Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Faces in the Crowd : Louis Jean Heydt

In honor of all those unsung classic movie actors out there who, as a friend recently remarked, "make re-watching films so entertaining", here's a spot that I'll use to celebrate favorite "never-weres", "almost-weres" and "once-weres" from time to time in the future.

I'll kick this off with one of my easy-to-spot faves:
Louis Jean Heydt.

Need a guy who looks as though he might be friendly or might harbor some quasi-dark secret? A fellow who might personify everything from a Civil War to Depression era Hard Luck Joe? [Please see GWTW for the former & the MGM short subject, 1938's Crime Does Not Pay No. 18: They're Always Caught for the latter) Someone with a gentle manner and l-o-s-e-r tattooed in invisible ink on his forehead? A great little guy, whose blonde, bland likability, and generally soft-spoken mien, often laced with a sweet smile, made him ideal for human wallpaper roles that required someone who could follow instrux, give exposition of some plot point, show up sober, and look good in a double breasted suit as well as a weathered leather jacket and chinos. On occasion he could be a bit of a needler (Come to the Stable) and even a weasel (The Big Sleep), which kept his many appearances from utter predictability.

Sometimes the most distinctive thing about Mr. H. was his name, which seems to have been real. He also had a wistfulness that always made me wonder about his character's backstory. I'm probably just a weirdo, but I missed the guy after he got plugged, drove away, or just disappeared from the storyline without explanation. There was something about his presence that rarely seemed to find expression on-screen.
In one of his almost-a-breakthrough parts, Louis Jean Heydt (right) played Joe Brody in the incomprehensible but entertaining The Big Sleep (1946). I can't remember the names of those other actors in the picture above. Maybe it'll come to me.


Oh, yes, Louis Jean also specialized in being the guy in a combat situation [i.e. They Were Expendable (1945), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), et al] who makes a fond remark about the wife and kiddos back home. That sort of casual remark most often should have been accompanied by "Dum, da dum dum". Nice knowing ya, Lou!



As a no-better-than-he-should-be salesman having a snort with Mary Beth Hughes on a train in the highly entertaining Mike Shayne mystery, Sleepers West (1941).
I sometimes wonder if Louis Jean Heydt made a very good living taking small parts.* I believe that he was under contract at Warners for several years in the '30s and '40s, though he shows up in almost every studio's pictures once in awhile. Maybe he was like Charles Lane, who reportedly had a cab company charge account to rocket him from one soundstage to another pronto on a daily basis, when he might appear in about 3 movies filming simultaneously. IMDb only credits Louis Jean Heydt with 137 appearances on film and tv. That can't be nearly enough!

One nagging question lingers--did his friends call him Lou, Louis, Louie or Louis Jean?

It's your turn to add a few candidates for this obscure file, gentle reader.
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* When you start to think it over, one of the most remarkable periods in theatrical history occurred during the studio era. A profession that once required non-stop touring, lousy pay and whose members were often regarded as thieves, whores and mountebanks by their audiences provided a consistent, sometimes better than average pay for actors and actresses for years on end, allowing them to become citizens, (even politicians!), own homes, and have a family. This was a first in history. Did it affect the quality of the acting? Yes and no--you be the judge.

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