It would be easy to go with the well-remembered stars - Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Grace Kelly are all high on my list. But you've all heard of them, and undoubtedly have seen many of their films. So, I'm going to select some actors whose work you might not have viewed, or who don't come to mind in classic film discussions. All have films we've reported on in this blog, and I hope you will click over and learn more about these wonderful actors.
Kay FrancisMs. Francis started her career on the Broadway stage, but by 1929, she had begun a film career that extended over 69 films and 17 years. Most famous perhaps for a lisp that made the letter r sound a bit like Elmer Fudd, Ms. Francis was an attractive woman who WORE dresses (they never wore her). During the early part of her career, she was often the lead in "women's pictures" - lots of gorgeous clothing and jewelry, and much suffering on her part. But these were roles she owned. She had a strength that shone from her eyes, and when you watched her being menaced, she always seemed to know how to keep control of the situation. One of her best roles was as the woman on trial in Confession (1937). We see her murder Basil Rathbone, seemingly in cold blood, but WHY? Ms. Francis keeps you wondering throughout the film; her mastery of her art is exceptional.
She was also quite comfortable in comedies. Witness her standout performance in Trouble in Paradise (1932), and her suggestive and fascinating exchanges with Herbert Marshall. If you've never seen some of her later work, where she got to be a villain, you are missing a real treat. Try In Name Only (1939) where she plays Cary Grant's manipulative and greedy wife. It's a shame that, by 1939 (as a result of being called Box Office Poison), Warner Brothers was relegating her to supporting roles. But, even so, she took these roles and ran with them.
When World War II broke out, Ms. Francis devoted herself to entertaining the troops (Four Jills in a Jeep (1944) is a somewhat fictionalized account of that work); after the War, she returned briefly to films and tried her hand at producing at Monograph studios. Sure, the scripts and production values were low, but Kay dominated her parts - take a look at Divorce (1945) and watch her make mincemeat out of Bruce Cabot. By 1946, she was done with films; she made a couple of TV appearances, and went back to the stage. She retired in the early 1950s, but left us a legacy of delightful film performances.
Claude RainsWas there any role Claude Rains could not play? From Shakespeare to Shaw, playing villain or lover, a man of honor or a man to revile, he could do it all. Let's begin with the start of his film career, The Invisible Man (1933), in which he was literally ALL voice. We see his character briefly, but for the greater part of the film, he is invisible, conveying his increasing mental illness with his voice alone. Five years later, he played Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and managed to slide past the censors a subtle performance in which John is decidedly effeminate (Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice by David K. Skal and Jessica Rains). That same year, he would appear as the loving and supportive father to Four Daughters (1938), in a role with both humor and dignity.
You can't mention Claude Rains without mentioning his performance as Captain Louis Renault Casablanca (1942) ("I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"), or his sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Jaquith in Now, Voyager (1944). But the two performances that, for me, are truly unforgettable are Job Skeffington and Julius Caesar. In Mr. Skeffington (1944), he again appears with Bette Davis (they had already appeared in Juarez (1939) and Now, Voyager). But this time, he is the sympathetic character - a man passionately in love with a careless and often demeaning wife. In lesser hands, Job would have appeared merely as doormat; under Rains skillful control, Job is a good man who made an unwise choice.
When he appeared in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), he made no attempt to disguise the fact that he was over 20 years older than his co-star, Vivien Leigh. He uses his age to good effect - Caesar is a more a tutor than a lover, and entertained by the young queen's advances. He certainly is not immune to her charms, but Rains maintains an amusement, both with Cleopatra, and with himself.
Thankfully for us, Mr. Rains continued working until a few years before his death at age 77, leaving us a legacy of films, and radio and television performances to relish.
Thelma RitterYou just cannot sing the praises of Thelma Ritter too much. Sure, she's funny, but give her a dramatic role, and she will run with it. She was in her 40s when she started acting in films, and gave us performances that are truly unforgettable. Just think about Miracle on 34th Street (1947). She has TWO scenes, and you remember her throughout the film, even though she is uncredited in it (as well as in A Letter to Three Wives (1949)). When she disappears from All About Eve (1950), you wonder where she is; and you keep wanting her to return in Rear Window (1954).
Two of the performances that are high on my list are as different as noir and day. In 1953, Ms. Ritter entered the world of Film Noir as Moe Williams in Pickup on South Street. A peddler of necktimes and information, Moe is a rather seedy individual. Ms. Ritter gives her a soul; Moe may be down, but she has her own code, and her life is her own. Compare Moe to Ellen McNulty in The Mating Game (1951). Again, Ms. Ritter is a poor woman, but a lady with spunk. Her desire to see her son happy, and to get to know his new wife without intimidating her is a pleasure to behold. We like her son Val (John Lund) BECAUSE of Ellen's unquestioning love.
Ms. Ritter left us 43 television and film performances; she worked until her death of a heart attack at age 66. I'm greedy, I wish there were more.
Ricardo CortezRicardo Cortez began his career in silents. His parts at the time tended to be Latin lovers in the Valentino mold, but with the advent of talkies, the New York City born Jake Krantz changed directions. He was often cast as the heavy, but had his share of leading man roles. He excelled in all of them.
In Ten Cents a Dance (1931), he treads a fine line - we are never sure if he is the hero or the villain until the very end. However, in Mandalay (1934), he is one of the most truly despicable men you could ever meet. He played Sam Spade in 1931's The Maltese Falcon, Perry Mason in The Case of the Black Cat (1936), and the slightly shady, but best of friends to Kay Francis in The House on 56th Street (1933).
Mr. Cortez worked steadily throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but his acting career started to peter out in the 1940s. He had directed a few films, but ultimately opted to leave the film industry for a new career as a stockbroker. In 1958, he appeared in his last film, The Last Hurrah and two years later he was in an episode of Bonanza (playing a Latino!). Ricardo Cortez is an unknown gem of an actor, and one I recommend you seek out.
She started her career with talkies in 1929, and never really looked back. Her work in pre-code films is something to see - start with Baby Face (1933) and Night Nurse (1931) to see just a sample of her nuanced performances. She could do drama (Stella Dallas (1937)), comedy (my personal favorite, Ball of Fire (1941)), farce (the brilliant The Lady Eve (1941), suspense (Cry Wolf (1947)), romance (Remember the Night (1940)), and westerns (The Moonlighter (1953)). She could be a convincing victim (Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and an even more persuasive villain (Double Indemnity(1944)). She even could elevate a B movie to a new level (The Night Walker (1964)).
Rather than appear in inferior films, Ms. Stanwyck moved over to television to continue her career; The Big Valley showcased her talent and her tremendous beauty. One of her last television roles was as Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds (1983). Watch her lust after the considerably younger Richard Chamberlain in the scene below:
So, for National Classic Movie Day, why not put some popcorn in a bowl and settle down with one of these marvelous actors - or pick one of your own. You'll be glad you did!