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.
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.