Tuesday, May 16, 2017
A WELL-KNOWN HOLLYWOOD SHORT LIST
I am breaking from my usual comments on low budget movies to address five high budget actors and actresses for the “Five Stars Blogathon” hosted by http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/. There were some solid performances in the B-movie genre in spite of being saddled with a poor production or a bad agent. A few of those seemingly forgotten actors might appear on anyone's expanded list. But my candidates stand the test of time and are universally accepted as some of the best of Hollywood regardless of the era. Despite starring in a few less than successful films, their performances were not at fault. Each are impossible to ignore on screen and in their best films the running time is not quite long enough.
Edward G. Robinson
Except for the ubiquitous carnival fun house distortion mirror, your average mirror never confused Edward G. Robinson with Errol Flynn of the Thirties. With handsome leading men being hand-picked by studios, it may be hard to figure how E.G. made it onto a soundstage at all. Not hard to figure are the polished performances of this tremendously dedicated, classically trained actor. His talent resuscitated many a script, transforming the movie into a memorable encounter. There have been those who seem fully aware or intimidated by camera and crew a few feet away. Their acting is turned on and off by their presence, perhaps trying too hard to make a good impression. There was never any hint of this in Robinson's acting. He inhabited his characters to become one of the most famous actors of any era. His distinctive voice and small stature was a polarizing magnet to audiences. From light comedy to heartfelt dramas or a crime story, he made it look so easy. His funny asides in “Larceny, Inc” to his amusing character in “The Whole Town’s Talking,” to his performance in “The Stranger,” each illustrated an actor of great versatility. He returned to his crime roots in a believable role for, “Key Largo.” In his book, “The Actor's Life: Journal 1956-1976,” Charlton Heston wrote about Robinson’s last screen appearance in “Soylent Green.” Though E.G. was terminally ill, "He never missed an hour of work, nor was late to a call. He never was less than the consummate professional he had been all his life.” Yet, to go throughout his entire career without an Oscar nomination after appearing in nineteen academy nominated films is a bit mind-boggling. He did receive a Cleo award which included a self-parody ending line for a 1964 Maxwell House television commercial. Finally a career fulfilled! “Listen here, Hollywood. May a pox be cast on ya', see!”
With his commanding voice, female-weakening smile, angular good looks and stature, he was definitely someone to watch in the Forties. Peck was destined for screen immortality almost out of the gate and his fifty-four years of excellent performances catapults him to the top of any actor’s list. He will forever endure as one of the best representatives of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Spellbound” may have solidified his career but he was just getting started. From his interpretation of a good-natured father in, “The Yearling,” the undercover reporter in, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” to the stressed-out combat pilot in, “Twelve O'Clock High,” each role fit him perfectly. His Oscar performance as the wise father and patient lawyer in, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” stands singularly alone. Critics complained about his stiffness in certain roles or in general. Maybe stoicism was a more positive moniker. Most thought he was miscast in “Moby Dick.” Though Peck apparently agreed, I find his Captain Ahab scary, commanding and appropriately stiff. The versatile actor rolled on. Who would have figured the western star of such classics as, “Yellow Sky” and “The Gunfighter,” or an Army lieutenant in “Pork Chop Hill,” as the unassuming professor with spy, Sofia Loren, in “Arabesque,” Peck's last outing for light comedy. When one considers Peck's entire body of work, comedy does not readily come to mind. But his first meeting with Loren’s character is funny because of his authentic delivery and charm. She enters the room and says hello. Peck, without looking up responds with a short, unconcerned, “Hello.” He does a double take, and astounded by her beauty, cannot compose a sentence, only excitedly repeating, “Hel-lo, Hello! Hel-l-l-o Hello!” Few actors could make such an effective use of a single word.
The list of genuine comediennes with as many classics gets very narrow after considering Arthur at her nearly “ten-year zenith.” Adorable, thy name is Jean Arthur. Her characters of strength may be one reason her movies seem so relevant some seventy-five years later. Her silent films are now forgotten because she had no voice. A voice distinctly suited for comedy, wacky or not. Her child-like voice doubled her charm as if part tomboy and dainty ingenue. That voice gave her an “everyday girl” appeal, someone smart but still a bit confused about relationships yet always talking to men on equal terms. There were moments her voice sounded like her impression of an octogenarian as her voice crackled with her pitch squeezed to new heights. She interpreted her roles with a unique delivery that remains singularly endearing. Arthur was delightful as the savvy reporter when,“Mr. Deeds goes to Town,” and is hilarious as the out-of-work secretary mistaken for a millionaire's mistress in, “Easy Living.” For “The Talk of The Town,” she again plays a single, well educated female amid two male suitors with a few hilarious twists. For, “The More the Merrier,” her legendary voice and subtle facial nuances were both funny and alluring, especially to McCrea who was powerless to resist. Their scenes are innocent and pure yet may have set new standards for screen chemistry. She was worthy of the Oscar nomination. Other females of the Golden Age handled comedy well enough, which may have as much due to a great script than anything else. But to be flummoxed, smart, sassy, sympathetic, empathetic, resourceful, sad and funny in a single character, you need to be Jean Arthur.
Tracy always elevated a film several floors simply by showing up. Adept at comedy or drama, with his natural style he seemed to walk through his roles as if he knew his part from birth. That he was destined to do one thing perfectly in his life. Act. His early Thirties films helped jump start his career but by the end of that decade, his Hollywood stardom was planted firmly for ions with excellent films too numerous to mention. I have always defended his performance as Jekyll and Hyde. Coming off his first Oscar performance and the enjoyable, “San Francisco” or “Boom Town,” maybe it was a shock for Tracy fans and critics. Tracy's Hyde was not a physically grotesque creature, in the likes of John Barrymore or Frederic March, but a disgusting, psychological menace of terrifying proportions. His constant threatening of Bergman —”I am such a tease, aren’t I?”— as he calmly eats fruit, spitting the seeds on her apartment floor. All the while planning another “fun” evening together purely for selfish desires and ego. His performance, sometimes subtle, is a beautiful thing to watch. He would later team up with March for, “Inherit the Wind,” where Tracy wins the audience and court case over his costar in their respective roles. If his private life was not joy-filled, his comic timing is of course, legendary. Especially with Hepburn. Tracy could be the favorite father, a saintly priest or a despicable criminal. One can almost imagine him listening to his fellow costars deliver their lines, as if he just dropped by, then recite the appropriate lines in response in a most natural way. As his stocky stature seemed to allude, his acting was solid year after year.
Though at times her high cheekbones and big wide-set round eyes gave a slight quirkiness to her face, there is no denying her appeal. Her slender body was much simpler to reason with and her skin was the envy of every porcelain doll. Her charm and sophistication were unequaled as was her insistence to be fashionable at all times on screen. All of which may account for her appearing taller than her rather short stature. Colbert’s silky, alto vocal range was another of her engaging qualities which could melt through any script. Her comedies are legendary and rank as some of the best of the Golden Age. Even if critics neglect it, “It’s a Wonderful World” is one of my favorites which includes her most memorable and charming line, “I swear by my eyes!” Keeping her sophistication intact, she held back on pure physical comedy. But she fit right in responding to it. “The Egg and I” came close with her character tackling the unknowns of farm living. Sort of a “Green Acres” predecessor, you might say. After World War II her success continued with a mix of highly regarded dramatic roles and comedies, culminating her career with a Golden Globe for the television miniseries, “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.” Colbert was a smart business woman. She stood firm on her professional demands, of which there were many. She was shrewd enough to choose roles to maintain her Hollywood image. But what really mattered to audiences at the time was her flowing charm, self-assured characters, effortless acting and the uncanny ability to personify the expression of revelation. If Clark Gable was a man’s man, Colbert was, indeed, a woman’s woman.