HOLLYWOOD’S GOLDEN AGE: THE “BAD” ACTORS

“The gangster film has always been one of the staples of the American cinema. Though the record shows that there were several motion pictures with a gangster theme as far back as the silent era, the genre did not really begin to flourish as a popular form until the thirties. Depression-era audiences responded strongly to all the action, violence and romance that these films contained, and were more than willing to get caught up in the colorful on-screen exploits of Edward G. Robinson,, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In a sense, the movie gangster, with the rebellious breaking of society’s rules and regulations, and his aggressive drive to “get somewhere” regardless of consequences, became something of a hero to filmgoers of the period.”
“Robinson, Cagney and Bogart are, even today, the three actors most associated with films of this type, which isn’t surprising, since all three achieved their initial fame in a Warner Brothers [the king-of-the-hill gangster film studio] crime drama.”

–Robert Bookbinder, author of CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There were a lot of “bad actors” in Hollywood in those days. Robinson, Cagney and Bogart weren’t the only famous names to have become famous names playing bad guys in 1930s gangster films, but most (e.g. Peter Lorre) remained typecast as character actors. We will take a look at the “bad character actors” in our next post; this post will look to the stars.

Quoting further from Robert Bookbinder’s excellent book CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS, “Little Caesar [1931] was the first of the great gangster films. It made a star of Edward G. Robinson, who had been working in films since 1923, and it laid the groundwork for all the fine Warner Brothers gangster movies that followed.” Here’s a clip from the film:

How tough was Edward G. Robinson? Tough enough to get Doris Day and Jack Carson out of a pickle:

Just as Little Caesar made a star of Robinson, Warner Brothers’ second gangster film (later the same year), The Public Enemy, made a star of James Cagney. In this scene, after Cagney’s friend is shot to death by a gang, he vows revenge and arms himself with two 38s:

By 1942, Cagney had made a clean break from the “gangs” — here he is in scenes from his Oscar-winning performance as showman George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy:

As for Humphrey Bogart, he was the last of the three to attain stardom after years of supporting roles in gangster films. In The Roaring Twenties (1939), he is third-billed (Cagney stars):

All three, as we know, went on to bigger (if not badder) things in such films as Double Indemnity (Robinson), Mister Roberts (Cagney), and, of course, Casablanca (Bogart), among many other memorable performances. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

 

GANGSTER WRAP

I trust that you remember my March 30 post titled HOLLYWOOD, DEAD LEFT ON VINE. If not, maybe you could use a nudge from Police Lt. Frank Drebin to refresh your memory:

Maybe now you remember: my March 30 opus delicti distinguished between film noir (theme of that post) and gangster movies (this post’s theme), while allowing for crossover in films like WHITE HEAT (classified as film noir in one book, and gangster film in another). To anyone not ‘into’ such films, these thorny details may strike one as nothing more than a distinction without a difference….but I’ll assume you aren’t “anyone,” because I’ve got a job to pull — I mean, a post to write — and the subject ain’t roses.

That’s odd. I could have sworn the subject was not roses.

Wait a shrouded minute! Now I remember — the subject was supposed to be gangster movies. My bad. Sorry for the hold up.

In the introduction to his book CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS, by (appropriately enough) Robert Bookbinder, he writes: “The gangster film has always been one of the staples of the American cinema. Though there were several motion pictures with a gangster theme produced as far back as the silent era, the genre did not really begin to flourish until the thirties, when it reigned throughout the decade as one of the public’s favorite kinds of “escapist” entertainment. Depression-era audiences responded strongly to all the action, violence and romance, and were more than willing to get caught up in the on-screen exploits of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In a sense, the movie gangster, with his rebellious breaking of society’s rules and regulations, and his aggressive drive to “get somewhere” regardless of consequences, became something of a hero to filmgoers of the period.”

It is worth noting that, although the gangster film by no means passed completely out of the picture, its most productive period (1930 to 1941-42) led to the era of classic film noir (1941-59)….which began with THE (never-surpassed) MALTESE FALCON. The above three stars were equally without rival in both genres.

Bookbinder’s book binds together the above transition, providing a fascinating look back at 45 gangster films (several overlapping into film noir), complete with credits, cast, commentary, photos and synopsis for each film, ranging from LITTLE CAESAR in 1930 to BONNIE AND CLYDE in 1967 and THE BROTHERHOOD in 1969. Of the latter, Bookbinder states: “It was not especially successful, and it has been almost completely overshadowed in film history by the more expensive and elaborate Godfather films of the early seventies. The picture deserves a better fate….what a truly entertaining gem it is.”

Now, I will admit that, in general, I am not as big a fan of gangster films as I am of film noir. I have an affinity for the more tangled and convoluted plots (in most cases) of the latter, compared to the more macho and less sophisticated gangster films….but then, “sophisticated” is not a term one normally associates with gangsters — so, by Sam, let’s call a spade a Spade. It’s not a bum rap.

But there is one bailiwick in which gangster films win hands down — I mean, hands up! (ha ha) — and that is in gangster film spoofs such as the all-time classic, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), which lost out to (would you believe?) BEN-HUR in practically every Academy Award category for that year. Oh, well — nobody’s perfect. 😦

And that’s a wrap.

 

 

HOLLYWOOD, DEAD LEFT ON VINE*

The film noir of the classic period (1941-59) is normally associated with the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood and its aftermath. In truth, the creative impetus for its most influential literary content dates back a full century.
In April 1841, Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia published the first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe and thus, mystery fiction was born. –
-Lawrence Bassoff, CRIME SCENES

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In my 11/30/16 post titled BOOKS RIGHT DOWN MY ALLEY, I wrote of finding a large cache of old movie books at a local library’s used book sale. One of those books was CRIME SCENES (subtitled Movie Poster Art of the Film Noir), from which the above quote is taken. How could I resist buying such a book, given that Film Noir has long been one of my favorite film genres, which includes such classics as THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), MURDER MY SWEET (1943), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), LAURA (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). The introduction states it “is the first genre retrospective collection of movie poster art on the topic ever published in book form.”

Bassoff writes that in the summer of 1946, ten American films whose French releases had been blocked by WW II (including the first five of the above) arrived in Paris theaters to be viewed by “new product-starved French filmgoers”….films based on American novels the French called “Serie Noire” by such authors as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The term “film noir” (first attributed to Frenchman Nino Frank in 1946) literally means “black film” for the “often low key, black and white visual style of the films themselves.”

And what great films they are! Even after having seen some of these films more than once, I could return to the scene of the crime once again;  no doubt you could too — assuming you’re a film noir buff, which it would be a crime if you’re not. The test? Can you name at least half of the directors and stars of the above films? Answers (directors in CAPS):

THE MALTESE FALCON — JOHN HUSTON (making his directorial debut), Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet
MURDER MY SWEET — EDWARD DYMTRYK, Dick Powell
DOUBLE INDEMNITY — BILLY WILDER, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
LAURA — OTTO PREMINGER, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price
THE BIG SLEEP — HOWARD HAWKS, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall
SUNSET BOULEVARD — BILLY WILDER, William Holden, Gloria Swanson
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN — ALFRED HITCHCOCK, Farley Granger, Robert Walker

Moving on: if Basssoff’s book were not confined to Hollywood film noir, no such list would be complete without THE THIRD MAN (1949), a British-made classic directed by Carol Reed, starring Orson Wells and Joseph Cotton. And of course there are many other Hollywood tour de force classics worthy of being kept alive, including such killer-dillers as:

WHITE HEAT is considered by some to be in the gangster film realm rather than film noir, but there’s no law against crossover — in fact, WHITE HEAT is classified as film noir in CRIME SCENES and gangster film in CLASSIC GANGSTER FILMS (the latter being another used book sale find, which I may review in a future post). Meanwhile, I highly recommend the former — as Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) said of the bogus Maltese Falcon: It’s “the stuff dreams are made of.” And nightmares.

*HOLLYWOOD, DEAD LEFT ON VINE is a play on the famous intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. I heard on the grapevine that the site was a ranch, and then a lemon grove, until 1903.

20161005_Hollywood_and_Vine_historical_marker

 

NOBODY’S PERFECT

Fans of Hollywood’s Golden Age movies will recognize the above title as one of the classic last lines in film history, said by Joe E. Brown to Jack Lemmon at the end of Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959). Today being Wilder’s birthday (June 22, 1906), and me being in the middle of a biography of Wilder by the same title, I thought I’d offer my own brief tribute to one of the great directors of all time, to be followed at a later date by a review of the book when I’ve finished reading it. Seeing as how I’ve owned the book for over a year and am not yet halfway through it, don’t expect the follow-up anytime soon. I may be retired, but I still can never seem to find time to catch up on my reading. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

Even the greatest directors made some films that weren’t so hot, and Wilder made a few such, but few directors and screenwriters have made more movies that bear repeated viewings (which is my standard for greatness) than Billy Wilder. Here is my Top Ten list of favorite Wilder films:

THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942), starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland
DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson
THE LOST WEEKEND (1945), starring Ray Milland
SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim
STALAG 17 (1953), starring William Holden

SABRINA (1954), starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn and William Holden
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), starring Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power
SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe
THE APARTMENT (1960), starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray
ONE, TWO, THREE (1961), starring James Cagney

When Wilder died March 27, 2002, he took his wit to his grave. His headstone reads:

    BILLY WILDER

     I’M A WRITER
         BUT THEN
NOBODY’S PERFECT

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:

‘TWAS THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS

Yesterday may have been Christmas, but heaven only knows the exact date of Christ’s birth (Christmas wasn’t celebrated on December 25 until the 4th century A.D.). So, here it is the day after Christmas, which is a lull of a day following as full of a day as there is all year, and I’ve decided to find out who (of note) actually was born on December 25. Why? Not why they were born on that day (presumably, something naughty and nice happened one night nine months previously), but — why do I bother? Because inquiring minds want to know, that’s why….and my readers, being wise men and women, have inquiring minds (I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt).

Believe It or Not, Robert Ripley was born on Christmas day (in 1890). If you’re a lover of trivia, you can thank Robert Ripley for making it a popular pursuit even before you were born. Ripley was a cartoonist and amateur anthropologist who created Believe It or Not! as a panel series in Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate in 1929. A year later, Ripley famously expanded into other media, including radio and short films such as this 1930 Vitaphone curio (it’s a hoot!):

Can’t get enough of his wonderful stuff? Then tune in January 6th to the PBS series American Experience (here’s a half-minute preview):

Ripley was voted the most popular man in America by the New York Times in the 1930s, a decade in which he opened (in six cities) museums called Odditoriums. He died 1n 1949 and is buried, appropriately enough, in Oddfellows Lawn Cemetery, Santa Rosa, CA.

Other notables who were born on Christmas day include Clara Barton, American Red Cross founder (1821); Kid Ory, legendary early New Orleans jazzman (1886); Humphrey (we’ll always have Casablanca) Bogart (1899); and Cab Calloway, jazz band leader (1907).

And while we’re at it, since Christmas both giveth and taketh away, here are some notable December 25th deaths: Charlie Chaplin (died 1977); two Martins, Billy (1989) and Dean (1995); and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (2006).

And with that, I believe I’ll call it a day.

.