One of the reasons that the movies of today aren't as much fun as those made in the first two decades of Talkies is because they jettisoned their great army of supporting players. At one time when people reminisced about movies, they were more likely to be talking about Eve Arden than Doris Day or Jane Wyman, whose friends she played on some funny occasions. Her first appearance always caused an appreciative buzz, and her slightest glance was treasured more than all the star's vapourings...She could make almost any line funny, though her forte was the sort of lines that went with the look-elegant bitchery or advice she knows the heroine is too stupid to accept.
That, in one of the most dead-accurate paragraphs he has ever written, is how David Shipman summarizes the delicious Eve Arden in The Great Movie Stars: The International Years--but he could be writing the epitaph for all of the era's great comic character actors. It was a golden age for comic relief and it is, alas, as dead as the dodo. For the Newcritics Comedy Blogathon Blowout, the Siren herewith offers some brief takes on the characters she loves. And she loves them with a passion.
We'll start with Eve Arden. Is she not everyone's favorite thing in Mildred Pierce, whether she's taking Jack Carson down a peg ("Leave something on me, I might catch cold") or trying to give Joan Crawford a clue about daughter Veda's real nature ("Alligators have the right idea. They eat their young")? Eve made a decades-long career out of being the smartest gal in the room, whether backstage as a Ziegfeld Girl, in a rooming house trying to get in the Stage Door, or working for a fashion editor in Cover Girl. In a melodrama she'd give you a whimsical moment between hankies, as in My Reputation; in a piece of unalloyed kitsch like Song of Scheherezade she'd be the only one who seemed to realize the train had left Reality Station, so you might as well live it up.
The Siren has a one-year-old who apparently harbors dreams of moving to Australia, since that is the time zone he has decided to synchronize with. Despite having become an unwilling participant in an endless day-for-night shoot the Siren stayed up to midnight on Wednesday night to watch The Hard Way from 1943. Did she watch it for Ida Lupino, director Vincent Sherman or even the towering genius of cameraman James Wong Howe? No way. She watched it for Jack Carson. He was born in Manitoba (of all places) but his persona was wise-guy American, complete with a voice so nasal it seemed to originate at the bottom of his sinuses. Probably the best acting he ever did (and he was always good) was in A Star Is Born, in the deeply unfunny role of the heartless agent. He played a lot of light comedies too, often with Dennis Morgan. But Carson's strong suit was comic relief, often mixed with a dash of the heavy, as in Mildred Pierce ("Oh, I'm happy. Believe me, inside my heart is singing") or more than a dash, as in The Strawberry Blonde. He could hold his own with Errol Flynn in Gentleman Jim and underplay in scenes with a frenetically mugging Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace.
No tribute to comic character actors could be complete without mention of the great Margaret Dumont. She was, without question, The Greatest Straight Woman of All Time. Marx authorities ranging from Dick Cavett to Groucho himself all say Dumont didn't get the jokes, on or off screen, but the Siren doesn't buy it. Dumont had a long career as a comic foil, and face it, she is too good not to know what she's doing. To be a good straight (wo)man, it isn't enough to keep a poker face and ignore the lunacy. Kitty Carlisle, Lillian Roth and Kay Francis all do that, and they still get flattened. No, Dumont had something extra--the ability to broaden her characterization with each new joke. Her finest moments probably came in Duck Soup, where her manner is so impeccably grand she seems to have wandered in from some Ruritanian operetta filming on another soundstage. Groucho was one of the funniest men American comedy ever produced--and if you want to say THE funniest the Siren won't argue. But it takes nothing away from Groucho to state that he was never funnier than when he was bouncing joke after joke off Dumont's imposing figure.
Andrew Sarris used to tell a story about a party where he encountered a fellow who edited films for television. Seems the editor was eager to tell Sarris about how he improved the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films by "cutting out all those boring dance numbers." This horrifying tale from the days before Turner Classic Movies came to rescue us doesn't mean that we should neglect three non-dancing stalwarts from the Astaire-Rogers movies, Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton. (All three were discussed with great verve in Vito Russo's landmark The Celluloid Closet.) Blore was in five of nine Astaire-Rogers musicals, usually playing an English butler, frequently one dim in wit and dubious in ethics. But Blore's best role was undoubtedly as Sir Alfred "Pearlie" McGlennan-Keith R. F. D., con-man confidant of Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn, in The Lady Eve: "Into the gulf that separated the unfortunate couple, there was a coachman on the estate, a gay dog, a great hand with the horses and the ladies, need I say more?" Rhodes appeared in Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee, offering proof to homegrown audiences that there was something a little swishy about these Continental types: "Your wife is safe with Tonetti! He prefers spaghetti!" Horton usually played wholly inadequate husbands of some sort, using his carefully honed double-take, one of the best in the business, to convey utter shock at being suspected of some sort of caddery, as in Top Hat. Of the three, Horton had the most extensive career. The Siren's favorite Horton role is his turn as the impossibly dull husband of Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living.
Billie Burke played the dithery matron to perfection in many comedies of the 1930s. Burke, who had been a great beauty in the days when she was married to Florenz Ziegfeld, had an impeccably upper-crust accent and a voice like a piccolo with the hiccups. The adjective that clings to Burke is "fluttery"--yet, if you watch closely, you'll see that there is an economy to her movement. She conveys fluttering without flapping. And nobody did the wan, put-upon, strictly-social smile like Billie Burke--watch her turn it on Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery in Dinner at Eight. Her signature role, Glinda the Good Witch, is a good deal mushier than Burke's usual outings. Her characters were frequently atrociously selfish, as with her aspic-obsessed party-giver in Dinner at Eight and blithe con artist in The Young in Heart, but they were usually capable of being nudged into better behavior by the last reel.
S.Z. Sakall found refuge from Hitler's Europe in roles as a bemused, bewitched and bewildered mensch, often behind a bar or a front desk, as in Casablanca and Seven Sweethearts. The Siren loves the way Sakall swallows his lines--half the time you have no idea what he's saying--and lets his rubbery jowls do much of his acting for him.
Ralph Bellamy and Gail Patrick may seem out of place in this roundup, as they were both strikingly good-looking and often played second leads of some sort. But they almost never got the hero or heroine, and both of them were at their best in comedies. In My Man Godfrey, Patrick almost walks away with the picture as she raises one bitchy eyebrow at all of Carole Lombard's lovelorn antics. And in My Favorite Wife, she sets up some of Cary Grant's best lines, then gets to punch Grant in the face--and the audience knows he deserves it. Ralph Bellamy reaches his nebbishy apotheosis in His Girl Friday, even to the indignity of having his character described to a T as a Ralphy Bellamy type. He is one of that beloved movie's least-sung glories, but god is he funny, the picture of reasonable benevolence as he intones, "Hildy, we could take the six o'clock train if it will save a man's life!"
Finally, the Siren mulled long and hard over whether to include Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in this list, finally deciding that no, they really don't belong, as marvelously and subversively witty as they are. Greenstreet and Lorre are usually playing villains, not comic relief...and great villains would be another blogathon altogether.
The floor is open. Go ahead, argue with the Siren. Knock her over the head with a rubber chicken and demand to know how she could forget your favorite character actor. Frank Morgan? Eugene Palette? Marjorie Main? Anyone? And if you think there is someone from our own less-funny era who deserves a place at the table, share that name too.
(This post is part of the Newcritics Comedy Blogathon, going on until tomorrow, Nov. 11. Stop by Newcritics for more musings.)