. When encountering a reporter, he would often unfold an ancient, creased report card he carried in his wallet to display with affection the time that Mrs. Bartlett had enough faith in him to pass him from sixth to seventh grade, despite his neglect of his studies. The seventh grade was as far as his formal education would take him.

Born Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso, in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico on December 11, 1905, (some sources say 1903), this boy had what most of us would characterize as a glamorous life, but he would never forget this inspiring young teacher. Alma saw something more in the Mexican-born scion of a family of Spanish matadors, and urged him “to do something with his life.” It would not be easy.

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Dorothy in Wonderland

Dorothy Parker with one of her beloved dogs(photographed by Edward Steichen)“Don’t look at me in that tone of voice” ~ Dorothy Parker

My attempts to look at women’s contributions to film this month have focused so far on a variety of females who found a way to make the patriarchal structures, frivolity, foolishness and opportunities in Hollywood’s studio era work for them. Today, I’ll be taking a look at Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), one woman whose contradictory film career, and, indeed, entire discontented life, seems to have been spent in opposition to the bright, guilty world that she thoroughly enjoyed, yet rejected.

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Sympathy For the Devil

ALIAS, NICK BEAL (1949)
Since today is Ash Wednesday it dawned on me that few films might be more ripe for some examination today than Alias Nick Beal (1949), an unjustly obscure retelling of the Faust legend from the gifted, if uneven John Farrow. Coming at the end of the war torn forties, a decade when movies often toyed with stories about the relationship between the world, the flesh and the devil, this rarely seen movie fits uneasily among those films.  TCM occasionally trots out some of the best on this slippery topic. There’s the brilliant silent Haxan (1922), the engaging The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941),  the suavely sinister air of Angel on My Shoulder (1946), the rank scent of corruption in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and the dazzling Mephisto (1982) turning up on the schedule from time to time as cautionary tales that entertain as well. No such cherished fate has befallen this mixture of noir and horror, which has never been released on dvd nor has it been broadcast very often in the last quarter century, though fortunately, this year’s Noir City 7 is presenting a freshly prepared 35mm print from Universal for those lucky enough to attend their screenings around the country .
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