Saturday, November 10, 2007

Comedy in Character

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.)

46 comments:

girish said...

I'm a huge Sig Ruman fan: Ninotchka, To Be Or Not To Be, That Uncertain Feeling, Only Angels Have Wings, Nothing Sacred...

And has the Siren seen the interesting and enjoyable My Dream is Yours (with Eve Arden, Jack Carson and SZ Sakall)? I discovered it through Scorsese's "personal journey through American movies" documentary.

Campaspe said...

Girish - YES! I knew this post would result in my being reminded of at least a dozen I had forgotten. I remember him well--he was a treat in Love Crazy as the doctor. And yes, I saw My Dream Is Yours on TCM a while back and realized I was watching some sort of Character Actor Perfect Game.

Context said...

What about James Gleason, always the know-it-all, wisecracking insider who's seen it all, doesn't suffer fools gladly, and seems to effortlessly keep his head while all about him are losing theirs.

What'd Gleason weigh, maybe 140 lbs. with a dripping wet fedora? But he was tough and also had that "heart of gold" quality in his characters.

There's also Ken Lynch, not a particularly comic character actor but solid.

And finally, Charles Lane. I think that's his name. Died just this year at 101 or thereabouts. Cut from the same James Gleason cloth, but a little more gentlemanly to Gleason's scrappy type. My first memory of Lane was as the editor in a TV comedy series starring Peter Lawford as a male writing as a female "Dear Abby." It was called "Dear (I know what it was, does anyone else remember the series' name?)

Campaspe said...

Oh gosh yes. He was another one with a nasal voice -- I looked him up and he was born in New York, as I always thought Carson should have been. What I didn't expect to find was that he fought in the Spanish-American War! "140 lbs. with a dripping wet fedora" - love it. Max Corkle in Here Comes Mr. Jordan was such a typical role for him--tough as nails but heart of gold, as you say.

The guys over at The Shelf had a nice tribute to Charles Lane when he died recently. He was sort of Gleason's mirror image, the office-nerd version of Gleason's street-wiser character.

Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Practically everybody in Preston Sturges' stock company: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Al Bridge, etc. makes my list. But you named Blore, so that's copacetic with me.

Beautiful post, by the way--even minor "you left off so-and-so" quibbles can't hurt it.

Campaspe said...

Moviezzz and Ivan: yep, yep, yep, yep. The trouble with this post is that there were too dang many options. I finally just sort of arbitrarily cut it off or I would still be writing it. It probably deserves a sequel at some point. Pallette I love so much; he was wonderful in Heaven Can Wait.

tash said...

To "Context"--

The Peter Lawford show was Dear Phoebe, though I have some dim memory of hearing it called Meet Phoebe too. I remember seeing a few episodes and liking it pretty well.

Daniel said...

Charlie Ruggles!

Rich said...

Franklin Pangborn! Here's a guy who could steal scenes from W.C. Fields (as J. Pinkerton Snoopington in "The Bank Dick") and hold his own in Preston Sturges comedies and screwball classics like "My Man Godfrey."

Pat said...

I love your blog, and today's entry was especially nostalgic and wonderful. Thanks for conjuring up some great memories.

I'd only add to your list - Thelma Ritter, althought she really belongs to a slightly later era.

DeeLuzon said...

mary wickes and thelma ritter were both always terrific as wisecracking, working class characters, and, though it doesn't bring us to the 21st century, jack weston and marty feldman were a generation younger (as was tom posten, filling the role on tv). jules munschen & oscar levant filled the need in many mgm musicals.

this is a terrific post - i haven't been able to play a game like this since my mother (and movie mentor) dies earlier this year. thanks!

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

"Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end.."

I third Thelma Ritter!

Call Me: The Shamus said...

Definitely Demarest.

Patrick said...

I would disagree with the opening quote. I think there are some good supporting comic actors around. A few that I can think of are Bonnie Hunt (Jerry Maguire), Jeremy Piven (Serendipidty), Steve Zahn (That Thing you do), Joan Cusack.

Someone mentioned Thelma Ritter, I'd say simply a great supporting actress, not just comic actress. There's a subject for a post someday, good supporting actors that is, not just one on Thelma.

VP81955 said...

I'm a bit amazed that no one has yet mentioned Walter Connolly. The guy has such a wonderful comedic presence, whether it be as Mr. Allenbury, the fishing-crazed scion, in "Libeled Lady" or as Oliver Stone, the beleaguered editor, in "Nothing Sacred." (And I've always wondered what Oliver Stone, the filmmakeer, thinks of that movie!) He could play drama, too -- check out his performance in an early Lombard film called "No More Orchids," where he plays her father.

Gloria said...

Campaspe, That was a well-deserved tribute!

Indeed the character players were the spice of the Salad days of classic moviemaking. and as relevant to the film as the star. I recall now the glorious comic playing of Charlie Ruggles, Mary Boland in "Ruggles of red Gap" (Boland really makes me crack again and again as the pretentious Noveau-Riche).

And this is not restricted to the golden era: I was watching "Victor/Victoria" yesterday, and the supporting cast which wonderfully surrounds Julie Andrews was indeed very enjoyable (when not actually stealing the show)

Nowadays, I get the impression that there is people playing leads that in the old days wouldn't have been casted even for a one-word part... but then now the important thing seems to be CGI and a lot of exploding helicopter chases.

P.S.: I have been terribly inactive in my blog, but I have updated it recently.

Karen said...

Yes, yes, YES, to everyone you've listed and all the ones in the comments. LOVE James Gleason. I also have a great fondness for Ned Sparks (his "You're telling ME? I'm telling YOU!" in 42nd Street is part of my personal lexicon, although no one is likely to recognize it). I would also add Ruth Donnelly, who was just genius, especially as Lee Tracy's long-suffering assistant in Blessed Event, a film that rejoices in a supporting cast of Donnelly, Sparks, Allen Jenkins, and Frank McHugh (OH, I love Frank McHugh).

I would throw in Jerome Cowan, who was also lovely in supporting roles, and throw in a special "I LOVE him" to Melville Cooper, whose name in the opening credits is enough to make me smile...

X. Trapnel said...

I hope somebody shares my enthusiasm for the great and rather forgotten Mischa Auer, a gift to Hollywood from the Russia of Gogol, Bulgakov, and fellow emigre Nabokov.

Also the very odd Etienne Girardot (Twentieth Century, The Whole Town's Talking) who may be numbered among the creatures who no longer walk the earth.

Karen said...

I see the Siren's point about never getting her post written is she'd stopped to think of all the other names. More just keep percolating up. Like, say, all the actors who played the professors in "Ball of Fire." Harry Davenport, the genial fellow who was so funny as the caretaker in "The Rage of Paris" (a film I adore). Sterling Holloway, and that wonderful voice. Charles Halton (just seen this past week as the crooked lawyer Struve in "The Spoilers"), generally playing some neurotic clerk. Walter Catlett, the magnificently drunk poet in "Mr Deeds Goes to Town": "Oh, what a magnificent deflation of smugness. Pal, you've added ten years to my life! A poet with a straight left and a right hook - delicious! Delicious! You're my guest from now on - forever and a day - even unto eternity!"

operator_99 said...

Joan Davis - IMHO, one of the great funny ladies, who whether as a lead or supporting player, was great at physical comedy and was certainly a "Character". Hold That Ghost, starring Abbot and Costello, shows Ms. Davis at her best.

Exiled in NJ said...

Check out Thomas Mitchell's 1939 credits: Scarlett's Daddy in GWTW, Jean Arthur's pal in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and as the alcoholic doctor in Stagecoach. Not a bad yeaar, huh? It makes no plot sense at all, but I love him when he says "I'll have that shotgun, Luke" to Tom Tyler.

Did someone else watch The Spoilers? There was Harry Carey; his crustiness sets the right tone in Mr. Smith. From his silent films, we get Ethan Edwards pose in the door frame at the end of The Searchers.

Was John Carradine a supporting actor. Looking at the career, it is hard to think of him as Bob Ford.

None of the above were pure comedy, but Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main eating breakfast in Heaven Can Wait just crack me up.

For later Billie Burke, find Vincent Sherman's The Young Philadelphians. There she is playing a society 'dame' again, and flustered because John Williams, her smart-ass lawyer, is not working Christmas Eve so she can't have her will rewritten to benefit her dog. She does the next best thing, popping into an incredibly young and handsome Paul Newman's office.

With the name of John Williams another cache of supporters is opened for a later age. The same film has a young Robert Vaughn and an old Otto Kruger.

Vaughn takes me to the incredible supporting cast of Blake Edward's S.O.B.

I'd better stop now. This game could be endless, Siren!!!!

Peter said...

No mention of Warren Hymer? In contemporary films, I've come to enjoy Somlek Sakdikul, a comic presence in quite a few Thai films, and sometimes the best thing in the film.

Marilyn said...

Count me as a Pallette fan, too. I recently became a fan of Leonard Carey, who really gives the formidable William Warren a run for his money in the Lone Wolf movies.

But Ralph Bellamy "strikingly handsome"? Not to me!

Exiled in NJ said...

C. Aubrey Smith is just one of the gang in Rene Clair's And Then There Were None, a film practically made for supporting actors: Roland Young, Walter Huston, Barry Fitzgerald, Louis Hayward, Richard Haydn and Mischa Auer, plus on the distaff side, Judith Anderson and June Duprez.

Edward Arnold could always be the dressed-to-the-nines heavy.

Porter Hall goes from doing in The Thin Man to being the sapped Mr. Dietrichson.

Henry Travers can never fail to be a kindly soul; Reginald Owen seems to have been in every film made from 1935-45 or so and kept on going into the land of TV. He was the comical Stryver in Tale of Two Cites, the Biffer in Random Harvest and so many others.

The last film has Una O'Connor, with those eyes and that voice. Need a Cockney, call on Una.

I promise, I will stop now, Siren.

GayAsXmas said...

If you want a modern day MVP, how about J. Jonah Jameson who p;ayed J.K. Simmons in Spiderman, amongst sundry other oddball delights?

But the truly great comedy supports are now mostly in television - just take a look at the depth of comedic gold in the Ugly Betty cast for instance.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Well, I'm far too late to this to contribute anything significant (aside from a thanks for mentioning Jack Carson, a longtime character actor favorite) so may I just say that Joan Crawford is incredibly sexy in that Grand Hotel pic you've got up on your banner.

Jonathan said...

To pick from the fringes, how about the oft-uncredited Robert Dudley, a.k.a. the Wienie King from The Palm Beach Story? I love his disquisition on dirt: "Why, dirt's as natural as sin, storms, floods, twisters, hurricanes, and cyclones." It's hard to tell if he knows he's in a comedy.

X. Trapnel said...

...and then there is Billy Gilbert as the process server ex machina in His Girl Friday, the climactic masterstroke in the best comedy ever

Gloria said...

Exiled,

Much as I think that one of Una O'Connor best assets was her peculiar voice, I think that her greatest role was one where she didn't talk at all, in "Cluny Brown": I just cracked at every intervention of hers XD

Vanwall said...

I always looked forward to Charles Coburn's work, he could be menacing and funny at the same time, in a fusty sort of fashion.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Great post, and some great comments giving tribute to other favorite character actors. Henry Travers has already been mentioned, but I would only add how remarkable that he could achieve his successful film career so late in life, and with "It's A Wonderful Life" even move up a bit from supporting character to actually co-star.

Karen said...

Gosh, do you know who I just realized we've all left out?

Walter Brennan!!

Exiled in NJ said...

Not to take anything away from Walter Brennan, but the story went that extras were allowed to participate in the Academy voting in the 1930s, and loved Brennan because he began as an extra, and their votes kept winning him the supporting actor award. Hard to quibble about his Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner, but later, after the rules changed, he was not even nominated for his totally un-Walterlike work as the evil father of the Clanton brood in Ford's Clementine.

Another oversight, the original gunsel, Elisha Cook, Jr.

Patrick said...

Walter Brennan is a good one, check out The Princess and the Pirate if you've never seen it. Another one I don't think I've seen mentioned is Edgar Buchanan.

Deb T said...

Mary Wickes - Now Voyager & The Man Who Came to Dinner.
She did a lot of TV late in her career.

Zasu Pitts - I can't remember all her roles, but she had a great dizzy quality.

Deb T

Apure said...

Can I mention Hank Worden ? Strangely enough, he was a mere face in the circus crowd of Flesh and fantasy, which also has a great Thomas Mitchell moment, although hardly fitting the Comedy in character discussion...

moondancer said...

Hate getting to the party late. Most of my favorites already mentioned. But a couple: Sydney Greenstreet, and Alan Hale.

Charles Coburn,Thelma Ritter,Thomas Mitchell were my faves.

Alex said...

But the question is WHY did the character actors disappear? It doesn't have anything to do with acting talent - there are plenty of actors today who have the talent to be superlative character actors.

The answer likely has to do with the difference in plot construction between the Golden Age and the Lucasberger Age. Notice that the character actor for Lucas is to be replaced by the horrific animated Jar-Jar Binks.

moondancer said...

Alex-

I would guess the studio system. With contract players, it was cost effective to have group available.
TV seems to have a large group of character actors. Maybe thats the modern equivalent, though must be much more difficult on the actors without a regular source of income.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Lots of reasons for the disappearance of character actors from movies, but I like to think it's because they're in TV. Look how many became major TV stars after long movie careers: Jackie Gleason, Broderick Crawford, Leo G. Carroll, Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, William Bendix, Eve Arden, Joan Davis, Jim Backus, William Frawley, Telly Savalas, Carroll O'Connor, Angela Lansbury, etc. That's because it takes major chops to play the same role for years and keep it interesting. Now they go straight to television.

Back to comedy: no one has mentioned the early Warner Bros. team of Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Aline McMahon, Ned Sparks and Hugh Herbert. They salvaged many a musical from the crooning of Dick Powell and the clomping of Ruby Keeler. And just picture all the dinner party guests in "The Thin Man"...

I can't forget the group who worked under the worst handicap to bring humanity and dignity to their roles: Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Dooley Wilson and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. As McDaniel memorably said, "I'd rather play a maid than be one," and those were pretty much the choices.

surlyh said...

Campaspe- As I wander through your back-blog I continue to find one gem of a post after another.

Some directors (such as Ford, Capra, Sturges)had their stock companies, but every studio was teeming with character talent. Films were alternate realities that shifted around the same curious and eccentric population. The dithering dolt behind the drugstore counter here was in the park being pulled along by their yapping dog there. That familiar bellow of the grouchy neighbor there now came from the grumpy uncle here. And what a wonderful world it was.

Carson and Arden could liven the dullest film. They were always the driest martinis at the bar.

Juanita's Journal said...

The problem with character actors in movies, today, is that the best ones - at least of this generation - can be found on television shows that feature esemble casts. It's on television where they gain fame these days.

Anagramsci said...

very cool post--

like everyone else, I love the entire crew you introduce (S.Z. Sakall in The Devil and Miss Jones--the shoe department scene--just can't be beat!)

I saw a late mention of Una Merkel, and she's absolutely near the top for me--likewise Ned Sparks and just about everyone in those early thirties Warner films (Frank McHugh! Glenda Farrell! Aline MacMahon! Guy Kibbee! Hobart Cavanaugh!)

I also like Felix Bressart a lot (who does wonders with the sympathetic older friend in Shope Around the Corner--and has a fabulous cameo in Portrait of Jennie... he's also right at the heart of things in To Be Or Not To Be)

and George Tobias! that scene in the park in The Strawberry Blonde? "I don't want to spend too much money on this giggler anyway..."

and these people never fail to amuse--take a thing like The Bride Came COD--you can't really call it "good"... and it doesn't do well by the leads at all (Cagney and Bette Davis, if you've never seen it)... but I love watching it, because the rest of it is wall-to-wall character comedy gold! Eugene Pallette, Jack Carson (who I agree is amazing), Tobias, Harry Davenport,Edward Brophy, William Frawley, Stuart Erwin!

Gail Patrick is another favorite--but, in her case, I've always wished that they would have given her some leading roles!

Dave

JUAN. said...

From Astaire and Rogers pictures I would pick Helen Broderick. I also enjoy John Barrymore and Adolph Menjou in their supporting comedy roles. From nowadays, I think Woody Allen always puts together a great group of supporting comedy actors such as Diane Wiest and Alan Alda.

damo said...

Edward Brophy, Edward Brophy, and Edward Brophy!