Friday, November 19, 2010

Una Merkel

Una Merkel (1903 - 1986) is one actress I cherish.  She had an enormous career spanning 1923 to 1968.  And no one era of hers is better than any other.  She was good in everything!

She made two silent films and then in 1930 was cast in the D. W. Griffith (1875 - 1948) movie, Abraham Lincoln, starring Walter Huston (1884 - 1950) in the title role. 

In 1931 Merkel is in an early sound version of The Maltese Falcon starring Ricardo Cortez (1900 - 1977) as Sam Spade.  That movie had quite a cast, including Bebe Daniels (1901 - 1971) famous for 42nd Street in 1933; Thelma Todd (1906 - 1935) who worked with Laurel and Hardy; and Dwight Frye (1899 - 1943) who played in the wonderful 1931 Carl Laemmle hits, Dracula and Frankenstein.  Una also appears in 42nd Street, her only Busby Berkeley film.

In 1939 we find her in a strong supporting role with Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again (as you know, one of my favorites), and then she makes Some Like it Hot the same year with Bob Hope.  She works with Hope and Crosby in Road to Zanzibar in 1941.  As all fans of comedy know, she played Myrtle Souse in The Bank Dick, W. C. Fields' classic in 1940.

She appears in The Merry Widow twice.  In 1934 with Maurice Chevalier (1888 - 1972) and Jeannette MacDonald (1903 - 1965), and in 1952 with Lana Turner (1921 - 1995) and Fernando Lamas (1915 - 1982).

Television appearances start around 1952 in "Four Star Playhouse" and "Schlitz Playhouse."  Merkel will continue making movies and TV shows for the rest of her career. 

In 1961 she is cast in the Haley Mills (b. 1946) Brian Keith (1921 - 1997) movie The Parent Trap.  She made two other Disney films, Summer Magic (1963) again with Haley Mills, and A Tiger Walks (1964) again with Brian Keith

Una Merkel's final work of her 114 titles was in "I Spy" in 1968.  She was never a huge star, but her voice and talent, and her odd name which is apparently her real one, have kept her at the top of the Bit Actor list.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Some Women of the Silent Era, not Bit Players!

I just feel that I must mention a few wonderful actors and actresses of the silent era.  Perhaps some of my readers are young and lack the exposure to silent films.  Then again, I have never seen a Theda Bara (1885 - 1955) film, but her name is known to me.  Some of these made a few talkies near the end of their career, but I will keep it mainly silent.

Theda Bara was one of the biggest stars in the early days of motion pictures.  Her screen name was an anagram of "Arab Death."  (Kewl!)  She made 44 films from 1914 to 1926, when she married and retired from the screen. 

Bara played a vampire in the 1915 movie A Fool There Was, and she became known as "The Vamp" which created the term.  In 1917 she had her biggest role in Cleopatra, which became a megahit movie.  Sadly, only about four of her films exist today.  If you get the chance to see one, it would be worth it.

Mae Murray (1889 - 1965) was "The girl with the bee stung lips."  She made 41 movies from 1916 to 1931.  She began her career dancing with Vernon Castle (1887 - 1918), and became a star Ziegfeld Girl before making movies.  Her big movie was The Merry Widow (1925) co-starring with John Gilbert (1899 - 1936).  Mae was a victim of her own poor voice when talkies became popular.

Mary Philbin (1902 - 1993) made 31 movies in just eight short years starting in 1921.  Philbin has what appears to be a complete biography written on IMDb with loads of info about a forgotten star.  And she was a star.  She co-starred in the original Phantom of the Opera in 1925 with Lon Chaney, sending thousands of fans screaming from the theaters as she unmasked the Phantom.

Philbin became a recluse after she retired.  She did come back into the spotlight a few times.  She came to a memorial service for Rudolph Valentino (1895 - 1926) in 1988, and attended the opening of The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway by Andrew Lloyd Webber (b. 1948), and once more to promote a book on The Phantom by Philip J. Riley. 

Pola Negri (1897 - 1987) would make about a dozen talkies, even one in 1964 (The Moon-Spinners) with Haley Mills (b. 1946).  She is known for more than 50 silent films starting in 1914, but her heavy Polish accent really ended her career.

Negri has some interesting tidbits in her history.  She was engaged to Charlie Chaplin before she met Rudolph Valentino, and apparently she was Adolph Hitler's favorite acrtress.  Who knows for sure?

Last, for today, Edna Purviance (1895 - 1958).  She was one of Chaplin's favorite actresses and if you have seen much Chaplin, you surely have seen Edna.  She was in about 40 of his films including The Kid (1921).  The Kid was the movie Chaplin made when he met one of his future wives, Lita Gray (1908 - 1995). 

Purviance was kept on Chaplin's payroll all of her life, and I am sure many have wondered if she was more than just an actress for him.

There are just a few names above, but they are important names.  People like that were the foundation of what movies have become.  Their work has inspired many, and even their looks have created styles that lasted.  And they were easy on the eye!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Barry Nelson

I don't believe that Barry Nelson (1917 - 2007) was ever much more than a Bit Actor, at least on film.  He was a well respected actor on Broadway and television, and no one would deny that he had great talent.

He has 86 titles listed on IMDb.  His first film was Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) starring William Powell (1892 - 1984) and Myrna Loy (1905 - 1993), and you know how much I like the Thin Man series.  He has a starring role the next year in A Yank on the Burma Road

Also in 1942 we find him working with Lew Ayres (1908 - 1996) and Lionel Barrymore in Dr. Kildare's Victory, and then with Abbott and Costello in Rio Rita.  The war years brought some war movies.  Bataan and A Guy Named Joe in 1943, and Winged Victory in 1944.  Winged Victory has a great cast and is something I will look for.

Barry starts early on television in 1948.  He is in several teleplays on "The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre" and "The Ford Theatre Hour."  Do you think spelling it 'Theatre' adds some class to the small screen?  I believe those years were the start of the best part of Nelson's career. 

In 1954 he is cast as the first James Bond to hit the screen.  "Climax!" aired an hour long version of Casino Royale, written by Ian Fleming (1908 - 1964) just two years earlier.  That role has enshrined Barry Nelson in the trivia question world.

The 1950s and 1960s see him in all sorts of television roles, including "Zane Grey Theater," "The United States Steel Hour," "Twilight Zone," "Kraft Suspense Theatre," several with Alfred Hitchcock, and of course "Love, American Style."

In 1970 he is an airline pilot in the blockbuster disaster movie, Airport, with Dean Martin (1917 - 1995) and Burt Lancaster (1913 - 1994).  And in 1974 he works with Carol Burnett (b. 1933) and Walter Matthau (1920 - 2000) in Pete 'n' Tillie

In the 1970s to 1990 he is in everything on TV (again), from "Greatest Heroes of the Bible" to "Battlestar Galactica."  He would be right at home doing roles on "Dallas," "Magnum, P.I.," and "Murder, She Wrote."

Barry's last film was The Shining in 1980.  Anyone who can hold their own with Jack Nicholson is OK with me, and worthy to be mentioned as a great Bit Actor.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Left Handed Gun

A 1958 movie about Billy the Kid was called The Left Handed Gun.  As we now know, The Kid (Henry McCarty 1859 - 1881) was actually right handed... and he didn't make any movies.  Paul Newman (1925 - 2008) played the title character.  This film was supposed to be about his teenage years, Billy the Kid was about 22 when he died, but Newman was 33 when the movie was made.  That's most of the bad stuff, so let's talk about the bit parts.

The westerns of the golden age of film include a lot of stunt men.  This one is no different.  Boyd "Red" Morgan (1915 - 1988) has 161 acting roles, and 79 stunt roles listed.  He worked from 1936 to 1984, including 11 movies with John Wayne

I watched most of TLHG last weekend.  I wasn't sure, but I thought I saw Denver Pyle (1920 - 1997).  His name is listed in the credits on IMDb.  That brings up a point.  When I go to the theater, I always stay until all of the credits roll.  Do you?  It is amazing how many people it takes to make a movie and they deserve to have their name read by someone.  When The Left Handed Gun played on TV (one of the western channels, I think) they sped up the credits, and then shrank (Is that a word?) them down to run an ad at the same time, making it impossible to read.  I hate that.

Back to Denver Pyle.  He has 259 roles spanning 50 years.  He should be recognized.  He may even rate his own B. A. Blog post soon.

James Best (b. 1926) has been in 180 titles starting in 1950.  His fifth film was Winchester '73 (1950) which is one of my favs.  He is in non-westerns, too.  The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) starring Paul Hubschmid (who?) (1917 - 2001), The Caine Mutiny (1954) with Humphrey Bogart, and the classic Forbidden Planet (1956), among others. 

A bit later, look for Best in Three on a Couch (1966) with Jerry Lewis, and Sounder (1972) with Cicely Tyson (b. 1933) and Paul Winfield (1939 - 2004).  His last film so far was Moondance Alexander in 2007, a family movie about a teenage girl and a horse, starring Don Johnson (b. 1949).  No, Johnson wasn't the teenage girl.  That part went to Kay Panabaker (b. 1990) who now has 36 titles in her 20 years.

One more.  Hurd Hatfield (1917 - 1998) was in 71 roles from 1944 to 1991.  Not exactly a household name, but in his second film, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), he had the title role.  That movie had a great cast and good reviews.  Hatfield did a few historical films over the years.  Joan of Arc (1948), King of Kings and El Cid in 1961, and Von Richthofen and Brown in 1971.

I don't think any of the actors highlighted above would be considered stars in their own right, but it can't be denied how much they contributed to movies over the span of their careers.  Next time you go to the theater, don't forget to read the credits!

Monday, November 15, 2010

William Sanderson

William Sanderson (b. 1944) is from Memphis, Tennessee, and the accent does him well.  He started out on the stage in NY, and proceeded to TV and movies.  He now has 113 titles listed on IMDb. 

His first two films in 1977 were foreign, one in Italy and one in Japan.  I have no idea how that came about.

His next two films were nothing to write home about.  Horror films called Fight for Your Life and Savage Weekend.  Then, in 1979 he worked in The Onion Field with James Woods (b. 1947), Ronny Cox (b. 1938), and Christopher Lloyd (b. 1938).  A step up. 

1980 - Coal Miner's Daughter starring Sissy Spacek (b. 1949) and Tommy Lee Jones (b. 1946)
1981 - Death Hunt with Charles Bronson (1921 - 2003) and Lee Marvin (1924 - 1987) and Raggedy Man, also with Spacek.
1982 - Blade Runner with Harrison Ford (b. 1942), Rutger Hauer (b. 1944) and Daryl Hannah (b. 1960), perhaps his biggest movie.

Sanderson has quite a mix of films in his list.  He is in many horror films as well as quite a few comedies.  It appears he can do almost anything, from Lone Wolf McQuade (1983) with Chuck Norris (b. 1940) to Fletch (1985) with Chevy Chase (b. 1943).

In the late 1980s he became famous as Larry in "Newhart" with Bob Newhart (b. 1929).  "My name's Larry.  This is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl."  I still laugh at that!

In 1991 he was in the Disney feature, The Rocketeer, a throwback to the 1930s.  But not all his films were hits...or even good.  Skeeter (1993) was about giant, mutant mosquitoes, with the tagline, "Earth is the Final Breeding Ground." 

He was in a better movie, The Client in 1994, starring Susan Sarandon (b. 1946) and Tommy Lee Jones.  But I can't remember him in it.  In 2003 he plays Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill in Gods and Generals, the prequel to Gettysburg (1993). 

Sanderson also kept busy on TV in several series' including "Deadwood" in the mid 2000s.  He has quite a filmography, but if you see him acting, you just can't quite remember his name.  The sign of a good Bit Actor.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thelma Todd

Thelma Todd (1906 - 1935) had to be one of the most beautiful actresses in her era, and short career.  She made 119 films in about ten years,starting in 1926.  Most of them were one and two reelers.

In my group of friends, she is remembered for her six films with Laurel and Hardy.  She also made two with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932).

Thelma started out to be a teacher.  Her mother encouraged her to enter a beauty contest and in 1925 she became Miss Massachusetts, and went on to the Miss America contest.  She didn't win, but it opened up some acting opportunities.

She worked with some greats in silent films.  Ed Wynn (1886 - 1966) in his only silent film, Wallace Berry (1885 - 1949), William Powell (1892 - 1984), Gary Cooper (1901 - 1961), to name a few.  Her first ten films, or so, were silent, and she worked in several films during the transition to talkies, when they added some music, sound effects and talking sequences to otherwise silent movies.  It must have been an interesting time to be a film actress.

She also made seven films with Harry Langdon (1884 - 1944) including one in Spanish, eighteen with Zasu Pitts (1894 - 1963), and an amazing TWENTY ONE films with Patsy Kelly (1910 - 1981).  Sixty four of her films were made at the Hal Roach Studios.  She even worked with Bing Crosby in Two for Tonight in 1935.

While mostly known for comedies, she made her share of dramas as well.  Cheating Blondes (1933), Counselor at Law (1933) starring John Barrymore (1882 - 1942), After the Dance in 1935, and others.

Of course, Thelma Todd will mostly be remembered by L&H and Marx Brothers fans.  She died mysteriously of carbon monoxide poisoning in her garage.  It was ruled a suicide, but there is a murder theory that cannot be proven.  It was a tragic loss by all accounts, and one that confines Thelma to the Bit Actor category forever.