A PAST OF CHARACTERS

For some time, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do a post on one-of-a-kind character actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, most of them long forgotten except to old film buffs like myself. There are familiar exceptions, of course — non-starring actors who appeared in classic films which continue to be shown today, such as Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ) and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (Ugarte/Joel Cairo and the fat man, respectively, in CASABLANCA and THE MALTESE FALCON). But today I want to focus on the rule, not the well-remembered exceptions.

It was while researching April 5th birthdays for notables born on this date (and finding the likes of Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis and Gregory Peck) that I saw among them a long forgotten character actor whose name (Grady Sutton, born 4/5/1906) rang a bell….so I decided to do such a post today and include him among those I pay tribute to. To make it a bit (player) more interesting, I’ll list six names, followed by clips (not in the same order) of scenes in which they separately appear. Can you spot one of the six in each clip?

1. Eric Blore
2. Margaret Dumont
3. James Finlayson
4. Billy Gilbert
5. Hattie McDaniel
6. Grady Sutton

a. 

b.

c.

d.

e.

f.

How many could you identify? Hint: the names match the clips in reverse order; e.g.,
1. Eric Blore is the British valet being “summoned” in “f.” For more on Blore, click here:
Eric Blore: What a Character!

2. Margaret Dumont (clip “e”) should pose no recognition problem for Marx Brothers fans. For those who aren’t Marxists, mark this: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0241669/bio

3. James Finlayson (clip “d”) should pose no recognition problem for Laurel & Hardy fans. When you can’t imagine any other actor in his L & H roles, you know he was truly unique: http://www.wayoutwest.org/finlayson/

4. Billy Gilbert is the man (Pettibone) in the middle in this clip (“c”) from HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). Like Finlayson and Dumont, another one-of-a-kinder: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0317970/

5. Hattie McDaniel (clip “b”) plays Aunt Tempy and sings “Sooner or Later” opposite James Baskett (as Uncle Remus) in this scene from Walt Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946). Best known role: Mammy, in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939): http://www.biography.com/people/hattie-mcdaniel-38433

6. Grady Sutton (clip “a”) plays new assistant (Chester) to W.C. Fields in this scene from YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939). He was also a Fields foil in MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935) and THE BANK DICK (1940).

Yes, my friends, there were great character actors in the land of make-believe in those days. If some were but “bit” players, they made their small parts singularly indispensable. We shall not see their like again.

OF LOVERS AND LEAPERS

On Leap Day (Feb. 29), according to an ancient Irish custom, a woman is permitted to propose to a man, who must accept, or pay a penalty. Thus, being of part-Irish descent, my thoughts this day turn — or should I say, leap— to love. Ah, L’AMOUR! Ah, LAMOUR (Dorothy Lamour, that is — she of silver screen memory and part-Irish descent). Sure, and I  still don’t know why she didn’t propose to this dear boy back in those saronged “ROAD” movie days, being as close as the first row of the darkened theater, and I only 22 years younger than she. When love dreams have gone so cruelly unrequited, ’tis THE END OF THE WORLD — one might just as well d(r)ive off a suitable cliff. For example:

Click LOVE ROCKS

Now, if I were a cynic, I might postulate that the daring young man in the flying machine was under the influence of something more substance-tive than love that didn’t click. But this happened in the hallowed Hannibal of our beloved Mark Twain, who coincidentally wrote of a Lover’s Leap called Maiden’s Rock (named for a beautiful Sioux maiden) in his book LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI….so let us not jump to judgment.

Maiden’s Rock and the Lover’s Leap in Hannibal are, of course, but two of many such sites in America and beyond (including one of legendary leaps from a rocky waterfall on the Glencree River, County Wicklow, Ireland). If your love dreams are on the rocks and you’re thinking of taking the plunge, but don’t know where you’d make the biggest splash,

look here BEFORE YOU LEAP

On a happier note, Feb. 29 is a good day to be born because your birthday only comes around every four years. That may put a serious crimp in the number of birthday presents you get, but who wouldn’t exchange that shortfall for quadruple the longevity? I’ll admit I don’t personally know anyone who’s lived to near age 400, probably because such persons cheat and celebrate their non-leap year birthdays on Feb.28 or March 1. Oh, well — who can blame them for not wanting to depend on Depends for the last 300 years of their lives?

But I do know of some of the statistically 1 in 1461 people born on Feb. 29 — people like Jimmy Dorsey, the 1930s-40s Big Band leader; Dinah Shore, the 1940s band vocalist and 1950s-60s TV & recording star; and Michèle Morgan, a French actress who came to the U.S. when Germany invaded France in 1940, and returned after the war. Though little known outside France, she has the distinction of having played opposite Frank Sinatra in his first starring role in the film Higher and Higher (1943), and she almost landed the female lead in Casablanca opposite Humphrey Bogart, but RKO wouldn’t release her to Warner Bros. for the sum of money offered. She is still with us on this, her 96th birthday.

Should we end where we started, leaving the dashed dreams of life and romance on the precipice, as lamented here by Karen Carpenter (born March 2nd)? Don’t they know it’s THE END OF THE WORLD?

Or, should we get a grip, and tell February 29 to take a flying leap? Forward, March!

 

STRICTLY, FROM HUNGARY

You must remember this — the opening scene (after opening credits) in CASABLANCA:

I am reminded of that scene’s “tortuous, roundabout refugee trail” when seeing reports  of tens of thousands fleeing from war-torn Syria, west across the Mediterranean in small boats to Greece, and thence overland hundreds of miles through passageway countries to Germany and other destinations. Some die in the attempt (recall the picture-worth-a-thousand-words of the lifeless body of a 3 year old boy washed up on a Turkish beach in early September). Many “wait….and wait….and wait….and wait” in refugee camps. Many more have been kept from continuing on, stopped on their way by the far right government of Hungary, which has been particularly strict in this regard. If you thought “exit visas/letters of transit” were hard to come by in CASABLANCA….

Perhaps you’ve read some of the recent series of articles in USA TODAY called TREK WITH MIGRANTS in which journalist Kim Hjelmgaard follows “migrants on their arduous 1,500 mile journey from Greece to Berlin” to witness their challenges. Particularly illuminating was Day 7 (CHECKING OUT WALL CURLING ACROSS HUNGARY) of that series, from which I quote:

I sat next to Robert [Kim’s guide] for most of Thursday as his car zigzagged around small-town Hungary in search of new additions to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s controversial barrier. The Hungarian leader has already erected a 15-foot-high rampart along the entire 110-mile border with Serbia. Now, he was starting work on a fence to close the 25-mile [border] with Croatia.
On my way up here this week from Greece, I had been told by several people not to mess with Hungarian police. They are prone to violence, they said. Last week, several journalists said they were beaten and detained for speaking to refugees. So it was Robert (and Naomi), or go straight to the Austrian border, and I didn’t want to do that. Naomi, his girlfriend, wasn’t in the car in the usual sense, but they were in frequent contact by phone, Facebook and text message.
He told me that the “very beautiful” Naomi — she is 19; he is 23 — was studying to be a physical therapist, and she wanted to one day own a “big, big” house in Sweden and possess extremely expensive things.
This wall in Hungary had been a flashpoint in the migrant crisis;
I asked if he thought it was good for Hungary to be trying to seal its borders when so many people were intent on getting through anyway.
Robert said he didn’t have an opinion either way. And so I asked about Naomi, what does she think, this policeman’s daughter? And of course Naomi had an opinion. I could hear that by the way her voice was spilling out over the edges of Robert’s cellphone. “She said she thinks the wall is a good idea, and that she also understands why the people are leaving their countries,” Robert said.
“And Sweden?” I asked. “Was there any contradiction in her wanting to go there for the ‘big, big’ house, and people wanting to come to Europe for a house?”
He didn’t know. I didn’t either.

There is, of course, more to the refugee crisis than the one scene here. Still, one wonders, why can’t Hungary abide terrorized people passing through? Is Hungary worried that they’ll see how wonderful Hungary is and change their minds about continuing on? Is Hungary concerned that they’ll devour all available food and leave the country so Hungary that it will starve? Is Hungary afraid they’ll leave a trail of drugs, crime, and raped women in their wake? If so, why doesn’t Hungary say so? When it comes to demonizing illegals crossing borders, Hungary’s right wing counterparts in America have no such qualms (and, unlike America, Hungary’s “illegals” don’t come to stay).

This is a post without a happy ending….but before I close, you younger-than-I trivia buffs may be interested in the origin/meaning of the idiom on which the post’s title is based:

Strictly From Hunger: Explanations, investigations

WHEEL OF MISFORTUNE

Do you know what day it is today? Of course you do — April 5 is GO FOR BROKE DAY. “Going for broke,” I suppose, could be spun several ways, but as the subject of this post, it’s a day for the (w)ages. I’m putting my hard-earned money on gambling, and I’m betting that you”ll treasure these quotes on the subject. If not, they come with a funny-back guarantee, so what have you got to lose?

There is an easy way to return from a casino with a small fortune: go there with a large one. -Jack Yelton

I like to play blackjack. I’m not addicted to gambling, I’m addicted to sitting in a semi-circle. -Mitch Hedberg

Lottery: A tax on people who are bad at math. -Unknown

Last night I stayed up late playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died. -Steven Wright

I used to be a heavy gambler. But now I just make mental bets. That’s how I lost my mind. -Steve Allen

I bet on a horse at ten-to-one. It didn’t come in until half-past five. -Henny Youngman

I don’t gamble, because winning $100 doesn’t give me great pleasure. But losing $100 pisses me off. -Alex Trebeck

Nobody has ever bet enough on a winning horse. -Richard Sasuly

You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people. -Will Rogers

Someone once asked me why women don’t gamble as much as men and I gave the commonsensical reply that we don’t have as much money. That was a true but incomplete answer. In fact, women’s total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage. -Gloria Steinem

Money can be lost in more ways than won. -Evan Esar

Baccarat is a game whereby the croupier gathers in money with a flexible sculling oar, then rakes it home. If I could have borrowed his oar, I would have stayed. -Mark Twain

Of course, no discourse on gambling would be complete without this:

WHAT A CHARACTER….ACTOR

I have in the past noted the birthdays or deaths of a number of star actors. Yesterday marked the death of an actor who may not have been a leading man-type star, but was one of the leading and most unforgetable character actors of all time. If you’re a fan of classic movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age, you’ve seen him as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon and as Ugarte in Casablanca. I refer to Laszlo Lowenstein – better known as PETER LORRE (June 26, 1904 – March 23, 1964).

Humphrey Bogart may have been THE star (along with Ingrid Bergman in the latter of those films), but for my money, the secondary players were no less memorable: Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook Jr., Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt and, of course, Peter Lorre.

Lorre was born Laszlo Lowenstein in Austria-Hungary and began his film career in Berlin in the late 1920s, making his first big splash as a child murderer in the German film in 1931. After fleeing Hitler’s persecution of Jews, he made his first English language film, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1934. He then moved to Hollywood where, after several years, his career entered a period of decline until Director John Huston cast him in The Maltese Falcon in 1941, and the rest is mystery….along with occasional comedy – speaking of which, here he is in a guest appearance on the Jack Benny Show in 1963:

IT’S SPRING AGAIN

It’s spring again / And birds on the wing again / Start to sing again / The old melody.   from I LOVE YOU (lyrics and music by Cole Porter)

Yes, fellow (and gal) music lovers, it’s spring again — the season which usually comes unusually late or early every year and seems to inspire the romantic poet in every song writer….or at least it did when the world was more melodic, and composers were Cole Porters at heart. It has been said of Porter that “even in the absence of his melodies, his words distill an unmistakable mixture of poignancy and wit that marks him as a genius of light verse.”*

I think the same can be said, though not always to the same degree of genius, of many song writers from America’s Golden Age of popular music. No matter their individual personalities, their songs — not least, their “spring songs” — betray them as “rank sentimentalists” beneath the surface (in the manner of Captain Renault seeing through Rick in CASABLANCA).

To the point, here’s a sampling of such songs (and their lyricists) from that lost world, followed by clips of recordings sung by voices which may sound strange to generational “foreign-ears,” but as Jimmy Stewart once said of his singing Porter’s EASY TO LOVE in the film BORN TO DANCE, the song’s so good, even he couldn’t mess it up:

SPRING IS HERE (Lorenz Hart) www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFiNQObPxEk

THERE’LL BE ANOTHER SPRING (Peggy Lee) www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1utcGFiXu8

SPRING WILL BE A LITTLE LATE THIS YEAR (Frank Loesser) www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbwRgQ-I_ms

IT SEEMS TO BE SPRING (George Marion Jr.) www.youtube.com/watch?v=Svi45srqhgM

IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING (Oscar Hammerstein II) www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-JLbac6EVE

SPRING, SPRING, SPRING (Johnny Mercer) www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT6RHkYViOc

*quoted from the dust jacket of Cole Porter, selected lyrics, Robert Kimball, editor

WRITE OF PASSAGE

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
–Ernest Hemingway 

Before becoming an internet blogger several years ago, I had been a much-published “typewriter” poet and writer for over twenty years in various literary journals and magazines….yet I don’t recall ever being asked why I write. Perhaps the motivation is obvious. I write because I’m a writer — writing is in my blood. The reason I write is akin to the answer Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) gave Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in CASABLANCA: We might as well question why we breathe.

This is not to say that everyone who writes is a writer who must write. Just as there are all kinds of people, there are all kinds of writers with all kinds of agendas, many of whom (from a passion standpoint) appear more agenda-driven than writing-driven….and that’s all well and good, though I’m not sure you can have it both ways and call yourself a creative writer. It seems to me that anyone who doesn’t love writing for its own sake is not on the same page as a creative writer….and it seems that I am not alone in that opinion:

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.
–Maya Angelou

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. –Mark Twain

We live and breathe words. It was books that made me feel that perhaps I was not completely alone. They could be honest with me, and I with them. Reading your words, what you wrote, how you were lonely sometimes and afraid, but always brave; the way you saw the world….  –Cassandra Clare

Fantasy is hardly an excape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.
–Lloyd Alexander

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.  —Oscar Wilde

Or maybe that isn’t all. There are many more quotes from writers worth repeating, and I expect I’ll be repeating some of them sometime soon.