Friday, June 10, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Lew Ayres


An excerpt from the Siren's latest Retro-Fit column at Nomad Wide Screen, concerning the talented but star-crossed actor Lew Ayres.


One thing that sets All Quiet on the Western Front apart is its use of young actors to play young soldiers, a realistic touch that has eluded even latter-day filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, who stuffed Saving Private Ryan with stars who would never again see 30 (or, in Tom Hanks’ case, even 40). Spielberg, in fact, cited All Quiet as an influence on Private Ryan, which has the odd effect of making the 1930 movie seem far more daring and uncompromising than his. Spielberg ends on a weeping old soldier and a waving American flag; Lewis Milestone ends on a row of teenagers marching into a ghostly graveyard.

[snip]

Ayres had made just two movies before he worked with Milestone, and it can’t be denied that his lack of experience shows in a few scenes. But the vast majority of his performance hits the audience with raw, unmediated power. Ayres seems no more able to protect himself from the emotions his role demands than his character, Paul, can protect himself from the horrors of war. In scenes like the young soldiers’ first patrol, or his unforgettable night in a trench with a dying French soldier, Ayres recoils from events like an abused child — which is, in the end, what Paul is. Almost as horrifying as the battle sequences are scenes like the one in which the soldiers rush around their fetid quarters trying to kill rats. Ayres’ agonized face tells you, as no dialogue could, that back home he would never have been so brutal even to a rat, and now he must be even more brutal to the men on the other side of the field.

Ayres followed the triumph of All Quiet with a gangster film, Archie Mayo’s 1931 Doorway to Hell, where he plays a Michael Corleone-like godfather. Standard wisdom on this surprisingly good movie is that Ayres had no business playing a criminal mastermind, and should have swapped roles with James Cagney, who played his underling. It’s true that Ayres, while a fine and sensitive actor, singularly lacked any ability to portray physical menace. (Leonardo di Caprio has the same problem.)  But Doorway to Hell is the story of how Louis Ricarno (Ayres) tries to leave his violent life and cannot, and that must be what possessed Warner Brothers to borrow Ayres for the part. And Ayres does beautifully with scenes such as the one where he goes to a plastic surgeon to ask for help in reconstructing his little brother’s shattered face after an auto accident. Where should he find the boy, asks the doctor — and Ayres tells him, with a look his All Quiet character would have recognized, to go down to the undertaker’s.

27 comments:

Karen said...

I'm SO pleased you liked Doorway to Hell!!

DavidEhrenstein said...

My fave Lew Ayres performance is in Cukor's Holiday as Hepburn's alcoholic coded-gay Brother.

The Siren said...

David, I tip my hat to that one in the full Nomad piece...if you can access it. Sigh.

The Siren said...

Karen, Doorway was excellent, and Cagney so sexy I almost fainted. That scene in the cab-phwoar.

The Siren said...

One of the reasons I chose that screen grab, btw, is that to me Ayres looks a bit like di Caprio there.

Trish said...

I recently passed on Doorway to Hell, sneering at the concept of Lew Ayres playing a gangster... Consider me humbled.

Yojimboen said...

I’ve always grouped Ayre’s performance with those of Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin in Red Badge of Courage - I even suspect Huston used Ayers as a model for his later film.

One of the great H’Wood (and for me, American) tragedies is that whereas All Quiet was - in 1930 - deemed acceptable by Universal for American audiences, Red Badge was – in 1951 - considered too violent and depressing; to the extent that Metro eviscerated Huston’s film (his personal favorite) from over two hours down to 69 minutes and, as they had done to von Stroheim on Greed, destroyed the out takes.

As Dudley Moore said in Beyond the Fringe: “Funny thing, war.”

DavidEhrenstein said...

(Off-Topic but FYI)

X. Trapnel said...

I always think of [Miss] Lonelyhearts (which despite its perfect cast probably never had a chance) as an example of what was not allowable in the Now It Can Be Told 50s. No accident that Dore Schary, a latter-day I. Thalberg, presided over both disasters.

Rachel said...

What would be the name for "Performances that hold the movie together but aren't the main star"? Whatever you'd call it, I'd put Lew Ayres in Holiday on that list.

Initially, I wasn't too inclined to sympathize with the rich, unhappy Setons, especially Katharine Hepburn's character Linda. When she said that "Compared to the life I lead, the last man on a chain gang thoroughly enjoys himself," my response was "Oh cry me a river, rich girl, do you even know what a chain gang is?" But Ayres sidled into the story, and I slowly realized exactly what Linda was trying, not always gracefully, to fight against.

And then the movie clicked.

Yojimboen said...

When Ayres was blacklisted in 1942 for being - not posing as, being - a conscientious objector, American cinema lost a superior talent. (He requested and received service as a Medical Corpsman, and served valiantly under fire – but it made no difference, America was outraged.)

Almost his first movie after being deemed re-employable was Johnny Belinda [1947], a role which a) reminded everyone how great he was and b) was more than slightly instrumental in winning Jane Wyman her Oscar®. (He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.)

I suppose Ayres’s best revenge was outliving his critics – he worked steadily until he was 86.

He was also married to Lola Lane for 3 years, and Ginger Rogers for six. No hardship there.

Bobby Wilson said...

Check out this new indie film:

http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/movies/Jelly/155899/1464430233/Jelly/videos

VP81955 said...

Spielberg, in fact, cited "All Quiet" as an influence on "Private Ryan," which has the odd effect of making the 1930 movie seem far more daring and uncompromising than his. Spielberg ends on a weeping old soldier and a waving American flag; Lewis Milestone ends on a row of teenagers marching into a ghostly graveyard.

There's the vital difference between 1930 filmmaking and that of 1999 (and more recent times): Carl Laemmle and Universal knew they were adapting a renowned novel, and to a large extent stuck to it; Spielberg, either hemmed in or (more likely) willing to play along with the corporate types, both indulges the current-day audience's need for violence (particularly early in "Ryan") and compromises his film's power with the obligatory "feel good" ending.

Karen said...

Spielberg's need to inject mawkish sentiment into damn near everything he's made since Raiders is one of the reasons I have such an extraordinary distaste for him as a director.

It is a terrible weakness and makes for bad storytelling, as well as bad directing.

Vanwall said...

Ayres was always an intelligent sounding actor, and the Di Caprio comparison is quite apt; seeing Leo in "The Aviator" and watching "Doorway to Hell" shows an amazing amount of congruence. One role is a thuggish power tripper and the other role is a power-tripping thug. Or they're both the same.

I thought his performance in AQONTW was perfect, he was like Louise Brooks in "Pandora's Box", not a "knowing soul", just a modern young person on a collision course with reality. It helped that Ayres had the brilliant Louis Wolheim as a supporting actor, just as he had Cagney as one in DTH - he played off those two quite well, and his characters matured as the films went on quite believably. I see elements of him in a lot of roles where harsh realities hit the naif hard - Gary Grimes in "The Culpepper Cattle Company" and was one I thought about Ayres playing in when I watched it a few weeks ago.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Advise and Consent was on TCM, last nioght. Hadn't seen it in years. Lew Ayres was marvelous as the knowling, courtly and deeply sensitive Vice President to Franchot Tone's schming POTUS. As he did with Anatomy of a Murder, Preminger shot on real locations in Washington D.C. whenever possible (the Oval Offiice was the only set recreation that I could see) and as usua;l with him the casting was a wonder. So great to see Gene Tierney -- star of his Laura and Whirpool -- as a chic D.C. hostess having a cozy affair with top-flight Senator Walter Pidgeon (!)

Quite a fascinating project in that Alan Drury's novel was center-right and preminger's film is center-left. Just a matter of emphasis in most instances. But the gay sub-plot -- which rapidly becomes the main plot -- looks more dramatic now than it did then. Drury was a closet case and speaking from the heart when he created the character of "Senator Brigham Anderson" (Don Murray)whose wartime love affair comes back to haunt him when pressure is being applied to him to force the Secretary of State nomination of a politician with a Communist past (Henry Fonda!) through. So many gay actors in this movie! Charles Laughton (magnificent in his very last performance -- he died a few months after the film was released) Will Geer (back from blacklist hell) and George Grizzard, as Don Murray's persecutor.

The gay bar scene is amazing. Murray learns his ex-boyfriend has been callign the house so he takes a quick truip to New York and goes to club far more spacious than the ones I knew back in the day. It's dark, and the ex-boyfriend is there with a couple of numbers in IZod shorts. But Murray reacts as if he had been trown into hell's Ninth Circle (and not the Ninth Circle -- one of my favorite New York gay bars) He flees in panic, flies back to D.C., goes to his office in the middle of the nioght and slits his throat.

YIKES!

Can't see Texas Governor Rick Perry doing that, even if theos S&M pics I've been reading about elsewhere in cyberspace manage to surface.

This descent into pure sensationalism asdie, Advise and Conset remains a remarkable dram tic entertainment of the sort that's rarely made anymore. The closest thing to it I can think of offhand is Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton

Mary said...

Ayres is really good in two early Universals: OKAY, AMERICA!, where he plays a version of Walter Winchell who is cynical about politics, and CROSS COUNTRY CRUISE, an entertaining little whodunit mixed with comedy and shenanigans as a group of people cross the country in a bus, stopping at real locations along the way. I've seen them at Cinecon the last few years.

MikeT said...

Late in his career, Ayres did a piece of work on a classic TV series that made use of what must have been in real life his great charm: a considerably older man that Mary Richards (briefly) dated, in THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

And a singularly sexy man he was too.

All Quiet on the Western Front was obviously the highlight of that career, though in my eyes, his work (and role) in Holiday comes a close second.

(Hart to Hart: Crimes of the Hart is, of course, not far behind.)

The Siren said...

David E., that is such a great mini-critique of Advise and Consent. When the closeted Senator first goes into the bar, I was repulsed by the way Preminger had shot things, as if to prompt as much disgust from the audience as possible--until seconds later the obvious occurred to me, that it's the young Senator's reaction we are seeing via the camera.

Goran, he was very sexy indeed, a really handsome man.

MikeT, when I was in college I had some friends obsessed with MTM and I saw almost all the re-runs, including the one with Ayres...whom I didn't recognize at the time. He still had it, though.

The Rush Blog said...
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The Rush Blog said...
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The Rush Blog said...

One thing that sets All Quiet on the Western Front apart is its use of young actors to play young soldiers, a realistic touch that has eluded even latter-day filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, who stuffed Saving Private Ryan with stars who would never again see 30 (or, in Tom Hanks’ case, even 40).

I'm not much of a fan of "SAVING PRIVATE RYAN", but most of the young guys in that cast were barely known when they did the movie . . . with the exception of Matt Damon, whose fame was new at the time.




There's the vital difference between 1930 filmmaking and that of 1999 (and more recent times): Carl Laemmle and Universal knew they were adapting a renowned novel, and to a large extent stuck to it; Spielberg, either hemmed in or (more likely) willing to play along with the corporate types, both indulges the current-day audience's need for violence (particularly early in "Ryan") and compromises his film's power with the obligatory "feel good" ending.


Again, I'm not a major fan of "SAVING PRIVATE RYAN", but I was very impressed by the movie's 20-minute look at the D-Day landing. And there was a "feel good" ending to the movie? I don't recall one. I think you’re being a little harsh about 1997/98 filmmaking in order to put old films on a pedestal. Don't get me wrong. I like old movies a lot. But I also like a lot of recent movies . . . a lot.

Karen said...

Hmmm. I'm not sure how being impressed by the 20-minute D-Day sequence negates the recognition of it indulging the audience's need for violence. (Many war-time war movies managed to convey the horror and heartbreak of war without a battery of flying limbs.) And in my experience Spielberg never met a feel-good ending he didn't like.

Also, the Siren has spoken well of many contemporary films, so accusing her of shaming the new to privilege the old is merely an indication that you don't read her often.

The Siren said...

Thanks, Karen.

TRB, I think we're suffering from crossed signals here. I meant that Spielberg's cast (careless use of the word "stars") was older, not that they were familiar faces; a scan of IMDB shows that Damon, Pepper and Goldberg were all born in 1970, while Burns was 30, Sizemore was 37, Davies was 29 and Hanks was 42, at this point I got bored with looking at birth dates so I don't know old Danson and Giamatti and Farina were, but they were *old.*

Anyway, as far as I know, those ages aren't historically inaccurate. I am not a WW II buff but I've always read that the median age of soldiers in that war was around 25 or 26. But it was a conscious artistic decision of Milestone to go with a cast barely out of its teens. Late in WW I as I recall, the German soldiers were getting very young indeed, which is why that feels realistic. And it gives the All Quiet group an entirely different emotional resonance, which is what I was getting at when I said that Ayres plays his scenes like an abused child. Masculine vanity notwithstanding, age 30, or 28, doesn't look like 21 on a man, any more than it does on a woman. Hell, even 24 (Giovanni Ribisi) doesn't always look like 21, although Ribisi was so baby-faced at the time he's the one soldier whose physicality compares to All Quiet.

That's VP81955 you're quoting in the next graf, not me; I wouldn't call Saving Private Ryan's ending "feel good"--although it's certainly not feel-bad either--but I'd sign on to the term "compromise," in that Damon's tears and the flapping flag and the surrounding family show Spielberg's latter-day tendency to want things both ways. He's given us the horrors of war in bravura detail (and that D-day landing is truly a great piece of filmmaking), made points about futility and brutalization and waste that hearken back to All Quiet and any number of other war movies. But in the end he won't go all the way, because WW II was the 20th century's good American war. So up to that point, Spielberg's movie is pointing one way ("what passing bells for these who die as cattle?"). But his ending, quite abruptly, yanks the audience back in another ("These are the boys of Pointe de Hoc").

Milestone doesn't do that, and that's one reason (I have others) that I am saying Milestone's film is superior. Not because it's old.

marya said...

Holiday is most definitely my favorite of Ayres' performances, but he's brilliant in just about all of his films.

The Rush Blog said...

One thing that sets All Quiet on the Western Front apart is its use of young actors to play young soldiers, a realistic touch that has eluded even latter-day filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, who stuffed Saving Private Ryan with stars who would never again see 30 (or, in Tom Hanks’ case, even 40).

While there may be some truth in your comments, at least three actors were still in their 20s when "SAVING PRIVATE RYAN" was shot and released.

By the way, I'm not a fan of the movie.