Friday, December 31, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #2

Spencer Tracy is considered by many an acting god.

Like Fredric March, Tracy could slip into nearly any role with ease. His unconventional looks and stocky build helped make this easier, but it was his natural instincts and ability to convey both toughness and tenderness that made him such as potent actor.

Perhaps it was his own demons, either fueled or tempered by drink (or both), that added to his ability to understand the men he played. Regardless, he was a wonder, and during the 1930s he displayed that amazing range for which he was famous.

In the 1920s, Tracy graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. But it took time for the young actor to work his way up the ranks of Broadway, often finding any job possible to supplement his work. His big break came when he landed the lead in a prison drama called “The Last Mile.” Famed director John Ford was so impressed that he cast Tracy in his first full-length film “Up the River.”

Tracy worked tirelessly in films during the first half of the decade. If he didn’t have a true classic during this time, it was clear he was comfortable in front of the camera. He was best playing a tough guy, such as in “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” opposite Bette Davis as a con who believes his friends will free him from prison. Yet in the Depression-era romance “A Man’s Castle,” he talks tough but clearly has a soft spot for Loretta Young, even if he can’t bring himself to show it to her. His ability to seamlessly go from tough to vulnerable in one scene was already fully developed at this point, and his work here is beautiful to watch.

Once MGM signed Tracy in 1935, his career really took off. In the superb “Fury,” Tracy’s embittered and angry Joe Wilson vows vengeance on the lynch mob that tried to kill him. The intensity of his characterization is frightening because Tracy is willing to push himself to the edge, effectively showing how a man can change due to circumstances beyond his control and the decisions he makes.

As a change of pace, he joined Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow and William Powell in the comedy “Libeled Lady,” playing a newspaper editor who keeps delaying his marriage to Harlow due to a story. That famous Tracy gruffness gets laughs here, showing how easily Tracy could shift between drama and comedy.

Tracy displays a human touch mixed with his formidable toughness in the melodrama “San Francisco,” with Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald. Gable may be the lead, but Tracy, as Father Mullin, is most impressive. If the plot involving the two men – childhood chums who are now on opposite sides of the moral fence – is a bit creaky, the acting is anything but. Tracy earned his first Oscar nod for his performance here.
Then came the back-to-back triumphs of “Captains Courageous” in 1937 and “Boys Town” in 1938. In “Captains,” Tracy plays Manuel, a simple Portuguese fisherman who teaches important lessons to Freddie Bartholomew’s bratty Harvey (above). It’s interesting that this was meant to be a vehicle for Bartholomew but it was Tracy who reaped the praise, and it became one of MGM’s top hits of the year. Although Tracy was uncomfortable with both his looks and the accent (Joan Crawford apparently likened his curly-haired appearance to Harpo Marx, which didn’t please Tracy one bit), he nailed the role. It’s marvelous to watch him slip into that character with his entire demeanor, and he earned an Oscar for his work.

Crawford apparently ate her words and co-starred with Tracy in “Mannequin,” a routine soap opera that was her first box office success in a while, thanks to Tracy.

In “Boys Town” (below), Tracy is Father Flanagan, the real-life priest who founded the title community. If the script slips into routine situations and characterizations (Mickey Rooney’s outsized performance is either deliciously over-the-top or wildly annoying, depending on your view), Tracy’s Flanagan provides a steady leader and strong moral center for the story. He won a second consecutive Oscar for his work and would return to the role a few years later for “Men of Boys Town.”

In between these came the popular “Test Pilot” opposite Clark Gable and wife Myrna Loy. Yet again Tracy steals the movie as pilot Gable’s pal and mechanic, as this was one of MGM’s top hits of 1938.

Tracy is a joy to watch in nearly everything he did. If there’s a recurring theme in several of my selections for my favorite actors of the 1930s, it’s the fact that some of the best actors were less interested in Hollywood glamour. Instead, their intense focus was the work. Tracy was always that way, and it’s clearly shows onscreen. That’s why he’s considered one of the best ever.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #3

Fredric March is unknown to most people beyond classic movie fans.

He may have been a leading man but was a character actor at heart. He was equally comfortable on stage as he was in front of a movie camera. He had a natural style, used subtlety to his advantage and often could be the best part of a middling movie – let alone the best part of a terrific film.

If his film roles sometimes veered toward the literate or stately, March most often chose his roles wisely, resulting in an accomplished and impressive body of work.

His enduring marriage to actress Florence Eldridge proved to be a fruitful partnership. Although their film work together was infrequent, they were more likely to appear opposite each other on stage. In fact, instead of taking a honeymoon after their 1927 marriage, they went on tour with the Theatre Guild’s first traveling repertory company. That was their commitment to acting.

It was while playing a parody of John Barrymore in a stage production of “The Royal Family” that March was spotted and signed to Paramount. His first big success was recreating his role for the film version of “The Royal Family of Broadway,” a parody of the Barrymore family. March’s wicked take John Barrymore was a delight and earned the actor his first Oscar nomination.

If Universal Studios owned the horror movie genre during the early 1930s, Paramount at least offered up its own response with a superb version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with March perfectly embodying the tortured professor (opposite Miriam Hopkins, below). He won an Oscar for this role (famously tying with Wallace Beery), and it was clear March was a man who could slip into any role.

His work was distinguished yet varied and intelligent. He could work with the best material produced on either coast. In 1933 he made a film version of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” (as rewritten by Ben Hecht) opposite Hopkins and Gary Cooper and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. March had the perfect flair for this kind of sophisticated wit.

In “The Barretts of Wimpole,” he beautifully plays Robert Browning opposite Norma Shearer. He even plays the embodiment of Death in the intriguing and well-done “Death Takes a Holiday,” where Death takes on a human form and falls in love.

What I find fascinating about March is his ability to take a mediocre or two-dimensional role and find something to do with it. The perfect example is “The Dark Angel,” a creaky melodrama with March and Merle Oberon set to marry until he meets tragedy during World War I. While this film was meant to showcase the beautiful Oberon, March’s superb acting at the end finds right emotional balance in the otherwise obvious script. That is tough to do, and I don’t know of many actors who can accomplish this.

He could then switch from this type of melodrama to playing Count Vronsky opposite Greta Garbo in “Anna Karenina” to the title role in “Anthony Adverse.”

But my favorite March roles came in 1937. I adore “Nothing Sacred,” the comedy in which he plays a reporter hyping up a story about a supposedly dying Carole Lombard and her tour of New York City. Their interplay is dynamite. Instead of being manic or mugging it up, March nearly plays it straight and gets the laughs. I love the scene when he needs to turn a healthy Lombard into a convincing invalid. He’ll do anything to make this work – he’s smart, conniving and somehow loving, all the while making us laugh and believing that his crazy methods are worth the trouble.

And then there’s Norman Maine, the drunken, fading movie star in “A Star Is Born” opposite Janet Gaynor (below). He didn’t need to overplay this. In fact, the self-loathing he feels often is conveyed through a facial expression or the manner in which he turns his head. He lets you see why Gaynor would fall for the man, not the actor, and despite his self-destruction, the audience clearly wants to see this man turn his life around. As much as I like Gaynor and James Mason, I often wonder how this film would have worked with 1937 Fredric March and 1954 Judy Garland.

There are more films from this decade that are memorable – the title role in “Anthony Adverse” or opposite Katharine Hepburn in John Ford’s intriguing (if not always successful) “Mary of Scotland.” Fredric March infused every role with an understanding of character and never overplays unless the role calls for it. He’s sensational, and more people should get to know this actor.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #4

I read somewhere that James Cagney, as a young man, once supplemented his income as a female impersonator.

Whether it’s true or not, I like that story. Everyone associates Cagney with being a tough guy. And certainly when you think of Cagney and the 1930s, “gangster” is the word that pops to mind.

But that story represents the dimension of Cagney’s talent. He really could do anything. When I tell people he was a pretty darned good song and dance man, they are a little amazed. Sure, they may have heard of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but they don’t know what it’s really about.

During this decade, he gave audiences a sampling of everything. In 1930, he was on Broadway with Joan Blondell in a successful play called “Penny Arcade” when both were brought to Hollywood to make the movie version, renamed “Sinner’s Holiday.”

Warners signed the young dynamo, and in 1931, “The Public Enemy” made him a star. The story chronicles the rise and fall of Tom Powers, a Chicago gangster. Co-starring Jean Harlow and Blondell, with the infamous scene of Cagney pushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face (below), “Public Enemy” helped define the gangster genre at Warner Brothers. Powers is arrogant and cocky and hungry for power, and Cagney’s infuses the rule with a distinctive swagger and voice that creates a unique character.
This could have stereotyped Cagney. However, while he played many tough guys in films to follow, it didn’t define him.

Jump ahead two years to 1933’s “Footlight Parade,” a musical with Cagney as a stage director. Tough guy in a musical? You bet, with Busby Berkeley providing the eye-popping choreography. It lets you know the tough guy could be something else. He also was a workhorse, making more than 30 movies during the decade, often times with the same co-stars and directors.

For example, Cagney teamed with Pat O’Brien in a series of films, including “Here Comes the Navy” and “The Irish in Us.” They usually were on opposing sides of the drama, and I only wish some of these earlier films weren’t so routine.

In “G Men,” though, Cagney turns the tables on his gangster image by playing a man raised in the underworld but decides to join forces with the FBI when his buddy is killed. This is exciting stuff, with Cagney as magnetic as ever. He then received strong notices for playing Bottom in Warner’s all-star production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

In 1938, he took on Rocky Sullivan in “Angels With Dirty Faces,” one of his best films of the decade. Sullivan is a gangster while his boyhood pal (played by O’Brien) is a priest, with the latter trying to keep Sullivan from corrupting the Dead End Kids (below with Cagney). Perhaps my favorite scene comes when Sullivan manages to escape being gunned down in a small shop. You can see the wheels in Sullivan’s mind turning quickly as he hatches a plan. The desperation is there but so is the adrenaline, and Cagney plays it to perfection.
Perhaps Cagney’s greatest strength was finding the emotion that would connect even his worst characters to the audience, creating an understanding and sometimes empathy. Throughout “Angels,” there’s a part of you that hopes Sullivan will come clean, and the thanks for this goes to Cagney.

The full appreciation of Cagney’s work comes at the end of his career, when you add in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” his deepening shades when playing gangsters in “White Heat” and “Love Me or Leave Me,” his superb portrayal of Lon Chaney in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and the comedic flourish of the manic “One Two Three.”

But it was during the 1930s that Cagney became an indelible star – distinctive in voice and manner, yet talented beyond the gangster genre that defined him.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #5

Charles Laughton is one of those actors who could be grand, who could chew scenery, and who could overact and get away with it. At his best, he was a brilliant, versatile actor and star who sunk his teeth into every meaty role he could get his hands on – and there were many during the 1930s.

A World War I vet, he felt drawn to the theater in his native England, eventually studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and making his professional stage debut in London’s famed West End in 1925. He married actress Elsa Lanchester in 1929, the same year he made his film debut.

His stage career brought him to New York in 1931, and the next year he found himself in Hollywood and immediately started to work. During that first year, he made six movies, including James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” as part of an ensemble including Boris Karloff and Melvyn Douglas.

In glamorous Hollywood, he described himself as having a face “that looks like an elephant’s behind.” That’s a bit harsh. And, in my opinion, the fact that he wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous was an advantage that allowed him to slip into so many roles.

Case in point: In 1933, he was back in the UK to make “The Private Life of Henry VIII” as the title character (below). It’s one of those wonderful marriages between performer and character, where Laughton is perfect in both looks and skill, giving dimension to this larger-than-life person. It’s a role played with great confidence and gusto, and the film world took note – he won a well-deserved Oscar for it.

Legendary producer Irving Thalberg was so impressed that he cast Laughton in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” as Elizabeth Barrett’s father. Elizabeth was played by Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, and Laughton was in reality only one year older than her! Nevertheless, he gives a riveting performance as her stern, controlling father, hinting at a possible incestuous relationship with a gleam in his eye that somehow made it past the censors.

In 1935 he had a banner year with three exceptional roles. In “Ruggles of Red Gap,” a delightful comedy from Leo McCarey, Laughton is a butler won in a poker game, and the actor shows a flair for having fun. It’s been years since I’ve seen this film and yet I smile when thinking about it. Laughton also plays police inspector Javert in a strong production of “Les Miserables” at a time when literary adaptations were being made and made well.

Finally, and most memorably, he is Captain Bligh in MGM’s terrific “Mutiny on the Bounty,” squaring off against Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian (below). Laughton captures Bligh’s cruel, by-the-books leadership with riveting tenacity, earning an Oscar nod for his work.

Laughton continued to constantly challenge himself. In 1936, for example, he played the title role in “Rembrandt” as the Dutch painter in this well-made biography. At the end of the decade, he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Jamaica Inn” and then as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” You would think no one would dare try the role that Lon Chaney famously played in the 1920s, but Laughton did so and the result is beautiful work.

I look at these movies and marvel at the gallery of characters Laughton created. You could hang a portrait of each one side by side and be amazed that they are all played by the same man. This decade may have been the most productive eight years of his film career in terms of quantity, but make no mistake – the quality is also there. He may be big and showy at times, but so was his talent, and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #6

I chose the above photo for a reason. When I first saw it nearly 20 years ago, I knew of Errol Flynn and his reputation but had not seen any of his films. I dismissed him as one of those wild, hedonistic stars who made lightweight action movies but cared of little more.

But this photo knocked me out. Instead of looking like a picture from the 1930s, he looked contemporary, almost timeless. There’s a touch of slyness to this photo, yet it’s so magnetic that I began to wonder about his films.

Once I began watching them, I was hooked. He may not have displayed the versatility he craved – he desperately chased more diverse roles in later years but never really found them – yet Flynn was a joy to watch.

His first film, ironically enough, was as Fletcher Christian in a 1933 Australian production of “In the Wake of the Bounty,” made two years before MGM’s famous “Bounty.” This led him to the UK for a low-budget film produced at Warner Brothers’ London branch. Warners liked what they saw and brought him to Hollywood.

It didn’t take long before he became a star. After a small role in a Perry Mason film, Flynn made “Captain Blood” in 1935, in which he plays a physician turned pirate (below). It was his first swashbuckler, his first pairing with Olivia de Havilland, and his second film with director Michael Curtiz. It’s dynamite stuff. Flynn never looks stiff, and his natural charm and instincts make it clear that this man had that elusive “it” that makes a star.
The next year Flynn, de Havilland and Curtiz teamed again for “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a lavish adventure based on Tennyson’s poem (with music from legendary Max Steiner, his first score for Warners). Once again, his romantic good looks and athleticism made both de Havilland and audiences swoon.

In 1937, his film roles were varied but not all classic, from the romantic comedy “The Perfect Specimen” (again helmed by Curtiz) to the well-intentioned “Green Light.” But “The Prince and the Pauper,” from the Mark Twain story, is lots of fun, and while Flynn may be the star he doesn’t appear until the second half of the movie yet is engaging.

But in 1938 he made the ultimate action film of the decade: “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Once again teamed with de Havilland as Maid Marion (below) and Curtiz directing, this movie is about as much fun as you can have at the movies. It was big, colorful and exciting, and leading the way is Flynn. He’s the definitive Robin Hood, and no other Robin Hood portrayal since has come close to Flynn’s. He’s dashing, daring, intelligent and commanding.
Perhaps lost in the accolades of 1938 is “The Dawn Patrol,” a fine remake of the 1930 version with Flynn playing a World War I flying ace.

By this point, Flynn’s reputation was beginning to precede him. His limited range as an actor and lazy work habits annoyed some, while his off-screen sexual exploits offended others. Still, there’s no denying that intense charm on screen. Even Bette Davis, by 1938 the reigning queen on the Warners lot, liked Flynn. That year they paired for the first time on screen in the enjoyable melodrama “The Sisters.” Some joked that Flynn was more beautiful than the three sisters in the story!

When Davis and Flynn reteamed for “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” their relationship had cooled. Apparently Davis had to slap Flynn in one scene, which Davis called a “little slap” and Flynn compared to being slugged by Joe Louis. It’s not Flynn’s best moments on screen. But he was in top form in “Dodge City,” a big western that teamed him again with de Havilland.

Flynn may be the weakest actor on this list, but there’s no denying his charisma. All these years later, when you strip away the off-screen behavior and early death, what’s left are some terrific films that displayed his ease and confidence as an actor. In short, he’s a magnetic 1930s icon.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #7

The dapper William Powell had a rich voice for the talkies and a smooth manner to match.

If he gained popularity playing detectives in several series of films, Powell certainly went beyond that. His chemistry with frequent co-star Myrna Loy was so complete that people assumed they were married in real life. He was a welcome addition to MGM’s stable of stars. That studio made Powell a household name when he became frustrated elsewhere.

But before Hollywood he went to school to pursue a possible law career – and he would have stayed there if Powell’s father had his way. However, Powell was drawn to acting and went to New York. He spent 10 years on Broadway before making his film debut in John Barrymore’s “Sherlock Holmes” in 1922. Surprisingly, Powell played many villains during his years in silents, including a domineering movie director in “The Last Command.”

In 1929, he began playing detective Philo Vance and made the transition to talking films. But he became frustrated at Paramount Pictures and went to Warner Brothers. He still wasn’t getting the material he wanted, although he did make his first true gem of the decade – “One Way Passage.” This improbable tearjerker on a cruise ship between Powell’s convicted killer and Kay Francis’ terminally ill socialite sounds corny, but it’s one of the most beautiful romances of the early 1930s, thanks to Powell and Francis’ lovely performances.

He made “The Kennel Murder Case,” the best Philo Vance movie, in 1933 before heading to MGM. One of his first assignments there was “Manhattan Melodrama” opposite Loy and Clark Gable. If not a great film, it’s certainly enjoyable and one of the year’s top hits. It pushed Powell’s career into high gear and established him and Loy (below) as a viable screen couple.

And that couple really hit the stratosphere as Nick and Nora Charles in “The Thin Man,” the terrific adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s book. This movie combines mystery, drama and comedy, as the two stars display a sophisticated ease in their roles. It was followed by five more “Thin Man” movies, three in the 1930s. Powell received his first well-deserved Oscar nod for “The Thin Man,” and it’s as fresh today as it was then.

In 1936, he had five roles. “After the Thin Man” was the second in that series and was another success for Powell as Nick Charles. “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” was a screwball comedy with Jean Arthur. “Libeled Lady” was a much better screwball with Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow and Loy again. He plays a Don Juan with gusto in this fun movie.

It was another screwball comedy, “My Man Godfrey,” with Carole Lombard (below), that allowed him to shine as a “common” man found by Lombard on a scavenger hunt and invited to be her family’s butler. Powell’s droll wit and deadpan deliveries are wonderful as is the film. Another Oscar nomination came his way.
That same year he played Flo Ziegfeld in MGM’s mammoth musical “The Great Ziegfeld.” If the script didn’t dive deep enough into Ziegfeld’s life, Powell captures the impresario’s zest for living and the knack for knowing what an audience wants, which eventually was Broadway shows filled with beautiful women.

What a year for the popular Powell. He was also engaged to Harlow, whom he met when making “Reckless” in 1935. However, when she died in 1937, he was devastated, and he took a break from movies. Although his filmwork continued into the 1940s, it definitely slowed after Harlow’s death. He never had another run like he did during the mid-1930s.

Still, Powell was a charming, highly likable actor. The creation of Nick Charles and Godfrey alone earns him a spot as one of Hollywood’s most delightful leading men.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #8

Wallace Beery was an unlikely leading man.

He wasn’t handsome like fellow MGM star Clark Gable or as cultured as Ronald Colman. He could be a slob or a fool and could be made a fool of onscreen.

And yet, with a mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye, Beery was like that favored uncle you had as a kid. While the grown-ups rolled their eyes, the kids loved him because he wasn’t afraid to fall on his face and pick himself up again. He could crack jokes and rub his nose on his sleeve yet still recite a poem with moving tenderness.

At his best, Beery’s characters provided surprising insight and showed boundless ingenuity. He could play working class or upper class, or someone who scraped himself up from one to the other. He could be lovable or despicable. And filmmakers wisely paired him with strong women who could stand their ground in a fight, providing memorable sparks.

In watching Beery, you have to wonder how he landed in Hollywood, although at the same time you get the feeling he had every odd job available. Is it surprising that he joined the circus at age 16 to work with elephants? Or that he was singing in variety shows by the age of 20? Or that he created his own production company and tried to produce films – in Japan? Or that he married Gloria Swanson in 1916 before either became a star?

He worked in comedies early in his career, but he proved to be versatile, with a big hit coming in 1925’s dinosaur adventure “The Lost World.” He made that all-important transition to talkies, and in 1930 scored with “The Big House,” the first major prison drama in which he was terrific as tough guy Butch. This early talky remains surprisingly strong despite the limitations of filmmaking at this time, and Beery is commanding in all of his scenes.

Beery, who was under contract at MGM, worked nonstop during the first half of the decade. Also in 1930 came “Min and Bill,” pairing him opposite the wonderful Marie Dressler. They made a great team – neither had the classic Hollywood looks, but they both possessed a spirit and charisma that made this waterfront melodrama fun to watch. They play off of each other with such ease, and their relationship is surprisingly adult during this time before the Production Code was fully enforced.

In 1931 he starred in one of his most beloved movies, playing an alcoholic ex-prizefighter in “The Champ.” This unabashed tearjerker pairs him with young Jackie Cooper (above) and won Beery an Oscar (famously tying with Fredric March for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). It was a popular win, and he was rarely better on screen.

In a change of pace, Beery joined the all-star cast for the super “Grand Hotel,” playing a powerful German businessman who belittles Lionel Barrymore to the chagrin of Joan Crawford. Here Beery uses his physical size to powerful effect. He’s a menace and demonstrates his versatility after audiences expected a slob with less intelligence.

He reteamed with Dressler for “Tugboat Annie” before playing opposite Jean Harlow in “Dinner at Eight” (below), another all-star cast. It’s a treat to watch Beery – a wealthy businessman – square off against Harlow, his trophy wife, and the two don’t hold back. Before you wonder how Beery could snag Harlow, she could be just as salty, and it’s logical that this blustery businessman could marry a blunt dame who smells money and believes she can outsmart him. They would square off again a few years later in "China Seas."

His last great role of the decade came in 1935’s “Ah! Wilderness,” playing Uncle Sid, an alcoholic uncle – much like the uncle I described earlier. You so want him to sober up yet worry that what you love about him may be lost if he does.

I’ve rushed through his resume, as there are so many roles – Pancho Villa in “Viva Villa!” or Long John Silver in “Treasure Island” or P.T. Barnum in “The Mighty Barnum.” He clearly was a valued player on the Metro lot. While his career would wane by the end of the decade, he never stopped working until his death in 1949.

Beery was the kind of actor whose physical appearance would keep him off screen today or relegate him to typecast supporting roles. In the 1930s, he was allowed to create a wide variety of memorable characters, marking each with his own brand of personality. Just watch his work again and enjoy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #9

The impact Fred Astaire had on the movie musical is legendary. His genius helped define a new type of movie musical during the 1930s, and he joined Ginger Rogers in dancing their way into audiences’ hearts.

His film output during this decade is small, and some may argue his characters in these movies are all a variation of the same person. However, his distinctive trait for these films is his dancing. In the nine movies he was paired with Rogers during the decade, he managed to perform a solo (or two) in every one that demonstrated his range in a way a dramatic actor can demonstrate it by playing Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen. These magnificent dances are a testament to his brilliance.

If he wanted to break free of the partnership by the decade’s end, it was only to establish himself as something other than part of a successful duo. Some of his most remembered solos came later, but it’s hard to ignore what he did during the 1930s and not credit him for it.

So let’s look at a number of Fred’s musical solos during the decade. After a successful career on Broadway with his sister Adele (who would retire), he was intrigued by how dancing could be portrayed in the movies. His second film, “Flying Down to Rio,” which I just wrote about, was his first pairing with Rogers. While they are supporting players, they have one brief dance together – “The Carioca” – and he has one brief solo as he tries to teach the chorus a new dance number.

RKO thankfully decided to give them a chance, and their next film was starring in “The Gay Divorcee.” If you need any proof about Astaire’s ability to mesmerize, look no further than “A Needle in a Haystack,” a wonderful solo with Astaire dancing without a care in the world while in his dressing room. Athletic yet elegant, classy yet relatable, he demonstrates in this single number (in only his third film, no less) a level of talent that had not been seen previously on film. Then he pairs with Rogers in the seductive “Night and Day” and demonstrates a combination of class, sex and talent in a breathtaking display of movie magic.

Astaire would work with choreographer Hermes Pan on most of these films. As Astaire and Rogers grew in popularity, songwriters like Irving Berlin would submit their scores to Astaire and Pan first so they could begin working on the numbers.

In “Roberta,” Astaire and Rogers again are supporting players – although used more here than in “Rio.” If “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” demonstrates the ease with which Astaire and Rogers clicked as a pair, his “I Won’t Dance” solo is an eye-popping display of dance – a whirling, tapping, pirouetting blur in which Astaire uses his legs like a concert pianist uses his hands. He’s absolutely in control of both himself and the audience.

Next up is “Top Hat,” and he has two marvelous dances in it. “No Strings” is beautifully incorporated into the plot, allowing him to combine both dance and acting, and he ends the number in a soft shoe to help lull Rodgers in the bedroom below back to sleep. “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” is quintessential Astaire, dressing him to the nines and showing his imagination with the wonderful shooting gallery segment with the male chorus.

In “Follow the Fleet,” his “I’d Rather Lead a Band” is a mini-story unto itself, with Astaire as a sailor who drills the other sailors while he taps out the commands, using the nautical theme to beautifully create rhythm and flow. In “Swing Time,” he pays tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the amazing “Bojangles of Harlem” number. If you can get beyond the blackface, Astaire is a marvel, and it’s an homage, not impersonation, complete with rear-projection shadows as he dances with a chorus of his own shadows.

“Shall We Dance?” features the “Slap That Bass” number, set in a ship’s engine room where Astaire gets to play with the machinery and create a whole new rhythm in both sound and dance. After this film, Astaire and Rogers took a break from each other. He made “A Damsel in Distress” and has three solos, the best being “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

When Astaire and Rogers reunited in “Carefree,” it had the delightful “Since They Turned ‘Loch Lomond’ into Swing,” in which Astaire dances on a golf course with a golf club and balls his props (see the video below). He’s having fun and so are we.

If you need any more proof after all of this, look at the biographical “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” in which Astaire adapts the style of dance for which Vernon Castle was known. Even in dance he can become someone else.

Astaire’s career on film would continue for more than three decades. This period – the first decade that introduced him to the public – would remain significant for him in so many ways. If we all still swoon at the names Astaire and Rogers, we can equally be giddy for the dancing gems he offers up in these films. Depression-era audiences loved it, as do modern film fans today. As for me, I’m still enthralled by these movies.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #10

It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of Cary Grant’s career during the 1930s, from young contract player into confident star.

The Cary Grant persona was firmly in place by the mid-1940s, and his roles during the last two decades of his career were arguably variations of that persona. But that was not so during the 1930s. During the latter half of the decade, he tackles comedy, drama and adventure, exploring each in different ways.

Born Archibald Leach, he traveled with a troupe of pantomime artists throughout Europe and America. He came to the U.S. again at age 16 and ended up staying in Manhattan. He traveled with the circus and even worked as a stilt-walker in Times Square. He refined his movements and diction, and his Broadway work increased until Paramount signed him in 1932 and put him to work.

Unfortunately, Paramount wasn’t sure what to do with him. Grant was competent enough, but watch him opposite Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel,” both released in 1933. These are vehicles for West, and perhaps any good-looking male would have done. Watching these films today, Grant seems both familiar and strange. He’s pleasant enough but seems too eager and colorless – perhaps by design to show off West.

But it’s a good starting point to track Grant’s growth as a movie actor. After more than 20 movies, he finally broke free from the bland Paramount mold and caught the attention of critics as a cockney con man opposite Katharine Hepburn in “Sylvia Scarlet” (below). It was their first film together, and while they enjoyed working with each other, audiences were baffled by Hepburn playing a woman pretending to be a boy.

Despite being a box office flop, “Sylvia Scarlet” was a personal success for Grant, and his stock continued to rise. Two years later, he finally broke through. In “Topper,” he and Constance Bennett play a lively couple who are killed in a car accident and come back to haunt Roland Young. This film gave Grant a chance to be both romantic, suave and witty.

Then came “The Awful Truth,” Leo McCarey’s screwball comedy in which he plays opposite Irene Dunne as a husband and wife who are divorcing but still are in love with each other, although neither wants to admit to it. Grant displayed his gift for physical comedy, honed through years with the pantomime and circus troupes. He was also smart, funny and winning. It’s a terrific film and a breakthrough performance for Grant. It’s a shame the Academy took note of nearly every major player on this film except for him.

The next year brought two more films with Hepburn, both far better than their first effort. In “Bringing Up Baby,” another screwball comedy, Grant plays a mild-mannered professor who gets caught up in Hepburn’s craziness. He’s playing the straight man to Hepburn, and it’s fun to see how thoroughly he’s grasped the art of comedy with very different performances in “Truth” and “Baby.”

With “Holiday,” a wonderful drama co-starring Hepburn, he plays a hard-working man who decides to take his retirement while young before pursuing a career. Yet again he shows another dimension with this largely dramatic turn. It’s unfortunate that both “Baby” and “Holiday” were box off failures. Yet it was Hepburn who bore the brunt of the criticism. It sent her back to the East coast, thinking her film career was over, while Grant continued to move forward.

In 1939, another drama, “Only Angels Have Wings,” gives him some fine moments opposite Jean Arthur as an airmail flier in South America. “Gunga Din” (below, with Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is just the opposite – a big adventure film, with Grant clearly having fun in a movie that was one of the year’s top box office hits.

At this point, Grant’s confidence is on display, which allows him to tackle such diverse genres. You can see that Cary Grant persona being honed, yet these roles show off his versatility. If he was a blank slate during his early Paramount years, he had personality to spare by the end of the decade.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #11

It would be easy to dismiss Ronald Colman’s talent due to his effortless presence on film.

In nearly role after role, he was a gentleman even in the tightest of positions. But there was often strength behind the suave reserve, along with an intelligence that he used to great advantage. It kept him active in film from the silent era through the late 1940s, after which he made infrequent appearances.

His career began after World War I, when Colman turned to the stage and then short films in his native England. After a few feature film roles he came to the U.S., where he went largely unnoticed until Lillian Gish plucked him from a play for her film “The White Sister” in 1923. Producer Sam Goldwyn took note, signed the actor and helped turn him into a star. With his first talking picture, “Bulldog Drummond” in 1929, Colman discovered audiences loved his rich, cultured voice, and he became one of the first silent screen actors to successfully make that transition to sound films.

Perhaps his first strong role of the decade came in 1931’s “Arrowsmith,” John Ford’s adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel. This film today may fall under the “good try” column, although it was a prestige production for Goldwyn. While the talky film rarely allows for subtlety, it provided everyone involved with some good moments. Colman’s intelligence as an actor was certainly on display in his role as a doctor dealing with personal conflicts.

He became very good at playing conflicted characters, and conflict was entering his professional like off-screen. His relationship with Goldwyn became strained, as Colman began doubting the material being given to him and wanted a break. After several battles, Goldwyn was willing to release Colman from his contract if Colman made one more movie, but Colman refused. He ended up back in England for a while and was off screen for nearly two years while his Goldwyn contract ran out.

But upon his return, he went to work re-establishing himself, and it didn’t take long. First came a sequel to “Bulldog Drummond” called “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back” in 1935.

Perhaps his greatest role of the decade came with “A Tale of Two Cities” for another strong producer, David Selznick. I’ve blogged about this film earlier this year and how magnificent it is, with Colman shaving off his famous moustache to play Sydney Carton (above). Colman showed poise finding the right combination of self-loathing and determination to do good.

While I haven’t seen the foreign legion romance “Under Two Flags,” I am a big fan of Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon,” with Colman playing Robert Conway (below, with Jane Wyatt), a man who manages to find Shangri-La but wrestles with others regarding the philosophical implications of its Utopian society. Capra’s film has a dreamy quality to it, and Colman leads the audience through this dream, acting much like we would if discovering such a place.

That same year came the terrific “The Prisoner of Zenda,” with Colman playing a dual role as a commoner who must impersonate the king, who has been kidnapped. This action/romance/adventure film was produced by Selznick after he formed his own company, and the results couldn’t be better.

With many of these roles, Colman gave us someone to identify with, and we’re willing to go where he goes, willing to think what he thinks, and cheering for him to succeed. Not many actors have that capability to hook an audience like this nearly every time. Colman is, without doubt, a class act.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #12

I’ll admit it: I’m not a huge fan of The Three Stooges.

A sacrilegious statement to some, and it’s not that I don’t like them. They just wear me out. The relentless physical humor is numbing after a while.

Some may say the zany humor of the Marx Brothers can be wearying, but not to me. They are crazy, fun and unmistakably unique. Their move from Broadway to film at the dawn of the sound era was well-timed, and a second move from Paramount to MGM in the mid-1930s to work with the great Irving Thalberg resulted in one of their best films.

Even in lesser films, they display flashes of comedic brilliance, and their on-screen personas were so well-honed that their movies remain classics of film comedy.

The brothers were still performing their long-running Broadway hit “Animal Crackers” when Paramount began filming “The Cocoanuts” in New York, an adaptation of their 1925 stage hit. Released in 1929, their singular brand of craziness dazzled audiences and ushered in a new kind of screen comedy during the infancy of the talkies. It also featured an actress named Margaret Dumont, who would become the perfect “straight woman” to the Brothers. While the movie is stagy, like most movies of this time period, and the musical interludes an intrusion, the brothers’ comedic brilliance and vitality shine through.

The next year, 1930, saw the film adaptation of “Animal Crackers.” Still stagy, it’s nevertheless a vehicle for fun. The slim plot, about a stolen painting, is all that holds together one gag after another. Groucho gets to sing “Hooray for Captain Spalding,” while Chico and Harpo are involved in one of my all-time favorite scenes as they play bridge – or rather their own version of bridge (above) – with Dumont, showing just as much comedic flair.

“Monkey Business” (1931) is the first of their films written especially for the screen. Despite the absence of Dumont, it’s a brisk, fun-filled romp as the brothers stowaway on a cruise ship. It’s also written by S.J. Perlman, who would pen “Horse Feathers” – a collegiate comedy – released the next year.

“Duck Soup” continued the annual release schedule. The last film to feature Zeppo, with the welcome return of Dumont, and directed by Leo McCarey, this zany film revolves around one country declaring war on its neighbor just for fun. While we can see yet again the marvelous brilliance of the brothers at work, “Duck Soup” was a failure at the box office. Since “Horse Feathers” didn’t fly either, Paramount did not renew the brothers’ contract.

Enter the great Thalberg. Oddly enough, Thalberg was not known for producing comedy or for showing a broad sense of humor. However, when Groucho went east to take a part in “Twentieth Century” – his first break from the team – Chico remained in Hollywood and struck up a friendship with Thalberg, who was convinced the brothers still had a future in film. Thalberg even wore down Louis B. Mayer, who agreed with Paramount that the brothers were through.

Thalberg felt that while males liked the comedy, the lack of romance kept women away. Wary, the brothers went along with Thalberg. Then the plan was hatched that the brothers should get in the way of something classy, like the opera, and “A Night at the Opera” was born. However, the brothers were nervous about their return with new material, so Thalberg suggested they take the best comedy bits from the script on the road, performing it in front of live audiences, and then revising the material as necessary. Even then, the first screenings did not go well. But that changed when Thalberg, a genius in the editing room, ordered changes.

The result? Arguably the brothers’ best-loved film, with the now-classic overflowing room on a ship sequence (above). The film was a smash, both critically and commercially, and the brothers were back on top even higher than before. “A Day at the Races” and “Room Service” followed, with the lesser-known “At the Circus” rounding out the decade.

They would never achieve the movie heights reached during the 1930s, but what a comedic legacy they left. The plots were more or less there to provide a broad movie structure for the comedy to run wild. Instead of wearing me out, the Marx Brothers leave me craving more.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas ...

Happy December! It's time for Classicfilmboy's second annual Twelve Days of Christmas countdown!

Last year I selected my 12 favorite actresses from the 1940s. This year it's my 12 favorite actors from the 1930s. I'll start at #12 and count them down until New Year's weekend. Hope you have as much fun reading it as I do writing it!

Check back soon for #12 ...