Friday, November 16, 2007

Staying in Character

No help for it. The Siren started to reply to the torrent of comments on comic character actors, then realized she needed a whole other post. We really miss these guys, don't we? The Siren stresses once more that this was a post about comic character actors, so some true greats (like Thelma Ritter, whose finest performance in Pickup on South Street was serious indeed, and ditto Thomas Mitchell, at his best in The Long Voyage Home) were left out on technicalities. Still, the Siren's patient readers are forcing her to apologize to the ghosts of the following:

Mary Boland. L'amour, l'amour ... The Siren let poor Mary down, so she is picking her up again, dearie.

Eugene Pallette. As Moviezzz puts it, "From his work in the Philo Vance films, the Deanna Durbin films, to Friar Tuck, and Mr. Smith as well as My Man Godfrey, he is one actor that I will see anything he does. That voice alone. And, in something like First Love, he can even play against type." The Siren remembers Pallette's deathless performance in My Man Godfrey, as the head of the Bullock clan, and deeply regrets not including him. He's superb in that movie, buttressing his fragile sanity by firing off joke after joke at his batty family's expense: "All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people."

Mary Wickes. DeeLuzon was too right about her, this was a face one was always happy to see.

Mischa Auer. You're right, X. Trapnel--all it took was recollecting Carlo's monkey imitation to make the Siren regret Auer's absence.

William Demarest. The brain switch was in the "off" position when the Siren omitted him from the post. He should have made it just for the way he delivers Preston Sturges' musings on the lifelong bond between a pater familias and his female offspring: "Either they leave their husbands and come back with four children and move into your guest room, or their husband loses his job and the whole kaboodle comes back. Or else they're so homely you can't get rid of them at all and they hang around the house like Spanish moss and shame you into an early grave." Shamus, Ivan, anyone else -- there he is now, where he belongs.

Franklin Pangborn. The ultimate "sissy" as discussed by Vito Russo, but Pangborn always gave his roles great interior dignity. Whether fitting a dress, running a cruise ship, overwhelmed by a treasure hunt or organizing a welcoming committee for an ersatz hero, Pangborn played the dilemma the way his character saw it--as a problem of great societal import.

Blanket apologies to the shades of the following: James Gleason, Charlie Lane, Charlie Ruggles, Robert Dudley, Charles Coburn, Alan Hale, Billy Gilbert, Melville Cooper, Sig Ruman, Roland Young.

GayasXmas makes an excellent point, that the best character acting is now to be found on television. Which also segues to Alex's excellent question--WHY did character actors disappear from the movies? certainly the talent is still out there. Alex pins it on plot construction. The Siren agrees, but adds that more than ever, plots are woven around the marquee-name stars, and larded with special effects that, in addition to administering the requisite number of jolts, also are built to get the laughs that used to belong to the character players. The Siren repeats something she mentioned when discussing Mildred Natwick (oops, we ALL forgot Mildred, didn't we? for shame!):


Nowadays the studios pay $20 million or whatever for Jim Carrey, and once they pay that you are by God going to get Jim Carrey in every frame, I don't care if it's a childbirth scene in a women's prison, we'll get Carrey in there somewhere. Star vehicles have no room for a superb character actress like Natwick, mud-fence homely but perfect in every role.


The Siren winds up by saying that it's no coincidence that the Coen brothers, with their reverence for the likes of Preston Sturges and encyclopedic knowledge of film history, are among the small group of filmmakers who still recognize that a character turn can help lift a movie into immortality. Any other filmmakers still doing that?

22 comments:

Karen said...

Oh, Siren! STILL no love for Ruth Donnelly?

Campaspe said...

we-ell, love, yes, but prostrate apologies, no. :)

stennie said...

This is interesting -- just last night I was watching Notorious on TCM, and rediscovered the appearance of one of my all-time favorite unsung actors, Louis Calhern. He's got a tiny little role as Cary Grant's boss, and even with that he managed to shine -- whether he's eating crackers in bed in his evening suit, or trying to dig up a little dirt on the Devlin/Alicia angle. He's a little side serving of awesome in any movie he works on. Asphalt Jungle, he's surrounded by a bunch of other very talented character actors (Sam Jaffe, there's another one for your list) and I think he steals the picture.

Campaspe said...

oh my yes, Calhern. Not strictly a comic character actor, although he was funny as hell when the part demanded it. He was indeed "a little side serving of awesome" in everything. I immediately thought of him as the Ambassador in Duck Soup, too. And I just went to his filmography at IMDB and it's jaw-dropping. I love this Film Reference entry that says he got better as he aged. So true.

Dan Leo said...

Such a good question: Why the present-day dearth of the character actor?

Here's another possible reason: the dread influence of Syd Field and the by-the-numbers screenwriting that has dominated Hollywood for the past thirty years or so. Take a look at one of these how-to-write-a-screenplay manuals, and I don't think you'll find anything about populating your story with lots of wonderful supporting parts. It's mostly hero/heroine/villain plus one lousy friend for the hero or heroine, and God forbid the friend should be anyone capable of stealing the scene from the hero.

One film maker who still understands the loveableness of the supporting players: Christopher Guest. Too bad he seems to have peaked with "Waiting For Guffman".

goatdog said...

Somewhat off-topic, but I love that X. Trapnel likes Mischa Auer's monkey impression. I wonder who Kenneth Widmerpool's favorite character actor is? I'm guessing someone like Dennis Hoey, in his Inspector Lestrade mode from the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films.

OutOfContext said...

Here's a cheer for Guy Kibbee, John Carradine,Otto Kruger,and Maria Ouspenskaya.

And in a more modern vein--Wallace Shawn, Harry Dean Stanton, Christopher Walken and John Turturro.

More modern character-actor-prone directors--Allen, Lynch, Scorcese, Burton and Waters.

Sorry to be so terse, but I seem to be constantly pressed for time--the subject was just too compelling to let pass...

Peter said...

In terms of contemporary films, I think the mistake is confining the discussion to Hollywood. One of the things I like about Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films is the inclusion of Dominque Pinon. I guess I may have to do a posting on Somlek Sakdikul. By the way, no love for Dick Miller?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

In reading this, I think it would have been perfectly acceptable to include Thelma Ritter on the list of comedy character actors/actresses. Thelma gets mucho kudos for her appearance in Pickup on South Street, natch, but she's also comic relief in films like Miracle on 34th Street (1947--"I don't get it."), All About Eve (1950), Rear Window (1954), The Misfits (1961) and many others.

The problem with Ritter appreciation is that Thel's very best film, The Mating Season (1951), isn't available on DVD and/or is rarely shown on TV. An injustice that should be taken care of tuit suite.

Gloria said...

I agree with Peter. Character actors are still getting their chances in other countries' films.

Pinon is a good example but then Jeunet really takes a lot of care in the casting of his films: and not just the leads, but the entire cast down to the extras... Ah, guys like André Dussollier or Ticky Holgado!

Character acting is a strongsuit in Spanish films too, from the historic José (Pepe) Isbert, Manuel Alexandre, Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez, Jose Luis Ozores or Lali Soldevila of yore, to the Fernando Tejero or Carmen Maura of our days. A good example of it are Pedro Almodovar's films, who has a great love of character players and always strives to get the best ensemble work possible)

Which makes me think... appreciation of actors is so Hollywood-Anglo-centric, isn't it? I confess I'm guilty of it, too. But I feel sad that little people outside Spain know about Pepe Isbert, or not much people outside Japan know about Hideko Takamine... French players are luckier in that regard.

Vanwall said...

I think right now the indies are the only real outlet for the old-style character actors - what Hollywood studio today would look twice at, say, Hope Emerson, for even a moment's time onscreen; everything has to look pretty in some way, much less give someone like her extensive lines to speak - God and bean-counters forbid the voice would any character, too. As FX advance, there will be little room for any but the leads, and I daresay the character parts will be CGI - they'll be on their umpteenth remake anyway.

Karen said...

On the "where are they now" question: I think someone nailed it in the comments of the first post. They're in television, or they're being given crappy starring vehicles. Someone mentioned Jeremy Piven earlier--I remember Piven coming on "The Daily Show" a few years ago, all buff and ripped, and when Stewart commented on his new physique Piven replied, "Yeah, if I don't get a leading role out of this, I'm gonna kill myself." It made me sad at the time, because he has always brought me such pleasure in his supporting roles...but clearly it wasn't very satisfying for him.

But think of people like Seth Green or Bill Murray (whose supporting role helped make "Tootsie" what it was) or Steve Zahn or Sam Rockwell. These are funny actors, who've filled their time with TV or independent projects. On the distaff side, someone mentioned the great Joan Cusack; I'd add Holland Taylor, or any of the women of SNL through the years, who often shine in small parts but more often choose to make big-budget flops based on SNL characters.

There's not a lot of respect for the supporting actor, the character actor, in Hollywood today, so there's no rush to fill that void. The parts often don't get built up enough for audiences ever to get a sense of who they are, so they become a bunch of vaguely familiar H!ITGs (http://www.fametracker.com/hey_its_that_guy/. If you go to the IMDb, you'll see project lists as long as those for Misha Auer or Walter Brennan, but it's such a mix of A and B movies and YV episodes that the names often don't stick.

Not that there wasn't a slight equivalent to this in Old Hollywood--I'm thinking of the C-movies that paired Glenda Farrell and ZaSu Pitts, or all those dreadful films starring big-name vaudeville comedians, the SNL of their day--but the variety of options today just dilutes the pool.

Call Me: The Shamus said...

Somehow, somewhere, the names of Andy Devine, Dub Taylor and Slim Pickens should be invoked. There. I've done it.

M.A.Peel said...

I second that Thelma Ritter's best film is The Mating Season, and single out the comic Louis Calhern as the fabulous Uncle Willie in High Society, following up Roland Young from The Philadelphia Story.

X. Trapnel said...

Goatdog: Actually my favorite Auer moment occurs in You Can't Take It With You: M.A. calmly stuffing every available pocket with sandwiches when it appears the Sycamores et al. are to be evicted. As for K. Widmerpool, being devoid of humor and other important qualities he wd probably regard filmgoing as frivolous until someone important told him otherwise.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I was under the impression that the days of great character actors ended with the end of the studio system. I can't quite recall the argument. I think it was something like this:

The studios had the character actors under contract, so they used them. There was a house style, so they knew how to use them. The actors got to hone their roles, and the audiences came to love and appreciate them.

The best place to look for these types now is probably in directors/producers who have a "stable" of actors that they use over and over.

X. Trapnel said...

Re: the disappearance of character actors. Recall that in the thirties the talking picture was still inventing itself and the actors--stars and otherwise--were streaming in from all over the US, UK, Ireland, and continental Europe with backgrounds in the "legitimate" stage, vaudeville/music hall, avant-garde theater, circus, making for a lively ferment. Things begin to change in the fifties when supposed realism, method acting, the limits of television drama and sitcoms demanded a surface verisimilitude that could not absorb a Peter Lorre, Thomas Mitchell, or fill in your own choice. Even those character actors who continued to work somehow seem out of their element. The change in acting styles can be seen by comparing, say, Casablanca with 12 Angry Men. Both are instances of character actor heaven, but an element of the fantastical is gone. With the accelerating homoginization of culture and taste the outlook becomes bleaker and bleaker as the years go by.

Exiled in NJ said...

John Mahoney is a consumate character actor of today, yet it would be hard to place him in the 'Golden Age.' He appears and my first take is 'What's his name again?'

Permit me to make one negative point about the supporting roles back then, and that is studios had no compunction about mis-casting those familiar faces. Seeing Sydney Greenstreet pop up as General Winfield Scott is a bit disconcerting. The same goes for seeing Alan Hale not in costume!

mndean said...

This list makes up a lot for the first list, and I'm glad you mentioned Eugene Pallette. I had the pleasure of seeing him as Lee Tracy's carny crony the other morning in The Half-Naked Truth. He was passed off as a loyal servant (spelled E-U-N-U-C-H) to Lupe Velez's fake Turkish princess, and injected a note of humanity in a second-banana role that could've been rather two-dimensional. Franklin Pangborn was also in the film. As for Aline McMahon, Una Merkel, Alison Skipworth, Roscoe Karns, Ed Brophy, Porter Hall, Al Bridge (and that's just from movies I've seen in the last week) and others you've missed, I take it not as an insult, but as a matter of your liking '40s gloss over '30s rowdiness.

thombeau said...

What a fantastic post!

surlyh said...

Here's a nod to the great Sheldon Leonard, who specialized in comic heavies, but who could also play them straight. Leonard possessed that asset most prized in a character actor: a unique and memorable voice. A voice that made him a hit and running gag on radio as the tout on the Jack Benny program, where he would send audiences into convulsions with the terse "Hey, bud" and "Uh-uh." He later became an enormously successful director producer on television.

"Get me--I'm givin' out wings!" The IMDb says that "the only reason he agreed to play Nick the bartender in the classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946) was so that he could buy Dodger baseball tickets."

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