Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sidney Poitier and Friends

I was thinking about how big the cast has become on most newer movies, after looking at the cast of National Treasure and Sleepless in Seattle.  I went back to 1963 and looked at Lilies of the Field with Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala.  What an incredibly good movie, and the cast only includes nine people.  It won an Oscar for best actor and had four other nominations.  It was even filmed in black and white.  Sometimes simplicity is better, and probably a lot less expensive.  The entire filming only took two weeks.

An uncredited bit part went to Ralph Nelson as the construction company owner, Mr. Ashton.  He owned more than the construction company...he directed the picture!

The priest was played by Dan Frazer who you will recognize instantly in so many TV and movie roles.  Most notably as Capt. Frank McNeil on "Kojak."  I can still hear Telly Savalas yelling, "Oh c'mon, Frank!"  He was also in Deconstructing Harry (1997) with Woody Allen.  Now in his eighties, he appears to be still acting as of 2009.

Of course, everybody loved Juan the short order cook.  Juan was played by Stanley Adams who has 189 roles to his credit on IMBD.  Stanley played in all of my favorite TV shows as a guest star.  He was in "Cheyenne," "Maverick," "Peter Gunn," "The Rifleman," "Have Gun Will Travel," "The Red Skelton Show," "Bonanza," "The Addams Family," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Gunsmoke," and the most popular episode on the original "Star Trek" series, "The Trouble with Tribbles," where he played Cyrano Jones.  I told you I watched a lot of TV!

Adams played Rusty Trawler in Breakfast at Tiffany's with Audrey Hepburn.  I thought that was a good movie, but a lot is missing from the short story.  He also appeared in "Death of a Salesman" on TV with Lee J. Cobb.

It is funny that the four nuns never amounted to much in their acting careers.  Three of them only had 3 or 4 roles, and Francesca Jarvis had about 20.  Only Mother Maria, played by Lilia Scala, had a successful acting life.

When a simple movie like this can be so inspiring and enjoyable, I sometimes wonder if we have lost the ability  to make them like this.  Maybe there is too much reliance on computers now.  But then again, blockbusters like Avatar and the Star Wars series will always be hits.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Rom Com!

I know, just the other day I said that bit part actors were few and far between in romantic movies.  Then I watched Sleepless in Seattle again.  Maybe I was wrong.

Of course, I love Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.  Put them together and they really click.  I believe they were in three films together, Joe vs. the Volcano, Sleepless and You've Got Mail.  Joe wasn't great but the other two were, and I think Sleepless in Seattle is destined to become a classic.

Who else was in it?  Rob Reiner had a relatively small role as one of Tom Hanks' friends.  I would consider it a bit part, but of course, Reiner is no bit actor.  He divides his time between acting, writing, producing and directing.  I wonder how he keeps track of what he is doing in each project?

The two young stars in the film are interesting to watch as they develop.  Jonah was played by Ross Malinger and Jessica was Gaby Hoffman.  It is usually very hard to break out of child acting roles, and many have failed, becoming depressed later in life.  I hate seeing some very good young entertainers wreck their lives by resorting to an alternative, or even destructive lifestyle in an effort to get some publicity.

Hoffman's career was off to a good start with Field of Dreams starring Kevin Kostner when she was seven.  She made Sleepless when she was eleven, and later was in Volcano with Tommy Lee Jones at the age of fifteen.  She worked with a lot of great stars and I wish her well.

Malinger was nine when he made Sleepless and since then has spent most of his time on TV and doing voice overs for animation.

An interesting portrayal of a babysitter was presented by Amanda Maher as Clarise.  She had maybe two words in the film and looked pretty spaced out every time you see her.  Her part was so obvious and noticeable, that I had to look her up.  This was her only film.  I wonder why?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

National Treasure

From 2004, National Treasure with Nicholas Cage is a fun movie that was filmed partially in Philadelphia.  I am intimately familiar with all the streets used in the movie, and I have spent a lot of time in the historic area of Independence National Historical Park.  It always makes a movie more fun if you've been to the location.

Of course, that also opens up to scrutiny the artistic license taken by the film makers.  After Cage and his troupe are sighted by the bad guys at Independence Hall, they split up and run.  Two of them, Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha, run west and almost instantly enter the Reading Terminal Market from 12th St.  That is actually a distance of eight city blocks, through heavy traffic and a lot of street lights.  Then, all of a sudden, they are another six blocks away, running north on Broad St. toward City Hall.  I still love the movie!

The full cast is interesting, probably because most big budget films can afford an interesting cast.  I saw Tony Luke, Jr listed as a sweeper in the strip club.  I must not be paying attention...I not only missed Tony, I missed the strip club.  I'll have to watch it again.  Anyway, Tony is the owner of Tony Lukes restaurant, a fixture in South Philly and one of the best places to get a cheese steak in the city.  I guess he also likes acting because he has been in 16 films and is working on 17. 

A surprise was seeing Christopher Plummer listed as John Adams Gates, appearing in the beginning of the film.  It was a small role, but his voice played a big part in setting the mood of the film.  He is amazing.  He has had 180 roles in 57 years, playing everything from The Sound of Music to becoming a Klingon in two Star Trek movies.  He will take any role, and always do well.

Here's a list of movies.  What do they have in common?
Days of Thunder
Con Air
Enemy of the State
Gone in Sixty Seconds
Coyote Ugly
National Treasure

You are right!  All of them include Alexandra Balahoutis in the cast.  She has been in eight films total, so six of them were very good movies with great stars.  Way to pick scripts, Alexandra!  BTW, in National Treasure she played the clothing store clerk where Cage and Kruger bought new clothes in Philly.  Good luck in your acting career, Alex.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Questions Without Answers

The experience of writing about bit actors, or actors, or movies in general, brings some questions to mind.  Who is your favorite bit part actor or actress?  You might as well ask a car nut what is your favorite car, or a movie buff what is your favorite movie.  Too many choices are blowin' in the wind.

I suppose it depends a lot on the mood you are in.  Sometimes I just want to see a great western.  It may be easy to pick a great western bit part actor, like Yakima Canutt, but wait...what about the era?  Let's say you are in the mood for Dances with Wolves.  Yakima was gone by then, but you may like Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse, who played Smiles A Lot in that movie.  A young Native American, just starting out in acting.  I thought his part in Dances added a lot to our sympathy for the natives who were ultimately going to be forced out of their homeland.  It could be a good subject for a blog, just talking about Native American actors.

It is more difficult to find a favorite bit actor in the context of silent films.  The reality is, other than the few real standout stars, most of the people involved in front of the camera in silent films were bit actors.  They moved from set to set making several movies every week.  I may say they are all my favorites!

War films fall into the same category as westerns.  A good detective movie from the 1930's or 1940's, they would be ripe with candidates for a great bit actor.  Think of The Maltese Falcon and all the small parts populated with actors like William Hopper (134 acting credits), Charles Drake (137 roles), Creighton Hale (284!), and even Walter Huston had a bit part that was uncredited.

The pickings may be smaller in romantic films because they tend to focus on the lead characters.  Comedies may be tough, especially the big ones with Bob Hope or Jerry LewisIt's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had almost every bit comic actor that was alive at the time.  Stan Laurel was alive but not in the film, although he was asked.  After Ollie died, he said he wouldn't work with anyone else.

Then there are the big musicals.  Warner Brothers and Busby Berkeley hired hundreds for each film.  MGM made The Wizard of Oz with hundreds of short people.  I met Meinhardt Raabe once.  He played the coroner in Wizard.  A nice fellow and very appreciative of his fame from such a small part with no screen credit.  According to IMDB, Wizard was his only screen credit.  He worked for Oscar Mayer for 30 years, though.  He just passed away in April.

That should get you thinking.  Watch something good tonight and see who makes an impression on you.  Try to stay away from old black and white TV shows.  Too much bit part fodder to think about!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

20,000 Leagues

I found the 1954 classic Disney film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on-demand last weekend, so I started watching it.  I have seen it several times in my youth, but not recently, and even this time I didn't quite finish it.  I remember the display at Walt Disney World where they have one of the Nautilus models used to make the movie.

A quick look at IMDB reveals there were three silent versions of the story.  They were released in 1905, 1907 (by Georges Melies), and 1916.  I haven't seen any of them, but the 1915 release apparently had underwater photography that was groundbreaking.  I will have to look for that one.

Back to 1954.  The ticket agent shown in the beginning of 20K was played by Harry Harvey.  He is credited with 417 roles on the IMDB web site, starting with the Tom Mix Destry Rides Again in 1932.  How do I always keep coming back to Destry?!?

Harvey was in Gold Diggers of 1937 with Dick Powell, the 1939 Blondie Takes a Vacation with my friend Penny Singleton, a whole bunch of B westerns, 1942 The Pride of the Yankees, 1942 A Night to Remember (but a different Night to Remember than the 1958 Night to Remember that we talked about a few days ago), a small part in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Danny Kaye in 1947, more B westerns, he was June Alyson's doctor in The Glenn Miller Story, and of course, the list is practically endless. 

The sign of a great bit actor is to remain a viable commodity for small parts.  If you become too famous, you may have a difficult time getting parts because you will be recognized.

Harvey lived from 1901 to 1985 and he was still doing TV parts in the 1970s on "Mannix," "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," "Ironside," and "Adam-12."  He appeared in the 1970 hit film Airport as a passenger.

I thought I would have trouble finding well exposed bit actors in a Disney film.  Disney keeps stars on contract so they don't have the opportunity to do much work elsewhere.  It seems like Harry Harvey filled the bill!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Judy Holliday

A few months ago we rented Born Yesterday (1950) from Netflix.  This was Judy Holliday's first leading role in a movie, and she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.  I had never seen the film before, so it was a treat.

Broderick Crawford plays Harry Brock.  I loved him in "Highway Patrol" on TV, but it was easy to hate him in this film for his treatment of Holliday's character, Billie Dawn.  At the same time, he was able to evoke pity in the audience because he was so pathetically inept at being human.

Holliday truly deserved the Oscar for this performance.  She was happy in her role as Crawford's girl until he hired William Holden to give her some lessons in how to be more refined.  One of Crawford's lines is, "Shut up! You ain't gonna be tellin' nobody nothin' pretty soon!" ...and he wants to teach Billie how to be refined?  How would he know?

She does become more educated during the course of the movie, and that would be good enough, but she brings so much more to the screen.  Every look and every action is brilliant.  Watch her playing gin.  The cards do magic things in her hands.  I couldn't concentrate on the game with her dealing.

I looked over the rest of the cast from Born, and there aren't many names that stand out.  Of interest is Larry Oliver who played Congressman Norval Hedges, the one Brock is trying to bribe.  Oliver only had one other acting role listed at IMDB, and that was the TV version of the same story on "Hallmark Hall of Fame," playing Senator Norval Hedges.  His real career was on Broadway where he was in, you guessed it, "Born Yesterday" among other roles.

What a shame that Judy didn't live long enough to make more films.  She was only in 13, as I count on IMDB, plus a few appearances on TV.  I was too young to catch her on Broadway.  Her finest roles, Born Yesterday and Bells are Ringing were both from plays in which she starred.

Judy was also wonderful in Adams Rib, with Tracy and Hepburn, but that was their film, not hers.  That role may have been helpful in getting her into Born Yesterday.

I have Bells are Ringing at home right now, from Netflix.  I saw the film when it was released in 1960 at Radio City Music Hall in NY.  That is the way to premier a film!  I was only ten years old, but I remember the day.

My wife hasn't seen it yet, so after we screen it, I will add comments in another blog.  So many movies, so little time!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My Name is Bond

It's Sunday.  We visited my son and his family this morning, and now I am sitting here with License to Kill (1989) on the TV.  I think, next to Moonraker from 1979, this is the worst of the Bond films.  Timothy Dalton isn't a bad actor in the right role, but for some reason in this film (License), he overacts in his zeal to avenge the attack on his American friend Felix Leiter.  Even James Bond shouldn't overact.

Dalton played King Phillip of France in the 1969 film The Lion in Winter, which was an outstanding movie that won three Oscars.  License to Kill, no Oscars, but it was nominated for one Edgar Allen Poe award...whatever that is.

I haven't seen any bit acting roles in License that stand out.  The small parts are mostly thugs that get shot, or blown up, or drown, or fall out of airplanes, or beat up in a bar, get the picture.  You may consider the part played so well by Desmond Llewelyn as Q to be rather small, so he gets my vote for best bit actor in this one.

Desmond was born in 1914 and appeared in 83 roles in film and TV starting out as a headless coachman!  His first Bond film was 1963's From Russia with Love, which was the second Bond film.  In that film he wasn't called Q, he played Boothroyd, and that was the name used before they started calling him Q.  Llewelyn as Q shows up in the next Bond flick, Goldfinger from 1964, when they started using the initial from the Quartermaster Branch that supplies Bond with all the goodies.

Llewelyn continued playing Q in 17 films (including Moonraker) until The World is Not Enough in 1999, the year he died.

He had a small part in the 1958 movie about the Titanic called A Night to Remember.  Honor Blackman was also in that film, before she became Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

He played a senator in Cleopatra in 1963 with Elizabeth Taylor.  It is interesting that he was in these films but managed to stay pretty much invisible, then he got the break and was cast in the Bond series, and the rest is history.

I once tried to make a list of all the Bond films so I could start a collection, but it seemed to get away from me.  I finally decided to only buy the best ones, but that was after I bought License to Kill on VHS.  It won't be replaced on disc.

The tanker truck scene is now on TV, getting ready to lose control down the mountain.  My favorite part is when the air brake line gets cut and the truck speeds up!  When you lose air pressure in truck brakes, the brakes lock and stop the truck.  Don't special effects people know that?