Friday, December 18, 2009

The Christmas Album: Claudette Colbert & Walter Huston

The tenth day of our Christmas time trip carries us back to December, 1932 at a holiday benefit in the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. A playful Walter Huston adopts the arched posture of the clichéd stage Englishman, using a doughnut for a monocle for the cameraman as a youthful Claudette Colbert and the counter man look on with amusement. The gifted Canadian born actor, whose blend of naturalism and theatricality still make his work from that era as fresh and memorable today as it was then, had just completed one of his busiest years since entering films at the dawn of the Talkies in 1929. Cutting loose and taking a break from the business of show might have been more appealing to the busy Huston, since, in the previous year alone he had made seven lively pre-code films, playing everything from a crusading cop whose fingers got dirty in the memorable The Beast of the City to the personification of evil as King "Deadlegs" Flint in the searing Kongo to a sanctimonious preacher led astray by his own lust in Rain and created an unusually populist-minded banker as a folksy capitalist in American Madness.

The Wooden Actors Hall of Fame

“People say I’m a one-note actor, but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note.”
-Joel McCrea

I am an aficionado of wooden actors. I love them so, I ought to have splinters. Among leading actors, Joel McCrea may be lumped in with them occasionally, but not by me. His "one-note" as he mentioned above, was well played throughout his long life on screen, bringing a naturalism to everything from Westerns to Screwball Comedies. On top of that, he was physically beautiful when young and warmly interesting, weathered and credible as he aged; as anyone who has seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) or Ride the High Country (1962) can attest. He underplayed well, and seemed to have the instincts that allowed him to make it through almost 100 movies without embarrassing himself.

Those fellows whose presence I'd like to celebrate today may have lacked that instinct at times, but they were usually highly employable during a time when the cut of an actor's clothes as well as his ability to blend into the background allowed the more vivid players around them to shine. Often the focus of many silent crushes by film fans in their own day and even today, my own appreciation of these unsung actors has increased in recent years. I was reminded of my affection for these guys recently when I came across this article by David Thomson on "The Death of the Method" in The Wall Street Journal last week.

The brouhaha that has since occurred in the blogosphere dissecting or defending this argument is amusing, though it reminded me that, despite having grown up in the time when a murmur from Brando, a shout of pain from James Dean, and an angst-ridden cry from DeNiro and Pacino was the standard, I was always fond of a forgotten breed too. I have been moved by each of these actors, but I can't say that I haven't enjoyed the often forgotten fellows whose only method seemed to involve showing up looking presentable as well. These actors were the guys who bounded or glided into a drawing room asking "Tennis, anyone?", lit a leading lady's perennial cigarette, got her wrap for her, and commiserated with her over her emotional (and often trite) travails...more on the Movie Morlocks


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