Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Character Actors: Three of the Best!

I've written a couple of posts on this blog about classic movie character actors or supporting players.  Whatever you choose to call them, they help form the foundation of a solid classic film.  Where would Rebecca be without Florence Bates, Nigel Bruce or the terrific Gladys Cooper?  How about Lost Horizon without Isabel Jewel or Thomas Mitchell?  These actors and actresses add a certain nuance with their characterizations that give zing where there might not be any and act as a foil for the main stars of a movie.  Here are a few excellent examples of these tried and true who made their mark on the silver screen.

Eve Arden
 "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young." That quote from 1945's Mildred Pierce is a great example of the kind of lines tossed off so easily and deliciously by Eve Arden (pictured above), who spoke it and others just as biting in Pierce and several dozen more classic movies.  Glamorous and chic, Arden was eternally the best friend of the star or the personal assistant to the main character instead of the lead herself.

Making her film debut in 1929, she took to the stage and then back to movies in the late 30's, breaking through with a supporting role in RKO's Stage Door.  From then on the size of her parts increased and her persona as a seasoned career woman, spouting sardonic wit and rarely getting the man blossomed.

Besides Mildred Pierce (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category), she appeared in Cover Girl (1944), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) and Tea for Two (1950).  She found her largest audience on television in the 1950's comedy Our Miss Brooks.

Franklin Pangborn
Flustered, fussy, sometimes prissy, always funny are just some of the descriptives of the characters played by the undeniably entertaining Franklin Pangborn.  This native of New Jersey most memorably played sales clerks, department store floor walkers or efficient headwaiters and always added character to any scene he was in.

Like Thelma Ritter, Pangborn got his start on the stage in the first quarter of the 20th Century entering films in the mid 1920's. Coming into his own in the late 30's and thoughout the 40's, his film resume reads like a veritable "Best of" list from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Among the dozens of films in which he appeared some of the best are My Man Godfrey (1936), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Sullivan's Travels (1941) and Now, Voyager (1942).

Thelma Ritter
Wise-cracking, working class, world weary characters were Thelma Ritter's specialty.  Whenever she was on the screen there was never a dull moment and, though she was lucky to be provided with some of the brightest dialogue written in Hollywood, it was her razor sharp delivery that lingers in the memory.

Ritter made her film debut at the age of 45 in a small but very memorable role as the Christmas shopping weary mother in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  In A Letter to Three Wives (1949), she was again unbilled as tart tongued maid Sadie Duggan, but left her mark so impressively that she was cast as Birdie in All About Eve (1950).  For Eve she received her first of six Academy Award nominations, four consecutively.  Along with Eve, she was nominated for The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953), Pillow Talk (1959) and The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), all in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Developing her acting roots on the stage, Ritter was also on Broadway, winning a Tony Award in 1958 as Best Actress (Musical) for New Girl in Town.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Lady on a Train (1945): Deanna Durbin Solves a Mystery!

With a pert and high-spirited personality, strong, operatic singing voice and youthful confidence, Deanna Durbin was one of the most popular teenage stars of the classic movie age. Long forgotten by all but hardcore fans of Hollywood's golden age, Durbin has often been given credit for saving her home studio, Universal, from bankruptcy in the late 30's and early 40's and at one point she was the highest paid female star in Tinsel Town. Having a string of hits in her corner, this winsome warbler turned her back on Hollywood, retiring to France at the ripe old age of 27.

In 1945 Durbin was in transition from perky juvenile to sophisticated, though still vivacious, glamour girl. Lady on a Train showcased both a more adult Deanna, as well as her lilting singing voice, though, like most DD films, it would hardly be classified as a musical. It was however, the rare movie combination of comedy-mystery, with shades of the Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard classic, The Cat and the Canary.  It also has a film noir feel about it. Dark, moody lighting, guns being brandished and danger (as well as laughs) lurking just around the corner.

Nicki Collins is a pretty and ebullient young San Francisco socialite who witnesses a murder via a passenger train while en route to visit her aunt in New York. When she confronts New York's finest about the dirty deed she has observed, they blow her off as a crackpot when they discover she has been reading murder mysteries. The determined damsel sets out to initiate help from the author of one of her pulp fiction primers, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), and solve the mystery herself.

While watching a newsreel in a local theater, Nicki discovers that the murdered gent was a well-known and wealthy businessman. She heads out to his Long Island estate, only to get entangled with his "grieving" family and be mistaken for a nightclub singer with whom the dearly departed was having an affair. Other mishaps occur including getting between Morgan and his snooty upper crust fiancee, as well as causing a near nervous breakdown for her father's assistant (Edward Everett Horton, famous for his jittery, flustered persona), sent East to watch over the zealous lass.

Lady on a Train is fun. Deanna Durbin is fun in it, although it's not a completely typical example of what a DD movie is (as a bubbly teen the star sang more songs and was usually a matchmaker or problem solver of sorts). She does get to sing three tunes in this film, including a lovely rendition of "Silent Night" (the flick is set during the Christmas season), "Give Me a Little Kiss" and Cole Porter's "Night and Day," in a sultry voice and curvaceous outfit.

Surrounding the film's star are a slew of great supporting actors. As members of the deceased man's family, Ralph Bellamy, Elizabeth Patterson and Dan Duryea (in a good guy role....or is it?) join in the mysterious antics. Patricia Morison, Allen Jenkins and William Frawley (pre-Fred Mertz) round out the stellar supporting cast. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound.

The movie is based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who created the crime detective character Simon Templar, aka "The Saint." Another very relevant literary connection to Charteris story and this film is mystery queen Agatha Christie. Her 1957 story "4:50 from Paddington" features a very similar story angle with the main character witnessing a murder while on a train (this story would be filmed as Murder, She Said starring Margaret Rutherford in 1961).

Lady on a Train was produced by Felix Jackson, whom Durbin would marry later the same year. They divorced in 1948, and in 1950, Durbin would marry the film's director, Charles David. It was shortly after this last marriage that the star would retire and live the remainder of her life in France.


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