Monday, April 7, 2008

Lew Ayres: The Road Less Traveled

"It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country and what good is it?" ~ Erich Maria Remarque.
In All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), actor Lew Ayres played Paul Bäumer, a German soldier disillusioned by the horrors of World War I (the iconic scene of his reaching for a butterfly on the battlefield remains a classic image in world cinema). The film was the first all-talking non-musical film to win the Best Picture Oscar for its producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. and an additional Academy Award for director Lewis Milestone. It also received nominations for the remarkable work by Arthur Edeson for Best Cinematography and a nomination for the adapters of Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 autobiographical novel, George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews. Actor Lew Ayres, who seems to me to be by turns awkward and quietly powerful in the film, received no nomination for the movie, though the film would have a far-reaching impact on his life.

The callow Ayres was, by his own admission at that early stage of his life and career, an unlikely choice. Having starred as an infatuated boy who unwittingly unleashes Greta Garbo's banked fires in her last silent, The Kiss (1929), he was not a complete unknown. According to the actor's recollection, he was, however, flustered when he made the off-the-cuff test that won him the part of the young German soldier.

Lew Ayres with Greta Garbo in The Kiss (1929)

Lew Ayres had read the book months before pre-production began and dreamed of playing the part. One of those up for the part was for 20 year old Lewis Ayres. George Cukor, a New York theater pro conducting the screentests, made Ayres uncomfortable. As Lew Ayres explained, Cukor "was used to polished theater actors and I was just a nobody from nowhere. He was perfectly frank about saying I didn't have the polish. All I had was this tremendous desire and I was the type." Ill at ease, and perhaps even a bit miffed at being treated as inadequate, something earnest and true came across in the test for the young German soldier. Fortunately for the actor, the ultimate choice for the part was up to Milestone, who saw the test. Since "polish" wasn't necessarily on his list of priorities for the part, he immediately announced "I think this is our man."

Reflecting the deepening disillusionment of the generation affected most deeply by the upheaval of the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front continues to influence generations born after the film was made, reminding us of the power of the moving image. Years later in Lew Ayres own life, after many ups and downs in his Hollywood career, the potent message about the futility of war in All Quiet on the Western Front would resonate in his life during the Second World War. The power of this movie's ground level perspective from the point of view of an average soldier--remarkably for an American film, an average German soldier, seems to come across most dramatically in the devastating scenes when Ayres withdraws from his surroundings, as when he is alone in a battlefield hole with a French Poilu he has stabbed in self-defense. Tormented by the prolonged death gasps of the soldier, he comforts, cajoles, prays for and screams at the man, whose every breath reminds him of the consequences of his actions. As Paul, he cries out to his dead enemy in an anguished torrent:"I tell you, I didn’t want to kill you, I tried to keep you alive. If you jumped in here again I wouldn’t do it. You see, when you jumped in here, you were my enemy, and I was afraid of you. But you’re just a man like me, and I killed you. Forgive me comrade. Say that for me, say you’ll forgive me…"

' moral devastation and isolation is best rendered when his eyes grow coldest. Two scenes illustrate this aspect of his performance best. The first is w
hen he returns to his unit with the boots of a dead comrade who has died in agony after losing his leg, only to have a fellow soldier immediately appropriate the boots. The second moment comes as he listens to older men back on the home front naively describing ways to "win the war." The cathartic moment when Paul (Ayres) returns to his jingoistic teacher's classroom and tells a few potent truths to the unbelieving boys who will soon join him on the battlefield is made more powerful because the mild-mannered actor's outburst is unexpected, as was the film's classic poignant ending:

After the film became a worldwide sensation, Ayres was groomed for movie stardom by those who believed that his gentle sensitivity and refined, often wistful persona could be adapted into other projects. With typical Hollywood logic, producers apparently believed that carrying a gun in his movies would be something that audiences would want again in Lew Ayres' follow up vehicle. Consequently, he was quickly miscast as a ruthless Al Capone type in one of the first of the gangster cycle films, Doorway to Hell (1930). Unfortunately for the boyish Lew Ayres, he was compelled to share the screen with the electrifying presence of James Cagney. Ayres, who was quite affecting in the scenes when he reflected on the social conditions that had formed his gangster character, (driving through his old neighborhood, remembering the disease and injustices that had festered there) and in the final moments of the movie as he awaits his own inevitable gangland murder, alone in his room with what would be his final meal. However, he had still not developed enough as an actor to withstand comparison on screen with Mr. Cagney, the prodigiously talented "gutter everyman", a product of Hell's Kitchen who was making only his second appearance in a film.

Lew Ayres and James Cagney in The Mayor of Hell (1930)

Ayres had many opportunities to appear on film after this, though, as the actor observed in 1980, he still had much to learn. When the young actor was cast as one of the youngsters in State Fair (1932) with Janet Gaynor, Ayres felt that the star, the noted humorist Will Rogers, was "not much of an actor," in part because Rogers "gave the other actors trouble because you never knew what your cue would be with him. He refused to confine himself to what was in the recent years I've seen some of his work on the screen, and I've come to the conclusion that he was helluva actor."

While going on to appear opposite the likes of
Constance Bennett, Janet Gaynor, Alice Faye, Dorothy Lamour, and Ginger Rogers, (whom he would marry in 1934 after a brief marriage to Lola Lane), Ayres' career foundered in mediocre studio assembly line product, often in unimaginative "B" movies. As his wife Ginger Rogers became among the most popular of musical and later dramatic stars in the Thirties, Ayres career languished in films with titles such as Let's Be Ritzy, Silk Hat Kid, She Learned About Sailors, Hold 'Em Navy and King of the Newsboys
Ayres and Ginger Rogers sharing a laugh when arranging for a marriage license
 Not surprisingly, the disparity between their careers contributed to their marriage foundering within a few years of the wedding. Fortunately for the actor, he was rescued from this pedestrian lull in his career by his screen test director, George Cukor, who cast him in a sparkling remake of Phillip Barry's Holiday (1938) as the alcoholic brother of Katharine Hepburn. His role as the frustrated musician and spoiled rich boy, Ned Seton, won him renewed respect. 

While the part gave Ayres a chance to display his considerable charm, he also revealed the darkness and cowardice beneath the character's surface as he douses his disappointment in life by drinking. In one of the better characterizations of an alcoholic's charm and joylessness, Ayres seems born to play this truth-teller who at one point, bluntly urges Hepburn to follow her instinct to love Cary Grant, despite the fact that he is engaged to her sister (Doris Nolan). 

Ayres, Doris Nolan and Cary Grant are seen below in a scene from Holiday (1938). 

Ned (Ayres) enjoys a certain clarity of vision, thanks to his perspective from the sidelines of life, telling Linda (Hepburn) what Julia (Nolan) is truly like: "If you were in her way, she'd ride you down like a rabbit." His candid revelation of his family's true soulless nature is both heartbreaking and moving since he is too weak and yet too perceptive to escape it as well. Though this film may have played a part in Lew Ayres being signed for a long term contract by MGM, the fact was that Holiday (1938) did not make money for Columbia Studios, despite the critical acclaim that it garnished. This may have been one reason why Ayres did not receive an Oscar nomination for the exceptionally well-played role. A more mature Lew Ayres, however, was deeply grateful to the director for thinking of him, seeing it as "an opportunity to do something with big, stellar figures. Cukor was still the same but by now I was a different person. I could take him in stride. I didn't carry the load. I wasn't bothered by the long exegesis of the characterization."
Lew Ayres and "friends" in one of his genial drunk roles in Hollywood

The only problem with the praise that Ayres received for his excellent underplaying in Holiday may have been Hollywood's penchant for slotting the actor into drunk roles from then on. He played genial gentleman sots in several movies before and after Holiday was released to the general public, including Last Train From Madrid (1937), Maisie Was a Lady (1941), and Fingers at the Window (1942).

At MGM, he became the first Dr. Kildare in 1938 in a series of popular MGM movies which paired him with Lionel Barrymore as his eternally crusty mentor. Easily dismissed as programmers, the Dr. Kildare movies of the late '30s and early '40s, allowed Ayres to display the earnest as well as the humorous sides of his talent, along with that screen presence that generated a gentle calmness that was uniquely his own.
Lionel Barrymore and Lew Ayres as a team in the Dr. Kildare films.
The Kildare films, which pop up on the TCM schedule from time to time, were perhaps rather unrealistic from our perspective, but grappled in an engaging, often intelligent way with a surprising number of still pertinent issues, such as socialized medicine, the social conditions that breed unrest and disease, as well as the eternal themes of youth vs. experience, tradition vs. change, and duty vs. sacrifice. The role of the young doctor seeking novel ways to treat the body, mind and spirit of his patients also foreshadowed modern concerns about the care of the whole person that figures in today's more forward looking medical research. Ayres' quiet, thoughtful demeanor, in counterpoint to Barrymore's curmudgeonly presence, along with the good, unpretentious direction of the veteran director of MGM's "Crime Does Not Play" series, Harold S. Bucquet, helped launch an unexpectedly popular franchise that even outlasted the durable Andy Hardy movies.

Of course, as a lucky working actor under contract, Lew Ayres also had to appear in just about any film that MGM slated him for--whether or not it was a good match for his, or anyone else's talent. This is the best explanation for the casting of Ayres, along with those other non-skaters, James Stewart and Joan Crawford in The Ice Follies of 1939 (1939), a film that must be seen to be believed, and which
occasionally pops up on the TCM schedule.

James Stewart and Lew Ayres in the unfortunate Ice Follies of 1939
 Clearly meant to cash in on the unsated public taste for ice skating fostered by 20th Century Fox's discovery, Sonja Henie, Joan Crawford would later mention when describing the creative thinking behind the film, that "Everyone was out of their collective minds." Or perhaps the role of a studio mogul played by perennial father figure Lewis Stone may have played a part in the greenlighting of this loopiest product of the "classic" studio era by Louis B. Mayer. In a part that could have been played by a George Murphy type just as easily, Ayres played the losing end of a trio of skaters whose hearts get sprained as much as their ankles in their drive for stardom on ice. Widely considered a low point in the studio careers of Stewart and Crawford, Mr. Ayres, who had long since learned to roll with the punches when it came to his career, was probably thankful to return to the relative dignity of his next Dr. Kildare movie.

With the outbreak of World War II, and America's entry into the war following Pearl Harbor, many actors of Ayres' generation, among them Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, James Stewart, Tyrone Power, felt the urge to serve their country in the armed services. Just as his quiet style seemed to run counter to the temper of his times earlier in his life, Lew Ayres chose to follow his conscience in an unanticipated way that recalled his experience playing the reluctant soldier in All Quiet On the Western Front a decade before. When he received his induction notice, the man best known as the dutiful Dr. Kildare, announced that he was a conscientious objector. As he explained to the press, "I came to the conclusion that I longer kill things, I just couldn’t do that." In the weeks that followed his decision, he stuck to his commitment, explaining further that to bear arms would cause him ''to live in a nightmare of hypocrisy.''

Lew Ayres being inducted into the camp for conscientious objectors during WWII.
 Newspapers such as Variety wondered about the seemingly unpatriotic choice on their pages, commenting that "We don’t know what is behind Ayres’ sudden impulsive decision not to serve his country." Ayres was dropped by his studio and his popular films were picketed and soon were banned in 100 theatres. According to industry pundits at the time, this choice to become a conscientious objector "has ruined him. His film life is dead, because a fellow can’t live down the fact that he has refused to bear arms in defense of his country." As Ayres later reflected, "I thought, well, this may mean the end of a career. As far as I was concerned that was all right, I was ready. Requesting that he be recognized as a conscientious objector on religious grounds (despite his non-affiliation with one organized religion) and his high visibility knocked the Selective Service for a loop. Ayres explained that while it was his ethical belief that killing was wrong, he did not "mind working with the army because you do have a tremendous problem with the Hitler situation, I can’t deny these things. But I said as far as I’m concerned I couldn’t kill, and I couldn’t go into the army even on your side unless I did what I considered to be constructive work. [The Selective Service] said no you may not make that choice, you have to go where we will put you, and I said well then, I won’t go at all."
Lew Ayres at the Army Labor Camp during the controversy over his CO status request.
 Assigned to a labor camp for two months while the bureaucracy grappled with a decision on his case, the Army finally relented, and Ayres was inducted as a medic, setting a precedent allowing other COs to choose to serve in the armed forces as medical personnel as well as in the Civilian Public Service where many offered their brave help fighting fires, aiding in prisons, mental wards and medical hospitals, and even acting as human guinea pigs for vital medical research. Those who could not, in good conscience, serve in any capacity also chose prison over public or non-combat service. Thanks to the choice created by Lew Ayres vocal public action, most of the World War II COs, 25,000 in all, would enter the armed forces as non-combatants. Receiving praise as an "excellent soldier" following completion of his Army basic at Camp Barkeley's medical replacement training center, he became an instructor and later shipped out for the war zone. 
Lew Ayres working as a medic in the South Pacific treating Americans, Native people and Japanese soldiers.
Ayres would serve in the South Pacific in field hospital units throughout the war zone as an Army Medic and later became a chaplain's assistant as well. According to his colleagues in the same theater of war, he was often among the first to enter areas to treat his fellow Americans as well as wounded Japanese soldiers. As his fellow medic, Lewis Markovich said, "Although they were the enemy and although they would have killed him, had they been able...he didn’t look at it that way. He saw that another human being needs help." Serving for a total of three and a half years in the Medical Corps, his distinguished service earned him three battle stars.
Olivia de Havilland, Director Robert Siodmak and Lew Ayres on the set of The Dark Mirror (1946)
Coming back to Los Angeles after the war, his first film as an independent actor was--once again--the part of a doctor, this time a psychiatrist trying to help Olivia de Havilland in director Robert Siodmak's interesting noir, The Dark Mirror (1946), (a film that needs to be showcased on TCM someday). His career, like many of his contemporaries, was never quite the same after the war, his objection to armed service was not held against him and he was eventually cast as a sympathetic, nurturing doctor in director Jean Negulesco's Warner Brothers production of Johnny Belinda.

Lew Ayres, Jane Wyman and Charles Bickford in Johnny Belinda (1948).

The visually beautiful film, set in Cape Breton (though filmed in a part of the hauntingly lovely Northern California coast), is composed of a truly ensemble cast which included Agnes Moorehead, Charles Bickford, Stephen McNally and Jan Sterling, as well as Lew Ayres. The movie is highlighted by Jane Wyman's breakthrough role as a deaf mute character, for which she won an Oscar. (A montage of the beautifully photographed film by cinematographer Ted McCord can be seen along with the sound of Max Steiner's delicate score here ). Johnny Belinda, in addition to telling an exceptionally moving story, challenged the accepted beliefs of audiences about handicaps and the Production Code's strictures against the depiction of rape and childbirth. I wonder if the film would have been as successful as it was without the addition of Ayres as the doctor who helps Belinda McDonald bloom and escape her isolation. 

In a role that might have been too noble, Ayres underplays his part as a doctor, blending a gentle strength and watchful manner in drawing the girl out of her shell. The actor's beautifully modulated voice adds immeasurably to the role of the doctor and to the film as a whole. Nominated for twelve Oscars in all, Johnny Belinda, which can be seen on TCM occasionally and is available on DVD, earned Lew Ayres his only Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. 

The years ahead would be busy ones for the actor, who rarely lacked for work, though this film would be a second crest in the ebb and flow of his long career. Younger audiences have taken one film that Ayres made in the 1950s to heart. Donovan's Brain (1953), based on a Curt Siodmak novel, paired the actor with future first lady Nancy Davis as the duo coped with the brain of a millionaire, which the scientist (Ayres) managed to keep alive, even after the egotistical moneybags dies. The outlandish and entertaing story incorporated plausible sounding medical concepts into the plot while toying with questions of free will, the ethics of science and individual human responsibility for our actions. The movie becomes particularly amusing when the brain starts to affect the personality of Lew Ayres, as you can see in the image below with Ayres enjoying a secret smile with an oblivious Nancy Davis. You can see Donovan's Brain directed by Felix Feist here in its entirety.

Another opportunity came Ayres' way in the early 1960s when he was offered to reprise his affiliation with the role of Dr. Kildare on television. Once again, Lew Ayres' ethical sense kept him from taking on the lucrative part, since the producers would not agree to relinquish cigarette manufacturers as potential sponsors for the program.
Lew Ayres in 1970, during his vigorous old age.

Eventually, Mr. Ayres' abiding interest in spiritual belief and hope of promoting religious understanding would lead him to make two intriguing sounding documentaries about religion, Altars of the East (1955) and Altars of the World (1976). In between numerous television appearances and an occasional foray back onto the big screen, notably in Otto Preminger's Washington story, Advise and Consent (1962). In addition to his carefully chosen acting roles (which he once said needed to be "either challenging or fun"), Ayres also taught college courses in eastern religion, science and philosophy. Whenever people asked Ayres how long he had been retired, he usually replied, "Oh, about a month. I'm working all the time. Of course, I'm only a supporting player now. So I don't draw as much attention. I don't mind it. All I ask is one halfway decent scene."

Musing about the career sacrifices that his deeply principled life committed him to once, Lew Ayres once commented that ''A fellow's never through till he quits trying.'' Mr. Ayres died at age 88 in 1997, leaving his wife of 33 years, Diana Hall Ayres, a son, Justin, and a life, well and fully lived.

Eames, John Douglas, The MGM Story, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979.
Ehrlich, Judith & Tejada-Flores, Rick, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, Bullfrog Productions,, 2000.
Frazer, Heather T & O'Sullivan, John, We Have Just Begun To Not Fight: An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1996.
McGilligan, Patrick, A Double Life: George Cukor, HarperCollins,1991.

Thomas, Bob, "A Rare Reunion for Screen Greats,"  The Palm Beach Post, November 10, 1980.

 Originally published by me at, Feb. 20, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.)


The Lady Eve said...

What a thorough and thoughtful account. I first noticed him in "Holiday" when it aired with some frequency on television (a very long time ago). That's saying something since his co-stars, Grant and Hepburn, tend to fill the screen. What a career he had - landmark movies, a popular film series, many television appearances - yet his personal life, his commitment to his ideals, was at least as interesting. I have great admiration and respect for Lew Ayres. Thank you for a truly absorbing post.

Moira Finnie said...

Hi Lady Eve,
I am really touched that my attempt to convey Lew Ayres' appeal as an actor and his attempts to live a fairly ethical life might have come across in this blog.

I suspect that Lew Ayres may have been one of the more thoughtful people who ever passed through Hollywood. I grew up enjoying his Kildare movies so much on television, and I was always drawn to his rare gentle intelligence and wistful decency, particularly after seeing All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which holds up beautifully and is still a masterpiece of world cinema. The more I've learned about Ayres since writing this has only confirmed my belief that he tried to live by his principles as he matured.

I also think he was rather cute, too, of course. ;)
Thank you for taking the time to post here.
All the best,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Excellent post, so well written. I've always admired Lew Ayres, not only for his work as an actor, but especially for his service in the Army. I imagine with three battle stars, along with what I believe were the testimonies to his bravery and selflessness by fellow soldiers, Hollywood had to take him back. Even trying to re-establish his film career after all that may have been the gutsiest thing he ever did.

Anonymous said...

This was just beautifully written and thorough. I've loved Lew Ayres since seeing him in HOLIDAY when I was a kid. Very little has been written about him, and I'm glad that he seems to have been a good human. I suspected that, but it's good to have some evidence.

Moira Finnie said...

Thank you for sharing your comments. It is heartening to read that others continue to find Ayres a singular presence on film and an impressive human being off-screen. I can still remember the first time that I saw his poignant, self-aware brother of the heroine in HOLIDAY (1938) too--though subsequently he found himself cast quite regularly in dipsomaniac roles large and small (see Maisie Was a Lady & The Last Train From Madrid for other examples). Good thing that Dr. Kildare came along!
I truly appreciate your remarks.


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