Thursday, May 10, 2012

B4 They Were Stars - Lucille Ball

It has been two years since I first posted about Bit Actors. What have we learned? I know that I have a long way to go before I use up subjects for my posts. There are a lot of great Bit Actors out there, and new ones come along all the time. Also, many big stars began in Bit Parts, so they can be included in my blog.

Take, for example, Lucille Ball (1911 - 1989). She was one of the most talented and influential people in television. But she was once known as the Queen of the B Movie. She had a very small part in Stage Door (1937), a great movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, but that movie was well into her acting career.

Lucy started out as a Ziegfeld Girl on the stage and then progressed to being one of the Goldwyn Girls in film. You can usually find her in the chorus or as an extra in her first coupla dozen films. She was a fashion model in Roberta (1935) and a flower clerk in Top Hat (1935), both with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. By 1936 she had a character name in the Fred and Ginger movie Follow the Fleet. Long after Stage Door, she would have Ginger Rogers to tea on "The Lucy Show" in an episode appropriately called "Ginger Rogers Comes to Tea" (1971).

Her very first big screen appearance was as an extra in The Bowery (1933) starring Wallace Beery, George Raft, Jackie Cooper and Fay Wray. Lucy, more recently known for her red hair, played 'The Blonde.'

It is interesting to note how things were done in the early 1930s, with contract players working for the major studios. You will see Lucille Ball working with the same bigger names over and over. She made several movies with Constance Bennett, Eddie Cantor, and Fay Wray, etc.

I doubt that it was her big break, but in 1934 we see Lucy in Three Little Pigskins with The Three Stooges. During the 1930s she also made quite a few two-reelers with Edgar Kennedy, Leon Errol, Billy Gilbert, Betty Grable, and others. It was a great introduction to comedy.

In 1935 she appeared in Henry Fonda's third film, I Dream Too Much, starring Fonda and Lily Pons, and featuring another wonderful Bit Actor Eric Blore. By 1936 Lucy is starting to receive major roles in some two-reelers, such as One Live Ghost and So and Sew.

In her only movie with The Marx Brothers, Lucy can be found in Room Service (1938). By that time, Lucy is starring in movies, but they are B movies. B movies were shown as an extra attraction along with a bigger budget feature film, plus a cartoon or two, and maybe a two-reeler or a newsreel. The feature always came last. Generally speaking, feature films were about 90 minutes, B movies were 60 minutes, and two-reelers were 20 minutes.

Some of her films during this time were Panama Lady (1939) with Allan Lane. Five Came Back (1939) starring Chester Morris and Wendy Barrie.  Barrie's godfather was Sir J.M. Barrie who wrote Peter Pan that included a character named Wendy. Wendy Barrie went on to become engaged to Bugsy Siegel which created problems for her career.

More Lucy films - Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) with Maureen O'Hara. Look Who's Laughing (1941) with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The Big Street (1942) with Henry Fonda. Du Barry was a Lady (1943) with Red Skelton and Gene Kelly.

There was even some film-noir mixed in. Look for Lucy in The Dark Corner (1946) with Clifton Webb, and Lured (1947) with George Sanders and Boris Karloff.

She did make some features, such as Without Love (1945) starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and Sorrowful Jones (1949) and Fancy Pants (1950) both with Bob Hope.

All of this was before "I Love Lucy" which would rocket her to full stardom. starting around 1950, she would create and co-own the new Desilu Studio with her husband Desi Arnaz. She was instrumental in creating many of the television innovations needed to efficiently produce a series filmed in front of a live audience. And she always remained loyal to her friends in show business. But that's were my post must end.

We all love Lucy, but try to catch her B4 she became a star, as a great Bit Actress.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

James Hong

There are some ethnic actors who make a very long career as Bit Players. James Hong (b. 1929) is one of them, and his career is worth looking at. He lists 368 titles on IMDb from 1955 to the present.

After deciding on an acting career, Hong wasted no time. He has used his ethnicity to his advantage, though he was born in Minnesota. His roles tend to be Asian characters, and he can easily turn on an accent if needed. I doubt that he would ever allow himself to be used in a stereotypical role, as many early ethnic actors did in the 1930s and 1940s.

One of his earliest parts (uncredited) was in Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955). That movie starred William Holden and Jennifer Jones, with Jones played a Chinese doctor. There must have been plenty of Asian actresses who could have done that part! It's kind of like having 'chocolaty' chip cookies rather than chocolate chip cookies.

In 1956 he was tapped to help with the voiceover dubbing of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! He then started showing up whenever an Asian was needed on a TV show. In 1957-1958 he played No. 1 Son on "The New Adventures of Charlie Chan" to J. Carrol Naish's Charlie. Another non-Asian playing Chan.

He was available for major motion pictures that needed Asians. You will find him in Flower Drum Song (1961) during his extensive television work. Also in The Sand Pebbles (1966), and some not great films like The Bamboo Saucer (1968) about a flying saucer being hidden in a 'Red Chinese' village.

In 1970 he is in The Hawaiians. You tend to see many well known Asian actors in these big budget films, like Mako (1933 - 2006) and Keye Luke (1904 - 1991). Here's another perfect title for Hong, he was in Chinatown (1974) with Jack Nicholson.

Also in the early 1970s we find Hong on quite a few episodes of "Kung Fu." And in 1976 he works with David Carradine again in Bound for Glory, a biography about Woodie Guthrie.

Hong was in Airplane! (1980) as a Japanese General. And by now he is playing the role of older men. In one of his better roles, he plays Lo Pan an ancient sorcerer in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). That's a good Saturday morning flick. And his other great movie from the 1980s, Blade Runner (1982), is a classic where he played the eye maker.

I recently watched Black Widow (1987), a murder mystery that was better than I was expecting. It stars Debra Winger and Theresa Russell. James Hong plays a drug-using private investigator who gets whacked by the 'widow.' So we will forgive him for being in Vice Versa with Judge Reinhold and Hot to Trot with Bobcat Goldthwait in 1988.

He worked with Nicholson again in The Two Jakes (1990), so I guess we also have to overlook all those martial arts films that needed Asian actors. They were the rage in the last few decades of the previous millennium.

I enjoyed The Shadow (1994) starring Alec Baldwin with Hong in a small role. It is a good version of a comic book, with some very good special effects and a gorgeous blonde named Penelope Ann Miller. Of course, Miller was just in The Artist (2011), which won Best Picture. I'll have to watch that one again.

His list is long, so here are some of his more popular titles -
Tank Girl (1995), Operation Dumbo Drop (1995), Bloodsport II (1996), McHale's Navy (1997), Red Corner (1997), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008, not the good one).

He has also voiced some great animated films like Mulan (1998), Kung Fu Panda (2008), as well as television shows like "Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!,' plus some work with Scooby-Doo.

Over all of those years, Hong has only received one major award. In 2007 he was honored by the Las Vegas Film Critics Society with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was nominated for two Annies, for voicing the animated films Kung Fu Panda (2009) and Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), as well.

With everything James Hong has done, and continues to do, I think he is really a star. But we will honor him here as a wonderful Bit Actor.