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

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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?

 

WELL(ES) SAID

“My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four….unless there are three other people.” –Orson Welles (in his obese later years)

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Today being the birthday (5/6/1915) of the great director/actor Orson Welles, I’m going to risk repeating myself by repeating myself….with a few selections (including the following clip) from a past post acclaiming Welles and his role in the classic film THE THIRD MAN:

To those who think the likes of this 1949 film has appeal only for seniors (like me), I’d say such films are called classic because they’re ageless, not made to capitalize on what’s ‘in’ at the moment. To demonstrate, here is a non-senior citizen explaining why she loves it:

Of Welles, the man grown from “boy genius,” much has been written, but I won’t go into the details of his life/legend here — they can be readily culled by clicking this link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Welles (or less readily culled from recommended books like ORSON WELLES, a 562 page biography by Barbara Leaming). Instead, I will call on some of the wisdom he left behind….and I quote:

Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive such a world is, in fact, a confirmation of the human spirit.

Living in the lap of luxury isn’t bad except that you never know when luxury is going to stand up.

I don’t pray because I don’t want to bore God.

Race hate isn’t human nature; race hate is the abandonment of human nature.

Don’t give them what they think they want. Give them what they never thought was possible.

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.

When people accept breaking the law as normal, something happens to the whole society.

Well(es) said, I’d say.

 

 

 

THE SOUND OF MOVIES

Even the buffiest of old movie buffs are likely to think of Al Jolson’s THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) as the first sound film, notwithstanding the fact that it is mostly silent (part-talkie with bits of spoken dialogue in addition to musical segments). The first feature-length, all-talking picture was 1928’s LIGHTS OF NEW YORK, a crime drama which cost $28,000 to produce, and grossed over $1,000,000. You couldn’t get most of today’s entertainment prima dons and donnas to turn out the lights for $28,000.

But neither of those films can hold claim to being the first sound movie. Experimentation with sound film had begun the previous decade, and in 1919 Lee de Forest filed the first patent on his sound-on-film process, calling it the De Forest Phonofilm. After several years of development, private and press demonstrations, de Forest publicly premiered 18 Phonofilm short films on April 15, 1923 at the independent Rivoli Theater in NYC (theater chains were controlled by Hollywood studios, none of which expressed an interest in his invention).

Two of the 18 films featured the great vaudeville team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (“The Dixie Duo”), who composed the music for SHUFFLE ALONG (the first Broadway hit musical written by African Americans), which included such songs as “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Love Will Find A Way.” Here is one of those two historic films:

Noble Sissle died on this December day in 1975 at the age of 86. Eubie Blake found a way to live to age 96. Together, they live on in film and song.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Candice Bergen’s book, KNOCK WOOD (reviewed in my last post), was one of too many biographies/autobiographies I’ve been reading lately. I read them because I’m into trying to get a handle on the “real” human being beneath the public persona of past legendary creative/performing artists I’ve “known.”

Take JOHN FORD, director of such classic Westerns as Stagecoach, Fort Apache, My Darling Clementine, Rio Grande and The Searchers. Did I really need to find out (in a book titled COMPANY OF HEROES) that he was a real horse’s ass in the way he treated others — not just the actors and subordinates he “treated like children” and often directed like a sadistic drill sergeant, but in his personal life? Well, some might say that Hollywood filmmaking was a cutthroat industry and Westerns are violent by their very nature, so it goes with the territory.

But Ford wasn’t always thoughtless, nor did he direct only shoot ’em ups. His 50 year directorial career included such (relatively) non-violent gems as Judge Priest (Will Rogers’ finest film), The Grapes Of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley, The Quiet Man (in which fists flew, but not bullets) and Mister Roberts. Go figure. A complex fellow, Mister Ford. 

And then there’s JOHN HUSTON, who made only a few Westerns, but, like Ford, was an egoist, womanizer and “larger-than-life” figure. In his book JOHN HUSTON: COURAGE AND ART, author Jeffrey Meyers paints a picture of a man who was an “extraordinary director, writer, actor, and bon vivant who made such iconic films as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [in which his father, Walter Huston, co-starred], The Asphalt Jungle and The African Queen.” He also directed Anjelica Huston, his daughter by the fourth of his five wives.

John Ford. John Huston. Orson Welles. Billy Wilder. Vincente Minnelli. Woody Allen. And more. Too many biographies/autobiographies? I plead guilty. But I can’t stop. They’re addictive.