Saturday, June 26, 2010

Way Out West

The 1937 film Way Out West was a story about riches being bestowed on a poor girl who worked in a saloon, and the attempt to steal it by her boss and his lady friend.  Sounds serious, doesn't it?  It could have been an early drama.  1937 was also the year for A Star is Born, The Good Earth, and Lost Horizon so Hollywood was making some wonderful dramas by then.

Of course, the stars of Way Out West were Laurel and Hardy, so there is not much drama here!  As the tag line reads, "A Rumble Of Roars That Ends In A Laff Riot."

The boss is played by James Finlayson, the actor who first started making the frustrated "Doh" sound, usually directly into the camera.  The young girl who really inherited the money was played by the wonderful Rosina Lawrence, and the lady friend who tried to help Fin steal the money was Sharon Lynn.

I have mentioned Rosina Lawrence before, as it was my considerable pleasure to know her.  She became a countess when she married Juvenal P. Marchisio in 1939, a NY judge and a leader in the postwar relief efforts in Italy.  After his death, she eventually married John McCabe, Stan Laurel's biographer.  Her obituary in the New York Times can be seen here.

Rosina only made 30 films, preferring to be a housewife after she married.  But she was a dancer and had a good career working with Rita Hayworth, Jean Harlow, Charley Chase, Warner Oland and others.  She was one of the teachers in several Our Gang comedies, including Bored of Education in 1936 which won an Oscar.

Sharon Lynn (or sometimes Lynne) had 32 movie roles, none were big hits, but some may be worth looking for.  In 1935 she was in Go Into Your Dance with Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler.

Most of the cast of Way Out West were regulars at Hal Roach, so you see them in Our Gang comedies, Charley Chase and L&H films.  The Avalon Boys supplied some good music, and Chill Wills provided the low voice for Stan Laurel in his big hit, In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

The mule was played by Dinah.  This was her only film.

Friday, June 25, 2010

More Hitchcock

It has been said that Alfred Hitchcock always brought in his films on time and under budget.  Also, when you look at individual frames from any Hitchcock film, each can stand alone as a still photo.  Since I have a photographic background, I do watch his films to see those perfect frames that would look good hanging on the wall.

The next time you get to watch one of his films, keep an eye out to see the composition of the images.  He will always try to frame a face with an interesting background, holding the face just off center.  In still photos you should try to remember the "rule of thirds."  Never put the main subject in the center, but put it one third from the top or bottom, and one third from the left or right.  The horizon should never split a picture in half, and a flag pole or tall building should never be in the center.

The budget for any film is important.  James Cameron seems to have a problem with this, having just released Avatar, the most expensive film ever made, after releasing Titanic, which previously held that distinction. 

Now take a look at Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry from 1955.  This is as good a movie as you can find.  It is funny, suspenseful, and the story is so twisted, you don't know how it will end.  Maybe that's the problem with Hitch's can only be surprised the first time you see it.

Trouble had a great cast with John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn and of course, Jerry Mathers.  Everybody else could only be classified as bit players.  And many of them went on to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on TV. 

  • Mildred Dunnock (1901 - 1991) played over 70 parts, including BUtterfield 8 in 1960 with Elizabeth Taylor.
  • Royal Dano (1922 - 1994) was a character actor who did a lot of westerns, including a bit part in Cahill US Marshal (1973) with The Duke, and a bigger part in The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976 with Clint Eastwood.
  • Mildred Natwick ( 1905 - 1994) had over 80 roles in film and on TV.  Perhaps her most famous film was her last, Dangerous Liaisons in 1988 with Glenn Close.

The entire cast of The Trouble with Harry is only 14 long.  The rest, whom I didn't mention above, had fewer than 40 roles total, with several only acting in one to five parts.  Fittingly, this was Phillip Truex's last role.  He played Harry, who was dead in the entire film.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Carl Laemmle, Jr.

Carl Laemmle Jr.'s father was the founder of Universal Pictures in 1912 and they are the oldest continuous production company in America.  Universal is now owned by NBC.  Carl Sr. produced hundreds of films, most in the early silent era, so they were very short.

Carl Jr. had a short but distinguished career as a producer and writer.  He lived from 1908 to 1979, but only worked in movies from 1926 to 1936.  It was Carl Laemmle, Jr. who is sometimes credited with talking Universal Pictures into making horror films, and they have certainly done a great job.  But if you look at Carl Sr.'s list, it was he who produced the 1923 silent version of Hunchback of Notre Dame, and in 1925, Phantom of the Opera both with Lon Chaney.  Perhaps they were not interested in continuing horror flicks and Carl Jr. helped them along.  I'm glad he did.

1931 brought us Dracula and Frankenstein, Lugosi and Karloff.  That would be all I need for a great Halloween!  The next year included Murder in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy, and Destry Rides Again!  (You already know I like all things Destry.)

1933 The Invisible Man
1934 The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi
1935 The Bride of Frankenstein

In 1936 he ended his career as producer with the musical, Show Boat.  Not exactly a horror film (unless you hate musicals), but neither were most of his 143 efforts.  It is the eight, classic horror films for which Carl Laemmle, Jr. will be remembered. 

I know, I didn't mention any bit part players today.  How about Dwight Frye who played Fritz in Frankenstein?  Among his 60 film credits, he was in Dracula, The Bride of Frankenstein and he had an extra part in The Son of Frankenstein (1939).  He was also in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman in 1943.  It is a shame he died before Young Frankenstein was made!

If you like horror films, these should all be in your permanent collection.  They spawned an entire genre that continues to today.  Look for collections that include extra features.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bit Actress, Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow only lived for 26 years, but her name is one of the most famous in Hollywood.  A symbol of every man's desire, the original blond bombshell, and the inspiration for Marilyn Monroe.  Of course, she started out as an extra and bit actress.

She made 39, 40 or 41 movies over nine years, it is not clear as people try to recognize her as an extra on the screen.  Accurate records of extras weren't kept in those early days. 

In an early film in 1928 she worked with Charley Chase and director James Parrott at Hal Roach Studios.  She appeared in four films with Laurel and Hardy; Liberty, Double Whoopee and Bacon Grabbers in 1929 and Beau Hunks in 1931 (but only as Ollie's girlfriend in a still photo).  That same year she made City Lights with Charlie Chaplin.

There were several films with Edgar Kennedy, and seven films with writer/director Leo McCarey who worked with Stan and Ollie.  She must have been on contract with Hal Roach.

She also worked in the early days with Clara Bow (The "It" Girl), Jean Arthur, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette McaDonald, and was uncredited in almost all of them.  She made Love Parade with director Ernst Lubitsch in 1929.  She worked with all of these stars BEFORE she became famous.

Finally in 1930 she had a larger part in the Howard Hughes World War I movie called Hell's Angels.  She changed her name several times through her career, appearing early under her real name Harlean Carpenter, then as Jean Harlowe, and then dropping the "e" to Harlow. 

You can see how much you can learn about bit players when you look at their early careers.  Some make it big, and some end up playing bit parts all their lives, like Leonard Bremen.  Jean Harlow was a lucky one for a short while.  She was engaged to William Powell when she died.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Bank Dick

One of everyone's favorite W. C. Fields movies is The Bank Dick from 1940.  This was the second to last Fields movie and by this time his popularity allowed him do whatever he wanted.  The story seems a little disjointed by today's standards, but each part is so much fun that it doesn't matter.  Don't be a moon-calf, don't be a jabbernow, you just have to enjoy it as it unfolds.

Fields came from vaudeville, so he could put on an act all alone on stage.  In his movies he surrounded himself with character actors like Grady Sutton, (Og Oggilby) Una Merkel (Myrtle Souse), Shemp Howard (the bartender, Joe Guelpe) and Franklin Pangborn (J. Pinkerton Snoopington, bank examiner).  These people have wonderful comedic timing, and Fields used them to great effect.

Russell Hicks played J. Frothingham Waterbury.  Hicks started his film career in the silent classic The Birth of a Nation in 1915.  He had 316 roles in movies and TV over 42 years.  His deep voice and ability to project it, and his perfect diction was great in the talkies.  Look for him in You Can't Take it with You (Directed by Frank Capra), Buck Privates Come Home (Abbott and Costello), The Big Store (Marx Brothers), Great Guns (among other films with Laurel and Hardy), Dark Alibi (A Sidney Toler - Charlie Chan film)'s another endless list by a great bit actor!  For most of his career on the screen he averaged 13 films a year.

One of my favorites in this film had a small part.  David Oliver was the bank teller with the straw hat.  Billy Mitchell comes in and wants to withdraw his money because the teller with the hat makes him nervous.  He made ME nervous with his nervous little voice and that sneeze!  Billy Mitchell was a tenor sax player with Dizzie Gillespie and Count Basie.  David Oliver also appeared in Fields' You Can't Cheat an Honest Man a year earlier, and I also noticed him in Pot O' Gold (1941) with Jimmy Stewart and Paulette Goddard.

I guess its time to watch some more W. C. Fields movies.  I had the pleasure of meeting his grandson, Bill Fields, at one of our Sons of the Desert meetings quite a few years ago.  I believe he still lives in the Philadelphia area.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still with Snub Pollard

Remakes of old movies are nothing new.  Think of how many incarnations of Dracula there were, starting with Nosferatu in 1922 starring Max Schreck.  Of course, his name in the movie was Graf Orlok not Count Dracula, but the story is basically the same.

The Day the Earth Stood Still from 1951 was remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves.  Most people, especially older people, agree that the original, with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal was the better version, as often happens when a great movie is remade.  The new one seemed too sinister and we need more hope in the world.  The ending of the 1951 classic left us (the people of Earth) with a choice to make, and we can make it on our own.

Back in 1951 not everyone got screen credit when they were in a movie.  Look at the cast list on IMDb and you will see there were seven main characters.  Then click on the full cast list and you will see the rest!  I counted 79 uncredited roles.  Many of these were speaking parts, including the famous newscasters, military and police personnel, doctors and such. 

Break this down into stars, supporting parts and bit parts.  Rennie and Neal were the stars.  It could be argued that Hugh Marlow as Neal's boyfriend, Sam Jaffe as the physicist, and Billy Gray as Neal's son, could also be called stars, or perhaps supporting parts.  It is a gray area. 

Gort, played by the doorman at Grauman's Chinese Theatre because he was the tallest man they could find, would really be classified as supporting, in my opinion.  His name is Lock Martin and he stood 7' 7" tall!  Frances Bavier, who ran the boarding house, also fits into the supporting role position.

Everyone else then would be considered a bit part, so you can see the importance of these actors.  There is no way the fore-mentioned seven people could pull this story together. 

I haven't had the time to fully research 79 names, but I did see Harry "Snub" Pollard (1889 - 1962) was cast as a taxi driver.  Snub was a famous silent movie actor with 515 listings on IMDb.  Over half of those were silent, including 86 movies in the Lonesome Luke series with Harold Lloyd.  He worked with Charlie Chaplin at Essenay, and made a film with Laurel and Hardy at Hal Roach.  He made movies with Mack Sennett.  He worked hard, but he always seemed to get supporting roles rather than starring roles. 

His career was then relegated to small parts.  He was the old man who got Gene Kelly's umbrella in Singin' in the Rain.  He was a carrier who brought the mail into the courtroom in Miracle on 34th Street.  It is actually sad to read the parts he played - man in courtroom, fat bartender, pool hall patron, telegram delivery man, man pacing in jail cell, barfly, and of course, taxi driver.

I guess you could write an entire blog just about Snub Pollard!  I couldn't even find any books on Snub, but there should be many mentions of him in books about silent films in general.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bells are Ringing

I had the chance to watch Bells are Ringing last night.  An MGM musical from 1960 starring Judy Holliday and Dean Martin.  I first saw this film when it premiered at Radio City Music Hall in NY.  What a place!

A quick look at the cast listed on IMDb sends you to bit part Heaven!  So many actors and actresses were tapped for this film.  It was a little surprising to see so many familiar TV faces, especially in the street scene where Dean and Judy are saying "Hello" to everyone.  Many of theses actors and actresses were working in TV and also doing some movie parts.  I bet you will recognize most of the faces, but never knew their names.  I'd like to scan the faces later in that scene where Dean is singing while walking through the crowd.

Bells are Ringing includes the talents of Herb Vigran who has 324 roles listed to his credit from 1934 to 1987, Frank Richards (143 roles), Milton Parsons (155 roles), and Len Lesser (165 roles).  Of special note we heard Mae Questel as the voice of Olga on the phone.  Mae was also the voice of Olive Oyl and Betty Boop in cartoons.  In his first movie, Hal Linden was the nightclub singer who performed the classic tune, The Midas Touch.  Hal didn't even get screen credit.

One thing that looked like it really didn't belong in the film were the prat falls of Gil Lamb.  I can see one fall, tripping over Judy's removed skirt, but then he kept upstaging everyone to show how flexible he is.  It didn't work for me.

I hope you saw Leonard Bremen!  He was the man on the street who almost gets run over.  Of course, he is one of my choices for all time best bit actor.  His voice is very a character actor sort of way.

I must also mention the dentist/composer, Bernard West.  His was a small, but important part.  He didn't do much acting in his career, but he was a writer and producer of note.  In fact, he was the producer for "All in the Family" and of course, Jean Stapleton was in that and Bells are Ringing.  See how everything fits together?

If you've never seen Bells, please go rent or buy it.  Some reviews on IMDb have trashed it a bit, but this is a very entertaining film.  How can you beat the great musical numbers and orchestrations, the singing of Dean Martin, the comedy of Judy Holiday in her only color film, plus the wonderful character portrayals of Jean Stapleton and Eddie Foy, Jr.?