May 16 is National Classic Movie Day, and to celebrate my friend Rick at the Classic Film and TV Cafe has invited me to take part in a Five Stars Blogathon, in which I, along with other fellow classic movie bloggers, will list our FIVE favorite classic movie stars. So let's get started!
Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando. These classic Hollywood stars contributed greatly to the great reputation of Tinsel Town's glorious golden age. They are larger than life. They are iconic. Their reputations are immortal (as far as pop culture celebrities go). And for these exact reasons, they are not even close among my favorites in classic movie actors and actresses.
I have never been drawn to the mega-stars. I always felt like most of those whose names are still recognized by the average Joe today, and whose image one might find on a beach towel or a coffee mug, were overrated to say the least. Mind you, I'm not saying they didn't make good movies, or were uninteresting. To the contrary. They gained their unforgettable status due to fine films and intriguing roles. But when I began being REALLY interested in "old" movies, it was the lesser known stars that I was drawn to. Not secondary leads or obscure players (although many of them are great too), my favorites were still stars, make no doubt, but they didn't necessarily reach the echelons of a Bette Davis or a Mae West. It's for this reason specifically that I am intrigued with my favorites. They led very interesting lives, sported attractive personas, as well as faces. They are often underrated but always enjoyed.
I saw my first Jeanne Crain movie in the very late '70s. It was Dangerous Crossing, a mystery thriller about a bride who loses her husband on their honeymoon voyage. Even bigger problem, no one on board ever saw them together. The first thing that struck me about Jeanne was how beautiful she was. But I didn't see another of her films until a few years later, when I caught Margie on a Sunday afternoon TV airing. Such colorful fun and, again, Jeanne was gorgeous. Over the years I saw more of Crain's movies and her gentle beauty and understated acting appealed more and more. She, like many of my favorites, has been all but forgotten except for the die hard classic movie fan, but her contribution to mid-century moviedom is significant.
When I was a young lad and just getting interested in classic film, I saw a TV movie called The Scarlett O'Hara War. It told the story of how producer David O. Selznick led a search for the perfect actress to play the much-coveted role of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind (I write about this extensively in my book The Search for Scarlett O'Hara). One of the many actresses vying for the part was a brunette beauty named Joan Bennett. I started searching out Bennett's movies wherever I could, which wasn't easy in the early '80s, with limited channels on the pre-satellite/streaming boob tube. But as I eventually watched her films, I saw how her dark, smoldering screen persona had captured audiences in her prime. She's always been a solid, dependable, beautiful star in my book, and her movies never fail to satisfy.
Paramount star Paulette Goddard is a ball of fire. A vivacious vixen in the true sense. She started her entertainment career as a teen in the famous (or perhaps infamous) Ziegfeld Follies. Then in the early '30s, the already once-divorced Goddard met and became the muse of comedian Charles Chaplin. Although the couple claimed to be married, their lack of proper documentation recording the event was a huge factor in costing Paulette the Scarlett O'Hara role in Gone with the Wind. Ah, now we get back to where I first discovered Goddard. Like Joan Bennett, I learned of Paulette and her career through the Selznick Scarlett Search. Her beauty (I go for the pretty ones, but then, who doesn't?) and charisma lit up both the silver screen and her private life. She was signed by Paramount and became one of its most popular stars of the early and mid-1940s. Besides Chaplin, she was married to actor Burgess Meredith and novelist Erich Maria Remarque. As spouses go, she really knew how to pick 'em... or, they knew how to pick her.
He had a distinctive voice, also a rather distinctive look. I don't believe a Hollywood producer would have said "I'm looking for a Joseph Cotten type." He had a unique screen persona, or did he have a persona at all? I mean, he could play a wide range of roles. That's why I like Cotten. He could play a villain with the absolute BEST of them (You must catch him in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt). He could play the goodest good guy (I know, that's not proper English, but nonetheless watch Joe in Gaslight or Portrait of Jennie). Urbane bon vivant or solid member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, he was good at any genre he attempted.
Okay, I've saved this last offering for a reason. With all my fine talk about stars who, in my opinion, have traveled below the Hollywood movie radar, HOW can I choose Cary Grant as one of my very favorites? He's an icon among icons, right? Well, because the way I see it, Grant holds all the attributes I find attractive in my earlier choices: physically appealing, debonair, charming to a fault, and able to display an ease in front of the camera that is unmatched. Oh, and you can't beat his movies! Sure, he had some turkeys on occasion, but who didn't? Some of my personal favorite Grant films are The Awful Truth, In Name Only, Suspicion and Notorious. Cary really let his hair down with Hitchcock. Grant was an independent actor before it was cool and other stars were bound in blood to the big name studios. I think most classic movie fans have at least a couple of favorite Cary Grant pictures. What about you?