Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Memoriam: Harry Morgan, 1915-2011




The death of Harry Morgan, age 96, brings one movie immediately to the Siren's mind, and it was only his sixth role, made when he was 28, so early in his career he was still billed as Henry.

In The Ox-Bow Incident, from 1943, he plays a Western drifter who blows into town with Fonda, and they are both caught up in a posse that ends by hanging Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford, for the crime of stealing cattle. The men they lynched didn't do it. At the end of the film, Fonda and Morgan stand at the bar of a saloon with the guilt-wracked men from the posse. Neither Fonda nor Morgan participated in the killing--they voted to stop it--but they were there, and they feel complicit. Fonda begins to speak about Andrews, in a quiet voice that he knows is carrying all over the silent room. Morgan's face is morose, but his body language fights to be casual, as he hunches his shoulders around his whiskey. After all, he didn't hang the men himself. When Fonda brings up the $500 he's collected for Andrews' widow, Morgan makes a crack, his face trying to relax, one shoulder almost miming the slightest of shrugs: "Not bad for a husband who don't know any better than to buy cattle in the spring without a bill of sale."

The other men shift their eyes to Morgan, almost hopefully--someone whose callousness they can feel superior to. Fonda nudges Morgan with his elbow, then straightens up; he won't let him get away with that. "You should read this letter too," he says, referring to the letter Andrews wrote to his wife just before he died. "You know I can't read," snaps Morgan.

So Fonda reads, his eyes hidden by the brim of Morgan's hat. It's one of the finest scenes of Fonda's career, but Morgan is in the foreground, with only the top of his head and his eyes in the frame. He doesn't move, his expression doesn't seem to shift at all, and yet he is changing before our eyes.

At the end of the letter, the scene cuts to show the opposite side of Fonda. Morgan is off to the left, only a sliver of the back of his head showing. His illiterate character has understood the words as fully as anyone else in that saloon, and we know it from the brim of his hat, as it drops with his head in a gesture that isn't only respect for the dead. Andrews' character spent the last hour of his life knowing he was innocent and he was going to die, and then he did die, strangled at the end of a rope. From the back of Morgan's head, barely in frame, we know the drifter won't ever be able to defend himself from his memories by saying the dead man was a fool. Then the camera, after seeking out the men from the posse once more, moves higher to show the length of the bar and Morgan in the middle. His one good hand is still wrapped around his glass, he still looks in the same direction, but he stands straighter. Then Morgan turns to follow Fonda with a slightly saddle-weary gait.

It was an uncommonly auspicious start to Morgan's career--a great Western for the great William Wellman, playing his best scenes with Fonda, in the same cast with character actors like Jane Darwell and Henry Davenport. With the benefit of hindsight, you can look at this scene and see a gift that was going to mark Harry Morgan's acting, whether he was wordlessly menacing in The Big Clock, having his cozy assumptions worn away in Inherit the Wind, or, year after year, trying to fight insanity armed only with common sense in M*A*S*H.

Morgan listened.

29 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

"Morgan listened". He couldn't have a finer tribute.

clairehelene7 said...

Beautiful.

Karen said...

Ah, lovely, Siren. The best possible tribute.

So much time will be spent on him as Colonel Potter, or even as Joe Friday. It's nice to remember his film work--especially in this, one of the most stirring films I've ever watched.

Steven Elworth said...

You got Harry from this great early role, he was actor as reactor. He reacted to them all from Fonda to Alda.

Vanwall said...

Morgan was often the guy that reacted - whatever was said, he was the guy who sold it, and to good effect whether he was handing out hot towels in "Somewhere in the Night", or donning a dead man's duds, dice roll and all, from "Yellow Sky" a favorite of mine, with a fine little supporting performance by him as a malleable man, folowing the leader even when it changes back and forth, always with a kind of fit-in-at-any-cost enthusiasm.

"The Ox-Bow Incident" was truly the hallmark of a Harry Morgan performance, so ordinary, so real, so really extraordinary to that for so long and soo well.

Robert said...

He was monumental on MASH, my favorite show growing up. Even as a young teen, the absolute REALITY inside Potter's toast to his WW1 pals brought me to tears. For good or bad, I cannot separate the actor from those perfect Potter moments.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

Wonderful tribute to an actor we might take for granted as a comfortable, always-welcome presence.

The Siren said...

Thanks so much, guys. This really was the first thing I thought of--not just this movie, but this scene, and then I thought why this scene? He mostly just listens. And then I thought, of COURSE. I have no idea what sort of technique he used, if any, but as you say, he reacted so beautifully, always so present in the scene and involved in the moment.

Noel Vera said...

Not a fan of MASH the TV show, but Morgan there was a pleasure to watch and listen to, a grandfather with a reassuring voice. Kind of reminds me of my grandfather, actually.

swhitty said...

Lovely, Siren.

And a tribute to William Wellman, too, a sneaky stylist who often centered the most important action of a scene OUTSIDE the frame -- which always emphasized it even more.

JD said...

He was a pleasure to watch; this was an equal pleasure to read.

Dave said...

The best thing I can say about Morgan -- whom I was a big fan of -- was that he was solid. When you saw he was in something, you knew you were going to get a professional, grounded performance. This sounds like damning with faint praise, but it's not. He was sort of the Spencer Tracy of television.

I will always think of him as Bill Gannon, though, able to shift from comic relief to dead seriousness in the blink of an eye with no seams showing.

Kevin WOlf said...

This is the tribute I needed. Thank you.

Yojimboen said...

Damn. The NYT with a whole crew of specialists keeping the obits shinily polished and up-to-date can’t hold a candle to you, lady.

The difference is love.

And we love you right back.

JCG said...

Wonderful tribute - I was also thinking about his great performance in "Ox-Bow" when I read the news of his death. As beloved as he became as Colonel Potter, he really had an amazing career beyond the small screen.

X. Trapnel said...

Onr thing I've always liked about Harry Morgan was that his laconicism never seemed actorly or mythic (ok, he wasn't a star) but a positive way of being. It went so well with his deadpan humor. Like Walter Huston (and very evident in Ox-Bow) he conveyed a strong sense of what a 19th-century American was like. The alleged "fantasy" of Hollywood preserved so much cherishable reality.

Ian W. Hill said...

Seeing him a lot most recently as a villainous type in several of the westerns I've been watching, it was a pleasure just a few days ago to see his lovely atypical performance as a mentally disabled deaf-mute in Frank Borzage's Moonrise (currently on Netflix Streaming). Here, he gets to listen, and especially to watch, and is the quiet conscience of a dark little movie. Glad I saw this when I did.

gmoke said...

The book end to Harry Morgan's early cowboy here might be the bantycock sheriff in "The Shootist" where Morgan goes toe to toe with John Wayne and comes out very well.

He was the consummate character actor, able to do anything on the screen, small or large.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The difference is The Siren is a professional and the NYT is run by a pack of amateurs. Their obits are awful.

Trish said...

I never cared for M*A*S*H, although I think it's to Morgan's credit that he came into an established hit as a new character and never looked back. Previous to Yellow Sky and The Ox-Bow Incident, I first knew him as Bill Gannon, straight man to the awesome Jack Webb. He has an instantly recognizable voice, which makes him a welcome presence in just about anything. Did I mention Yellow Sky is one of my favourite westerns?

rcocean said...

Great tribute Siren. I always love Morgan's range, he could be dramatic or comedic depending on the part. My favorite role is "Bill Gannon" where he injects some humor into Dragnet while still being a believable Cop.

Its the clam juice Joe.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

You've nailed it.

DorianTB said...

Siren, character actors are always the ones who impress me most. The first time I ever saw Harry Morgan onscreen was when he was Henry Morgan in small yet memorable 1940s roles in like THE BIG CLOCK and APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (never was working for the Post Office more exciting! :-)). But it was Morgan's performance in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT that really moved me and made me a fan of his. Considering Morgan's many years on a TV series about war, it seems oddly fitting that he died on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

RIP, Mr. Morgan, and thanks for all your great performances.

Patrick from Cambridge said...

I believe Henry/Harry Morgan’s first film was THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, released in 1942. He has a small part but I couldn’t help thinking he would’ve made a much better Poe than Shepherd Strudwick (billed as “John Shepherd”) who plays him as a generic Southern gentleman. Morgan’s and Virginia Gilmore’s are the only performances of distinction in the movie.

David in Chicago said...

An actor who knows how to listen is a great gift to the 'active' scene partner. The 'active' partner doesn't need to over emphasize anything, he or she can underplay and trust the audience to get the point from the listening partner's reactions.

The best tribute I've read about Mr. Morgan so far. He was one of the greats, no matter what size the screen.

Mark Murphy said...

A superb, beautifully written analysis.

Thank you.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Off-topi, but. . .

My take on Clouzot's L'enfer.

Caleb Grace said...

Sometimes its not about the special effects or the super HD cameras to see the sweat forming on someone's face. Its the actor, giving a great performance and making the audience feel like we are there that will keep people going to the movies forever.

Groggy Dundee said...

Very nice tribute. When I think of Harry Morgan it's always of his scenes in The Shootist, hootin' and hollerin' over the Duke's impending demise. I'm always shocked to be reminded how many great movies he was.