Two Seconds (1932)

My dictionary gives the definition of a cri de coeur (krēt kër) as “a cry from the heart, an impassioned protest, complaint, etc.” If you really want to see that term translated onto film, the Warner Brothers movie, Two Seconds (1932) could fill the bill.

Crude, raw and disturbing, Two Seconds (1932) is being broadcast on TCM on Thursday, Jan. 21st, at 11:45am. First released in the middle of 1932, audiences flocked to see this financially successful but dramatically grim tale about the thoughts and memories that flash through the mind of a man just as he is about to die in the electric chair. Perhaps some of them felt as though they were walking the last mile too. After Americans had witnessed 13 million jobs evaporating into thin air since 1929, watching nationwide unemployment rise to 23.6 %, wouldn’t logic tell us that most people might want to go to the movies to escape a reality they could not control? Apparently not, especially when Warner Brothers had the good fortune to have several talented individuals involved in this film. [...MORE]

Vladimir Sokoloff: “The Hell with ALL the Acting Theories”

When I realized that both Method Acting and the Shadows of Russia were being explored on Monday and Wednesday nights respectively for the next few weeks on TCM, all I could think was:

“Why, oh, why, isn’t character actor Vladimir Sokoloff around to sit down with Robert Osborne for a chin wag on these two fascinating topics?”

Such is our fate. As latter day observers of both cultural phenomena, we may ponder the origins of The Method as well as the sometimes wondrous (and just plain odd) movies that emerged from American perceptions of Russian history in the 20th century.

For Sokoloff, these topics were part of his life. He had trained at the Moscow Art Theater as a youth, seen the Russian Revolution sweep the world he’d grown up in aside,  become a prominent actor in German silents during the Weimar years, moved on to a career in France when the Nazis came to power, and finally landed on his agile feet in America.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


“And 5000 Others!”, including Maria Ouspenskaya

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.


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.

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.

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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