Jewish World Review March 25, 2005/ 14 Adar II, 5765
Several weeks ago I spoke of some of the wonderful old movie character actors that, for whatever reason, we just don’t see in films today. Part of the reason might be that there are no real contract players anymore. Back in the golden days, the major studios kept a stable of character actors under contract, just as they did their stars. This made for a kind of repertory company where the character actors were used over and over again in a wide variety of pictures.
The Warner Brothers “stock company” included a large gang of durable Irishman like Alan Hale, Alan Jenkins, Frank McHugh, and Barton MacLane. These wonderful supporting players worked perfectly with Warners’ Irish leading men such as Pat O’ Brien, George Brent, Dennis Morgan and of course, James Cagney. Some of the great comedy characters at Warner Brothers included Zazu Pitts, Aline MacMahon, Hugh Herbert, Una Merkel and Guy Kibbee. On the more serious side, Peter Lorrie and Sidney Greenstreet were unique and played perfectly together. Versatile George Tobias did comedy and drama equally well in dozens of pictures. And then there was S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, everyone’s favorite Hungarian uncle.
Joe E. Brown was a star in pictures but he qualifies as a bona fide character, as does Jack Carson. As a matter of fact, many of the actors Warners employed, both supporting and lead, might be categorized as “characters.” Think of Edward G. Robinson, Glenda Farrell, even James Cagney. None of these are what one might thing of as possessing traditional “movie star good looks.” They were character actors who were stars. Humphrey Bogart definitely falls into that group.
Of course Warner Brothers had plenty of the glamour types as well. Errol Flynn, George Raft, Warner Baxter, Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Jane Wyman were definitely easy on the eyes. Still, it was the character actors that gave the Warners’ pictures their particular look and appeal.
What would Casablanca have been without Bogart, or Public Enemy without Cagney? Robinson played Little Caesar like no one else could have. Strong, unique personalities that drove stories and added the elements of character and honesty to the parts they portrayed. Others could have acted in the roles, but not with the same characterizations.
It has been said that John Garfield was like a Jewish version of James Cagney – there’s some truth to that. Garfield played a lot of the same types that Cagney made famous, and watching some of Garfield’s streetwise tough guys one can imagine James Cagney in the part. But Garfield had his own stamp too. Could Cagney have done The Postman Always Rings Twice as well as Garfield? Or Humoresque? Garfield had a kind of soulfulness to him, an underlining cynicism that was his alone. And he was a character.
For whatever reason, the studios looked for and cast actors in every conceivable age range, type and physical size. Maybe they thought doing so made their pictures more believable, more in line with what the real world looked like. Maybe they simply wanted a wide variety of types in their films. Maybe they didn’t think so much of audience demographics. Perhaps they cast actors that seemed right for the part instead of what the 12 year old moviegoer might prefer to see.
Watching theatrical movies, television cop shows, sitcoms, and the reality shows today, it becomes nauseatingly obvious that they cast one age, one type and one look. It’s the young Hollywood hip look. Not only is everyone the same age, but everyone speaks exactly the same way. The same cadence, the same slang, and the same inflections in the voice. Actors are not cast to represent the real world anymore, they are cast to represent what Hollywood film and television creators see and hear around them – which are basically other Hollywood film and television creators.
Every now and then an old timer might appear in a show, and when they do they stand out like a sore thumb because all the rest in the show are about thirty years old. But the dialogue spoken by the old timer doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb – it sounds just as air headed, crude, and youthful as the dialogue the younger actors are speaking because the scriptwriter doesn’t change his or her style or phrasing to adjust for character. Everyone talks alike. Everyone is crude. Everyone is the writer.
I’ve been following the crazy antics behind the scenes at the Walt Disney Company for quite some time. The cast of characters is quite something – with the Michael Eisner/ Jeffery Katzenberg feud, the Eisner/Ovitz debacle, not to mention the machinations of Disney’s Board of Directors of late, the whole thing reads like a Preston Sturges picture.
Whereas during the golden age of movies, the characters were in front of the camera on screen, today it seems the most extreme characters are behind the camera in the boardrooms and offices of the studio lot. I like the old movie characters much, much better.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.