After watching more and more films from the 30s and 40s, character actors really began to hold a special place in my heart! The good ones liven up a movie, and they feel like old friends joining you in a new plot line. Anyway I was looking at previous events at the Billy Wilder theatre and discovered that they had a special event dedicated to character actors! I would have loved to see these movies on the big screen!
5.5.06 - 6.7.06 Dini and Les Ostrov and the UCLA Film & Television Archive present ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS!: CELEBRATING HOLLYWOOD'S CLASSIC CHARACTER ACTORS
As the Hollywood studio system grew in the 1920s, thousands of actors came to Los Angeles. Only a few would become household names, but some lucky others would find constant work and studio contracts as supporting players. Often these actors were too old, too "foreign" or simply not considered attractive enough to be romantic leads—not to mention the legions of black, Asian and Latino actors whose ethnicity limited them to bit parts. Among these actors were those who managed to project a particular, instantly recognizable personality from picture to picture, becoming familiar and beloved figures. These supporting players became known as "character actors."
Rather than playing leading ladies and gentlemen, these actors inhabited a colorful array of roles as relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, servants and the like for the leads. While the names attached to their roles would change from film to film, and while the style might vary from the comic to the dramatic, character actors developed finely honed personalities that would remain more or less constant. Actors like Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Alice Brady, William Demarest, S.Z. Sakall, Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette were familiar and beloved faces (if not always names) for moviegoers in the 1930s and 1940s.
While there are still actors today who are considered character actors, the heyday of the character actor was the height of the studio system from the advent of sound through World War II. It is this period that we will feature in our series. We will focus on films containing notable performances by a handful of character actors, including films with large supporting casts, like CASABLANCA, in which the character actors form a kind of community around the romantic leads. And then there are the directors like Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges who formed a kind of stock company out of the supporting players they used again and again. We hope to highlight the variety and the unique contributions of a group of American actors who played everything from the screwballs of 1930s screwball comedy to the colorful types who inhabited the urban intrigues of 1940s Warner Bros. films.
Beautiful Nitrate Print! TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Sexual innuendo meets Continental sophistication in this romantic farce produced during the more permissive days before the enforcement of the Hays Production Code. Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall shine as a pair of con artists intent on separating widow Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) from her fortune in cash and jewels. Love-weary Mariette's suitors are a pair of bickering dandies (played by Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton) who only add to her weariness. Besides a stoical C. Aubrey Smith (with his trademark bushy eyebrows) as the businessman Giron and Hollywood butler par excellence Robert Greig, watch for Leonid Kinskey in an uncredited cameo as a communist radical. With its witty dialogue and inventive strokes of visual humor, TROUBLE IN PARADISE is often regarded as Ernst Lubitsch's finest film and the acme of classical Hollywood comedy.
Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) Directed by Howard Hawks
This hilarious screwball comedy stars Cary Grant as a crafty newspaper editor hell-bent on keeping his ace reporter and ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell) from settling down in the country with a sincere but pitifully dull businessman (Ralph Bellamy) by convincing her to cover the imminent execution of a convicted murderer. Hawks' ingenious use of overlapping dialogue accelerates the film's already fast clip, and he is abetted by a seemingly endless parade of crack comic character actors. Foremost among these is John Qualen as the condemned man, as well as such familiar faces as Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Billy Gilbert, Cliff Edwards, Ernest Truex and Roscoe Karns.
Investigating the death of his partner, Sam Spade (the original hard-boiled detective) is drawn into a maelstrom of murder, greed and betrayal. This adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's gritty novel boosted the careers of just about everyone attached to it, including star Humphrey Bogart and first-time director John Huston. The plot's trio of shady (and sexually ambiguous) characters is played by two of Warner Brothers' most recognizable character actors—Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (in his screen debut)—and by Elisha Cook, Jr., in one of the first meaty screen roles of a career that would span seven decades. These heavies are supported by a second rank of character actors whose faces are more familiar today than their names, including Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick and Jerome Cowan, and by frequent Western character actor Ward Bond.
Dashiell Hammett created Nick and Nora Charles as seriocomic counterparts to Sam Spade, and the Thin Man film series kept audiences laughing while on the edge of their seats as the urbane married couple solved vicious crimes with aplomb. ANOTHER THIN MAN was the third in the series; the title refers to Nick and Nora's newborn son. Parenthood doesn't slow these two much, as they investigate a murder during a weekend on Long Island. One hallmark of the series was the large cast of suspects for each case, including society swells, tough guys, fallen women and rogues. The suspects here include C. Aubrey Smith, Nat Pendleton, Otto Kruger, Abner Biberman and Sheldon Leonard. Special mention must be made of the wonderful Marjorie Main as a feisty landlady.
After Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stole the show by dancing "The Carioca" in FLYING DOWN TO RIO, RKO gave them top billing as a duo for the first time in this musical comedy farce. This would also be the debut for a cast of eccentric supporting characters who would grace future Astaire-Rogers films. To procure a divorce from her stuffy geologist husband, Mimi (Rogers) must get caught in the act with the aid of a professional gigolo (the hilarious Erik Rhodes) whom she has never met, leading her to wrongly identify hoofer Guy Holden (Astaire) as her man. Routinely stealing the show are a team of character actors at the top of their game; besides Rhodes, these include Alice Brady as a giddy dowager, Eric Blore as a genial but addled head waiter and the always charming Edward Everett Horton, who here gets a musical number with a young Betty Grable!
In their follow-up to THE GAY DIVORCEE, Astaire and Rogers perform matchless dance numbers embedded in another plot about mistaken identity. While staying with theatrical producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), Jerry Travers (Astaire), an American musical revue star visiting London, falls head over heels for compatriot Dale Tremont (Rogers), whom he meets after his compulsive tap-dancing wakes her up. A huge box-office success, TOP HAT embodies the Astaire-Rogers film series' formula for success—choreography by Hermes Pan, music by top Broadway composers (in this case Irving Berlin), art direction by Van Nest Poglase, and of course, a cast of delightfully comedic character actors, with Horton, Rhodes and Blore repeating from THE GAY DIVORCEE, and with the notable addition of Helen Broderick.
Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES (1941) Directed by Sam Wood
The farcical elements of screwball comedy are here turned to social commentary, with character actor Charles Coburn taking a rare leading role as the Scrooge-like millionaire owner of a department store. Rumblings of labor unrest prompt him to go undercover as an employee in the store, where he's given a lesson in class-consciousness by Jean Arthur. While Arthur has a romantic partner in the form of Robert Cummings, the two are evenly matched by Coburn and his love interest, famed character actress Spring Byington. The rest of the cast is replete with such familiar and beloved faces as Edmund Gwenn, S.Z. Sakall and William Demarest.
In this classic Western (mixed with a heavy dose of comedy, romance and songs), Jimmy Stewart plays the mild-mannered, milk-drinking sheriff out to tame his nemesis, a violent saloon owner played by Brian Donlevy. Stewart aims to subdue the rowdy town of Bottleneck with words and jokes instead of a gun, while waxing philosophical with Dietrich's earthy but dazzling dance hall girl. Dietrich is priceless as she stands on the bar belting out "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have." The colorful townsfolk of Bottleneck are portrayed by an array of scene-stealers, including Mischa Auer, Una Merkel, Charles Winninger and Allen Jenkins.
CASABLANCA is an allegory of America's entrance into World War II, with Humphrey Bogart's loner Rick eventually drawn to take sides (with Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid) against the Nazis. Here Warner Bros.' greatest character actors represent the oddball gallery of outcasts, refugees, scoundrels, smugglers and exiles surrounding Rick in the émigré community of the title city. Among them are Peter Lorre as slimy black market dealer Ugarte, Sydney Greenstreet as covetous café-owner Ferrari, S.Z. Sakall as fatherly cafe manager Carl, and Leonid Kinskey as bartender Sascha. Many of these were emigrants from Europe, as was Madeline LeBeau (as Yvonne, Rick's ex-girlfriend), who had recently fled Nazi-occupied France.
Barbara Stanwyck shines as a World War II-era ersatz Martha Stewart, writing a magazine column about being a homemaker on a Connecticut farm from her Manhattan apartment. Unaware of the hoax, her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) arranges to have her host a wounded sailor for the holidays as a publicity stunt. Thus the stage is set for a sentimental wartime variant on screwball comedy, as Stanwyck is forced into an elaborate and increasingly unwieldy masquerade, complete with phony husband and baby. Her accomplices include familiar faces Reginald Gardner, Una O'Connor and, most notably, S.Z. Sakall, as charming as ever.
YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) Directed by Frank Capra
Wall Street robber baron's son Tony Kirby (James Stewart) is engaged to Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur), who lives in a very unconventional household of free spirits, headed by her philosophical Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Alice's mother writes plays, her father makes fireworks in the basement and her sister and brother-in-law spend most of their time singing and dancing. The family's cook, boarders and friends add to the mixture of vivid personalities living together in benevolent chaos. But Tony's father (Edward Arnold) has secret plans to acquire Grandpa Vanderhof's home and land, threatening to displace this harmonious commune. Frank Capra often populated his films with scores of memorable character actors, and this Academy Award winner for Best Picture boasts one of his most exuberant casts.
In person: Producer/screenwriter Victoria Riskin, daughter of screenwriter Robert Riskin
Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive MY MAN GODFREY (1936) Directed by Gregory La Cava
A classic comedy of manners, MY MAN GODFREY entertains with a subtle social message beneath its humor, that of the contrast between the worlds of the rich—represented here by an eccentric family populated with brilliant character actors—and the poor. William Powell is outstanding as Godfrey Smith, a WWI veteran found living in a dump during a scavenger hunt by flighty but sympathetic socialite Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard). She hires Godfrey to serve as the family butler where he soon establishes himself as the wisest member of a nutty household. Three of the character players are especially memorable: Eugene Pallette as the harried paterfamilias, Alice Brady as his daffy wife with aspirations to higher things and Mischa Auer as her starving-artist protégé.
Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive BALL OF FIRE (1941) Directed by Howard Hawks
In this screwball version of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, burlesque queen Barbara Stanwyck hides out from the law by moving in with linguistics professor Gary Cooper, who is the youngster in a household of seven other academics. She fills him in on the slang he needs for his research, and in the process, opposites attract. They have only two problems: the police and Dana Andrews as Stanwyck's gangster boyfriend. The classic Hawksian setup (the disruption of an all-male group by a woman who's one of the boys) is knowingly fleshed out by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's script, complete with snappy dialogue and double entendres. The plot gives Hawks the license to deploy not just one but two teams of character actors: the professors and the gangsters. Among the former are Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, Richard Haydn and (once again) Leonid Kinskey and S.Z. Sakall; among the latter are Dan Duryea and Ralph Peters.
Perhaps even more than Frank Capra or Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges is the filmmaker who got the most mileage from the ensemble of comic character actors he used time and again. Starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea, THE PALM BEACH STORY is a romantic comedy employing the typical screwball situation wherein a separated couple is reunited. The film's charm is exceeded only by its hilarity, which is largely supplied by such Sturges stalwarts as hardboiled wisecracker William Demarest and fussbudget Franklin Pangborne. However, as the Wienie King, the otherwise little-known Robert Dudley steals every scene in which he appears.