Thursday, April 17, 2008

You Need Whit Bissell

Such a film with as outlandish a title was never made, or even considered, of course. Not only was Whit Bissell not likely to be considered as a leading man, but just ask yourself: "Can you begin to imagine Whit Bissell as a teenager?" However, you probably can imagine yourself in '50s Hollywood.
Perhaps you're a not very well-to-do producer. Your next payment on one of those Fleetwood Cadillacs is due. You have a dog-eared script that may take a week or two, tops to shoot. It's the usual mishmash of nuclear age anxiety, with a nod to Freud and oodles of Jungian symbolism blended with some platitudes about "the hoodlum problem." It would be ideal fare for the growing youth market--especially those who frequent the passion pits masquerading as drive-in theaters that dot the countryside. The return on your low ball estimated initial investment is almost guaranteed.

You know that you can't swing a cat in LA without hitting some brylcreemed youth with a smooth-faced mug. Most of them would probably run over his grandmother for a chance to play the perennially misunderstood lad who is...well, you can fill in the blank...but let's say that said protagonist is the only person in town who sees the imminent danger after that strange meteorite hurtles to earth quite near lover's lane.
You need a likable, tousle-haired delinquent as the boy who cried wolf...then again, maybe you're onto something there...he doesn't just cry wolf. As a counterpoint to any one of hundreds of James Dean wanna-bes as your hirsute lead, you need an actor who can bring some deep dish dignity to the project. Someone with a blend of believability, erudition, a well-groomed appearance, professional self-importance, spurious authority, ersatz competence, a soupçon of self-hatred, and a scosh of sympathy. And maybe someone who even has their own lab coat, (the wardrobe budget for this flick was probably as tight as a pencil skirt on Mamie Van Doren).

You need Whit Bissell.

From his first appearance on film to one of his last in Time Machine:The Journey Back (1993), Whit Bissell's air of authority and his subversively amusing manner brought an added dimension to his often underwritten roles. Doctors, scientists (both rational and barking mad varieties), accountants, professors and lawyers were all within his abilities. Playing superficially self-assured types whose self confidence is quite ill-founded has made him the embodiment of the axiom "there are no small parts, only small actors."

Through his numerous appearances in films and tv shows, (especially the "tribble" Star Trek episode and his part as the truly incompetent scientist in The Time Tunnel), the actor became readily identified as a fixture of the sci-fi genre. I particularly enjoy his mad doctors in two classics, (of sorts). I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), with Bissell having a whale of a time playing a police doctor who is "treating" young Michael Landon for his anger management issues, brought the younger actor his first success. Thanks to the pompous callousness of the not so good doctor played by Whit, whose grasp of Freud and Darwin seems as shaky as AIP 's financing, Landon reverts into a destructive werewolf with poor impulse control. This was followed by I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), in which Whit played a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein who stitches a new monster from the dead parts of hotrodders, (and uttered the immortal command, "Speak. I know you have a civil tongue in your head because I sewed it back myself."). Whit also appeared at the end of one of the best of the genre in that period, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Recognizing that someone "in authority" should be notified to look into the ravings of Kevin McCarthy when he finally stumbles into the outside world, Whit turns to that other pillar of strength and competence to discuss the matter, Richard Deacon (!). Frankly, though some sources state that this ending was tacked on to the Don Siegel film to give some modicum of hope to audiences, if the fate of the planet rests in the hands of these fellows, I'd be more worried than when McCarthy's character was careening around the highway shouting at people.
How did Whit Bissell come to be so identifiable to movie audiences?

Mr. Bissell's first noticeable appearance on film is in the Michael Curtiz epic, The Sea Hawk (1940). He is glimpsed and heard quite briefly as a plebeian guard whose gray presence offers us one more contrast to that wildly appealing loose cannon, Errol Flynn, who is filling an imagined Elizabethan world via Warner Brothers with just the right touch of colorful splendor. Whit will have none of this folderol in his 45 year career. He is, as Gary Westfahl has pointed out, the keeper of the flame when it comes to projecting "kitsch gravitas."

A relatively small but neat man--perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his appearance was that his hair always seemed to be combed--Whitner Nutting Bissell, the son of a prominent New York surgeon, Dr. James Dougal Bissell, was born in the Big Apple in 1909. Graduating from the University of North Carolina and studying with theatrical legend Eva Le Gallienne in his native city, Whit first won notice when he stepped on the New York stage in the heady company of John Gielgud, Lillian Gish and Judith Anderson in Hamlet (1936). In a casting move that presaged much of the course of his half century career, Bissell played three small roles in the critically hailed and popular production enacting Cornelius, Lucianus, & Guildenstern each night. In the 16 Broadway plays that he appeared in during this early phase of his life as an actor, Whit even appeared in a musical, Count Me In (1942) with Jean Arthur, Charlie Butterworth, and Gower Champion. Bissell again played 3 different parts, singing and dancing a saucy song called "On Leave For Love" at one point. While I've always appreciated Whit's cultured voice, (especially the way that the actor used a light quaver to delineate underlying tension), it boggles the mind a bit to imagine him launching into song, much less a buck and wing.

Once he started to appear in films regularly in the late '40s, Bissell proved his versatility and eventually his résumé teemed with nearly countless appearances in every genre of t.v. show and movie. Though IMDb credits him with over 280 appearances, and many of his movies and tv appearances would never rate critical raves, I think he wrung what humanity he could from more one and two dimensional roles than almost any other seemingly ubiquitous actor--and often his sheer presence was a wry commentary on the material being offered as entertainment. As his face and manner became familiar to audiences, Whit became a signal to the audience. When you saw his alternately nervous and sometimes arrogantly smug characters swing into view on screen, you knew implicitly that the center cannot hold, and the patriarchal world underpinning our culture that Bissell characters represent has started to unravel.

In movies, I think he was exceptionally memorable in several film noir classics.
Among his more touching moments on film is his appearance in the remarkably effective prison film directed by the late Jules Dassin, Brute Force (1947). As Tom Lister, Whit plays a vulnerable inmate in Cell R17 who is driven round the bend by the sadistic lies of head guard (and crypto-fascist) Hume Cronyn. Gazing at the elusive face of an anonymous woman on a calendar in his cell, Whit, and each of the men, has their past revealed in flashback. Bissell brings an especially touching and pathetic longing for the beautiful woman (Ella Raines) he stole for in a hapless effort to keep her content as his wife. Among the men in that cell, he seems to have fallen farthest and hardest. Small, well spoken and with a despairing urgency in his voice, his character clearly doesn't belong in this dangerous, grim environment. Not only does the state control his body in prison, but when Cronyn manages to inject his bile into the bespectacled convict's imaginings with implications about his wife seeking a possible divorce, Bissell's fate is sealed--for now his mind and heart have been violated as well. While Burt Lancaster, Howard Duff and Charles Bickford star in this film, as a viewer, I usually find Whit's tragic character to be among the most moving portraits in the Mark Hellinger production.

He Walked By Night (1949), directed by Alfred Werker and an uncredited Anthony Mann, features what may be the character actor's most overlooked fine performance. As the timid electronics factory owner, who offers a deadly thief (Richard Basehart) a job when he brings him modified stolen equipment for sale, Bissell combines naïveté and generosity. When the police question him after tracing some stolen items back to Whit's firm, the actor presents a classic example of moral queasiness under pressure.
Most chilling of all, heightened by the excellent cinematography of John Alton and the editing, are the scenes when Bissell is compelled by the police to meet Basehart late at night at the factory. Whit as a judas goat is clearly no match for either the police or the wily, pathologically cold suspect who stalks Bissell and the police instead. Whit creates a miniature portrait of a type he would play to perfection numerous times in the future. His "respectable businessman" sees himself as an ethical man who's curious about the world around him, yet he's also somewhat withdrawn and shy, more confident when exploring some esoteric aspect of electronics than he is in dealing with the police, much less a dangerous criminal. The encounters he has with the authorities and with Basehart make him see his own limitations in a harsh light. As he sweats profusely while dealing with them, he answers their questions hesitantly, trying to come up with a reply that will appease them. Most of the time he looks away from his questioners, and a viewer has a sense that the character is trying to formulate his sentences carefully, while inside an unfamiliar panic is rising inside him as he contemplates all the ramifications on his life and business that this turn of events might have on him.

Bigger budget filmmakers also employed Bissell, and some of his notable appearances include working for Edward Dmytryk in The Caine Mutiny, George Cukor in It Should Happen to You, John Huston in The Red Badge of Courage and, in an iconic part as an arrogantly incompetent surgeon in Stanley Kramer's Not As a Stranger. (One wonders how growing up as the son of a famed surgeon influenced his many characterizations of doctors).

John Frankenheimer, who began his career with early groundbreaking work in live television first encountered the actor in that medium. Meeting when Bissell played an "Addison DeWitt" type of columnist in the Playhouse 90 production of Ernest Lehman and Rod Serling's "The Comedian", starring Mickey Rooney. Whit and Frankenheimer would make several films together, including The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964).
As film noir evolved in the '50s (into a fairly baroque parody of its earlier self in many ways), Bissell went along for the ride, appearing in the classic The Killer That Stalked New York, Riot in Cell Block 11, The Big Combo, and one of my guilty pleasures, Shack Out on 101(1955). Clearly made on a very small budget, what is allegedly a cold war anti-communist film stars Lee Marvin as Slob, a slavering fry cook in a road house diner who, in between lusting after waitress Terry Moore who sighs only for Frank Lovejoy, matches "wits" with owner Keenan Wynn and his friend, the salesman Whit Bissell. Wynn and Bissell spend much of the film planning and practicing, (using plastic fish from the decor of the restaurant), for their upcoming snorkeling trip.

Perhaps in a parody of endless cold war maneuvers or in preparation for a performance of Waiting for Godot, this movie contains some of Whit Bissell's loopiest and funniest moments. And despite the scene-stealing antics of Lee Marvin, Whit's presence in the movie adds greatly to my enjoyment of it. This film would be a blockbuster as a TCM Underground feature.

Whit Bissell also appeared in several Westerns, in classic movies such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which he appeared as an undertaker, as well as in small gems such as Warlock (1959) and Three Hours to Kill (1954). He lent his straight arrow style to the material that often only called on him to play some form of hypocrite, though occasionally, as he did in several fascinating roles he played in episodes of television's The Rifleman, the actor was able to bring out something repellent and appealing in his portrayals of several troubled men in the Old West.

Arriving for good in post-war Hollywood just before turning forty, Whit Bissell's career commemorating some not so quietly desperate sorts in movies and tv began just as the old studio system was crumbling. Scrambling to make a living, Bissell earned a reputation among casting directors as among the most reliable actors whose professionalism lent import, realism and quite a bit of sneaky humor to the most hackneyed scripts. Off screen, Mr. Bissell was married three times, the last time for 25 years to Jennifer Raine, the stepdaughter of noted character actor Alan Napier. Active in the Screen Actor's Guild and AMPAS for decades, after retiring to the Motion Picture Home as he struggled in his last years with Parkinson's Disease, Whit Bissell was described by one Los Angeles Times article three years before his death in 1996 as "a leader" among his peers in the Home. Always described by his contemporaries as "a great gentleman", he was said to have been instrumental in helping other older people around him. Even when he was eventually confined to a wheelchair, he and other residents were described as still serving "on committees that have examined such issues as sex, violence and the portrayal of the aged in film--providing a strong, sensible voice that harks back to Hollywood's past."

Bissell's presence in any movie is reassuring to me, despite so often acting as a harbinger of a malfunctioning society. Many viewers, myself included, hold him in affectionate esteem. One friend of mine recently went so far as to codify a measure using Whit as the yardstick. My fellow Whit aficionado, ChiO, who grew up in the '50s and '60s, was like most of us. He knew Bissell's face for a long time before he learned his name. My friend recently explained that "Roger Ebert has The Stanton-Walsh Rule: No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad. I have the same rule, but call it The Whit Bissell Rule."
No movie with Whit Bissell in a supporting role can fail to entertain in some small way.

Below are links to Whit Bissell movies, but, if you really want to encounter Whit Bissell, turn on your tv. He's playing somewhere, sometime, all day, all night.
Whit Bissell Filmography
Upcoming Whit Bissell Films on TCM

Sources:

Gabbard, Glen O., Gabbard, Krin, Psychiatry and the Cinema, American Psychiatric Pub., 1999.

Glionna, John M., (1993, Sept. 4). "The Best Years of Their Lives". Los Angeles Times, p. 1.
Hannsberry,Karen Burroughs, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2003.

Weaver, Tom, Monster Merger of Two More Vols. of Classic Interviews, McFarland, 2003.


(Originally published by me at the official TCM blog, MovieMorlocks.com, on Apr. 9, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.)

3 comments :

MarkJeff said...

Moira-- Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful piece on Whit Bissell, who I knew for a short time way back when. Over the years, I've posted an homage or two about him and comments on amazon.co.uk and imdb.com about his indispensibility to the history of film.

Some samples you can peruse:

(1) "The mercurial mastery of a complex supporting role"
Re: FILM: Frankenheimer's "The Young Stranger"

About Frankenheimer's and Whit's professional relationship over the years and this theatrical film as a remake of a TV show they had earlier collaborated on.
Comment posted on: amazon.co.uk

(2) "Whit Bissell's memorable performance steals the film from Quinn"

Re: FILM: "The Man from Del Rio"

About Whit's turn as Breezy Morgan in this Anthony Quinn Western.
Comment posted on: imdb.com

(3) "Superb Serlinguesque TV Western series with the uncanny feel of independent film"

About Whit's performance in the pilot episode of this Lloyd Bridges' series.

AND JUST TODAY:

"In the House Where I Was Bissell"

Lengthy comment about one of Whit's most affecting performances of the 1940s in the film "Crime Doctor's Diary" (1949) with mention of the pivotal and unforgettable role Whit had as Tom Lister in "Brute Force."
Comment posted on: imdb.com

LINK for "In The House Where I Was Bissell":
imdb.com/title/tt0041267/usercomments-10

MarkJeff

P.S. Needless to say, I am an avid Whit aficionado and collector of all his many films and TV shows AND TV commercials. Yep, he did those, too.

Whit's best commercial (and they are hard to find): Whit as a sophisticated, snappily dressed, silver-haired ghost(!) in white suit and vest, counselling a befuddled business professional with an air of droll and self-deprecating panache. He was a looker, a real silver-haired fox in the spot. The commercial was
a rather baroque-looking TV ad for Wausau Insurance.

Yours was one of the best, if not THE best, blog I have read on him.

Moira Finnie said...

Hi MarkJeff,
Thanks so much for sharing your appreciation for all things Bissell with me. I have checked out your postings and find them delightful. I believe that I have a vague memory of that commercial you mentioned that featured a silver-haired Whit.

I've recently seen the Crime Doctor's Diary (1949) and was delighted to discover his presence in the film raised it from a genre feature to a hidden gem. My favorite film role for him is probably the queasy electronics company owner in He Walked By Night followed by his touching, if brief, role in Brute Force. I hope that you will let me know if you unearth any other films which feature Mr. Bissell. From all published interviews with him that I found when researching this article, must have been a real charmer and down-to-earth guy.
Thanks again for your sharing your thoughts.
Appreciatively,
Moira

fiftieswesterns said...

Bissell adds a bit of class to everything he's in — whether it needs it or not.

Thanks for bringing up the terrific Shack Out On 101 — what a wonderful, whacked-out movie that is. Far too few people know that one.

I love him in Brute Force, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and No Name On The Bullet.

Really appreciate the back story. This gives me an idea for a cool blogathon — The Character Actor Blogathon.

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