When you think about your very favorite classic movies, what makes them your favorites? The films worth watching multiple times, endlessly discussing, or just chilling out with…what makes them the cinematic equivalent of comfort food? Sure, great writing is key, but those lines are just words without the right actors delivering them. Beautiful costumes are great, but without the right actors wearing them, they’re just clothes. Stunning, authentic art direction and set design are wonderful, but empty, without the right actors inhabiting that world. And gorgeous cinematography can only hold your eye for so long, without the right actors being lit. And so on… Continue reading “Announcing the SIXTH ANNUAL What A Character! Blogathon – Dec. 15-17, 2017”→
Roscoe Karns (above) welcomes you to the What A Character! Blogathon, now in its fifth fabulous year of celebrating those actors whose faces you know but whose names you may not. I’m your hostess for the Day 3 offerings. Be sure to also check out Day 1, hosted by Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled and Day 2, hosted by Aurora at Once Upon A Screen. It’s been my pleasure to work with these two dames to shed some light on the names below the title. And now, on with the today’s show…
Blogferatu presents a “grossly oversimplified horror overview” of John Carradine‘s career from the ’40s to the ’80s. “And not just any horror movies, but some of his schlockier moments.”
Cliff at Immortal Ephemera explores the sometimes sketchy biography of Stanley Fields, who “had a voice that matched his face. Either could have been raked over gravel.”
Aurora at Once Upon A Screen writes about Edmund Gwenn‘s career, including, but not limited to, his turn as everyone’s favorite Santa Claus and his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.
Silver Scenes declare of their WAC! choice, “Thurston Hall is his name and governors, senators, businessmen, and doting fathers are his game.”
Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In contributes an appreciation of John Hillerman‘s “pomposity and refinement” in four essential roles.
Gary (aka @santaisthinking) guest blogs on Kellee’s Outspoken and Freckled about Victor McLaglen in two chapters: “His Adventurous Youth – Boers, Boxing, and Baghdad” and “His Career – Big Screen Grins and Bromance.”
Then Kellee herself analyzes why Joan Blondell, that “down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is scene-stealer,” rarely got top billing, despite her “talent, enduring work ethic and generosity of spirit.”
Happy reading, leave a comment, start a conversation! Additional awesomeness expected throughout the day so check back here soon. Many thanks to everyone who has supplied such entertaining and educational posts this year. I’ve personally expanded both my knowledge and my to-watch list, and I hope you all have too.
Just like everybody goes to Rick’s, everybody knows Leonid Kinskey, whether they know his name or not. Kinskey portrays Sascha, the voluble Russian bartender, in that classic of all classics, Casablanca (1943). We meet him quite early on, when Yvonne, Rick’s latest ex-girlfriend, has had a little too much to drink and needs to be escorted home. But as I learned, there’s more to Kinskey than Sascha. Not that I won’t bask in the glory that is Casablanca first…
Paula’s note: This post is one of several by movie maven Jack Deth that I have had the pleasure of hosting on this site. See the rest here.
Welcome Bloggers, Cinephiles, Film Fans, and Aficionados of “Just Plain Good!”
Having received an invitation from our hostess Paula to expand and illuminate that arena of young and unrecognized talent usually relegated to the back of a crowd or corner of a set before being noticed and given lines to speak and scenes to execute, I would be remiss to not give it my best effort and reach back to an unsung purveyor of the thespian craft, who literally started off in the background of Midnight Cowboy, Alice’s Restaurant, Little Big Man, and Cold Turkey in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Plying his craft while being one of many. Building up a body of work and a reputation for being able to fill any slot for any type of dumpy, balding, kind of slimy, local or municipal bureaucrat, guard, telegrapher, cop, or barber. Sometimes affixing a Southern accent, or sticking to his high-pitched, upstate New York pronunciations, while using whatever was at hand to enhance his many characters. Before crossing my path in a big way in a small, very personal cinematic gem ramrodded by Dustin Hoffman and directed by Ulu Grossbard. A film which also prompted the parole of recidivist convict, Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs), through his semi-autobiographic novel, No Beast So Fierce. Which makes up the two fingers of Rye for this…
What’s great about being a character actor is you know that you can survive forever. It’s not about the gloss of your eyebrows.
— Martin Short
We’re back for a fifth consecutive year to honor the versatility and depth of supporting players with the WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon. Based on a phrase borrowed from Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the WAC! Blogathon is an event that many look forward to each year. It’s a chance to pay tribute to the Louise Beavers and Eddie Andersons of the movie world — the names that seldom or never appeared above the title. Your enthusiasm for spotlighting the oft-nameless faces that appear in countless beloved movies is admirable, and Aurora, Kellee, and I extend sincere thanks to all of the bloggers who have joined us in the previous four years. We invite you all to help us make the fifth outing extra special. Get all the details after the jump…
The WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon honors the players who rarely got leading parts, exhibiting instead a versatility and depth many leading actors wished they had. Aurora, Kellee, and I never tire of seeing them show up in films or paying tribute to their talents, and as the previous three installments of this event have proven, neither do you.
And so here I am with Day 1 of the 4th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! I know you can’t wait to read all the fabulous posts. Before you jump in though, we’d like to thank all the participants for their understanding as we re-scheduled the blogathon from last weekend due to world events. We really appreciate your patience.
UPDATE – November 13:
The WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon has been postponed until next weekend, November 21-22-23. We will promote everyone’s post as usual during those three days. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
WE’RE BACK for number 4!
WHAT A CHARACTER! — a phrase borrowed from Turner Classic Movies (TCM) so that we could dedicate a blogathon to those whose names few remember, but whose faces are familiar – honors the players who rarely got leading parts, exhibiting instead a versatility and depth many leading actors wished they had. Aurora, Kellee, and I never tire of seeing them show up in films or paying tribute to their talents, and as the previous three installments of this event have proven, neither do you. So here we are with the fourth annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon.
Brusque and grouchy, Ned Sparks’ lovable curmudgeons can usually be found as the still center of a storm of dizzy dancers, temperamental producers, and gangsters in crisis. His onscreen persona was so deadpan that he was reportedly insured with Lloyd’s of London for $100,000 against any photographs taken of him actually smiling. Yet there’s more to this primo supporting player than just a grouchy face…he got his start in show biz as a singer during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and was blacklisted on Broadway for his role in starting the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).
Edward Arthur Sparkman was born this day in 1883 in clean, friendly, and polite Canada, specifically Guelph, Ontario. He left home at 16 to try gold prospecting in Alaska. When that failed, he joined a musical company in Dawson Creek, and per The New York Times, “knocked around in tent theatricals, medicine shows, and carnivals.” Wouldn’t this be a great movie? Can’t you just hear him complaining? But wait…it gets better… Back in Canada by age 19, he attended a seminary. Briefly. But still. He also worked on a railroad before finally landing in a Toronto theater. By 1907, he was appearing on Broadway, and the Ned Sparks persona we all now know and love made its first appearance as a “cynical desk clerk” in a play called Little Miss Brown. His stage success earned him a six-picture deal with Louis B. Mayer, and, in his screen debut, a re-make of the play in 1915, he played this same role.
Thus the mid-teens saw Sparks working in both New York and Hollywood. Around this time, he was involved with organizing AEA, which sought to protect stage actors. At the time, producers set working conditions and pay scale; could fire anyone, at any time, for any reason; and there was no compensation for the unlimited rehearsal time. In the late teens, Equity went on strike, which led to improved working conditions. However, many members were blacklisted, and as Sparks was one of the founding members, his Broadway career seems to have been severely curtailed. After working pretty much continuously from his arrival in New York through 1918, he didn’t work onstage again until 1920, appearing in his final production in 1921.
He was still working in silent films though, three or four a year, until his first talkie in 1928, The Big Noise. I won’t lie and tell you I’ve seen any of Sparks’ silents. I’m sure he was good. But his monotone foghorn of a voice and his irritable attitude are so instantly recognizable, and add so much to any picture he’s in, that I can’t imagine he could have affected the audience as much without them. Sound proved a godsend to Sparks’ career, and to us as classic movie fans.
I recommend anything he’s in, but my favorite Sparks year is 1933, and here are three from that year you shouldn’t miss.
Lady for a Day
Gold Diggers of 1933
In 1936, Sparks admitted that the $100K Lloyd’s of London insurance policy story was a publicity stunt. He was “only” insured against smiling for $10,000. Though his personal life included a messy divorce and he lost touch with many of his friends after his retirement, his voice and unflappable cantankerousness pretty much guaranteed his immortality, not only in his films, but as a frequently-caricatured figure in the cartoons we can still enjoy.
It is once again my pleasure to post a What A Character! entry on behalf of guest blogger Jack Deth. Be sure to check out his other posts here and over at Flix Chatter.
Greetings all and sundry!
Several months have passed and it’s time to accept another gracious invitation from Paula to break out my miner’s cap and excavation tools. And add my perspective to the ever growing and exceptional list of hard-working, though often unknown, professionals who fill an essential niche in the fine art of story telling.
Those who work their way from the background of crowds and scene fillers. To the realms of comic relief. Or sidekick, best friend and selfless uniformed partner. Their numbers are legion. And are rarely recognized at first glance. It take a few moments of noticing how they move about a set or location. The furrow of a brow. A smile. Until it all comes together with the addition of spoken words. Often not loud. Sometimes conspiratorial. Often friendly. And the light bulb of recognition glows brightly. Rarely giving up a name. But subtly revealing the presence of a Character Actor!
And into the deep end of the diving well we shall plunge. Reveling in the decades long work of one such master craftsman. Who started out on stage. Became a “discovery” of John Sayles and his film, Matewan. Went on to Perform yeoman’s work on many episodic television series (‘Miami Vice, ‘The Equalizer’) of the later 1980s. Before filling the character of Kansas sheriff, July Johnson in ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘Return To Lonesome Dove’. Opposite Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall and Danny Glover. Where a sun-baked, deeply-lined face and a dust-dry, rasping voice gave presence and added immensely to a long riding, vengeance seeking lawman.
Supplying the confidence and wherewithal to take the lead in another small John Sayles project that put beaucoup talent on the map. So, allow me a few moments of your time. To wax poetic and meticulously into the inner workings of…
What A Character! Chris Cooper Easily Reaching Beyond His Grasp
People’s Exhibit 1: Lone Star (1996)
From 1996. Its director is proven past master of creating and executing vast, yet intensely intimate independent tales for fractions of what larger major players would spend on a day’s catering, John Sayles.
And this offering has those virtues writ large! Focusing on a once strong and prosperous town and county of Rio. Southwest of Laredo and close to Mexican border. One-time recipient of many military contracts and training bases that have had funding pulled. While the community strives to hold onto its identity opposite the rising tide of Mexicans. Who staked their claim decades ago. Have prospered and wish to make names for themselves. As developers swoop in and wish to cash in on Uncle Sam’s abandoned tracts of land. Trading money for influence.
In other words, an American Melting Pot. With all its attendant rivalries and small-scale deals and conspiracies just under the surface. Seen and acknowledged by Mr. Cooper as Sheriff Sam Deeds, son of the town’s beloved Deputy, afterwards Sheriff, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey in a surprisingly quiet, humane, mature role). Who had spent his years keeping Rio’s racist, bigoted and flatout scary law-unto-himself, Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson portraying evil incarnate. And rarely better!) in check through the 1960s.
There’s an election coming up. Sam’s a law & order kind of guy, and the townfolk like him. but he isn’t his father. And some in town keep reminding him of that, as there is a dedication of a county court house coming up in Buddy’s name. Creating the need to go out amongst the people and perform between pressing flesh and keeping interlopers busy. If not in check. And crossing the path of a long-lost and recently widowed high school sweetheart, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña), whose mother, Mercedes (Maria Colon) is a rather affluent and influential pillar of the community.
Into this slice of Southern Texas Americana arrives Colonel Delmore Payne (Sayles stalwart Joe Morton), who is the estranged son of after-hours club owner and town historian, Otis “Big O” Payne (Ron Canada). The Colonel has the unwanted duty of going over the inventory, Table of Operations and Equipment (TO&E), of a closing Army base before housing contractors break ground. Creating a small, delaying hiccup when the excavation of one of its rifle ranges reveals skeletal remains, a Masonic ring… and a Rio County Sheriff’s badge.
Sending Sam to ask questions of the town’s elders. Otis and Hollis Pogue (Clifton James). Who would rather have sleeping dogs lie than go digging around bad history and childhood nightmares. Some answers are revealed as the badge is traced back to Charley Wade. And Sam starts exploring the legend of Sheriff Wade and his mysterious disappearance after being beaten and run out of town at the hands of dear old dad, Buddy Deeds, decades before.
Since there is statute of limitation for murder, Sam settles into his Gary Cooper niche of asking the right questions and being an extremely adept listener. As forensic evidence unearths a large caliber bullet from what could be his dad Buddy’s revolver. Or an Army .45 ACP.
Which sends the film into sublimely scarily edited flashback into the many sins of Charley Wade, who despised Mexicans, and went out of his way to torment, harass, shake down and brutalize them whenever the opportunity presented itself. The deeper Sam digs, the more is revealed about his father’s womanizing ways. And how they will intersect and insert themselves toward the tale’s denouement. Which I won’t reveal, for these details are the succulent meat upon which most of the tale hangs. As Sam takes in small morsels for deeper investigation. Letting his still, lined face speak volumes as clues are fleshed out. And dots are silently, sometimes tragically connected during a final sit down with the town elders.
I’ll leave it right here, for spoilers’ sake.
Now. What Does Mr. Cooper Bring To His Role?
The dust, dry grit and sweat-stained perseverance to work the case. No matter where the evidence and clues lead. Hesitantly at first. As the tossed net is expanded. And tales are told to expand the quest even further. Even if they initially point in the wrong direction. As the twists and turns of lies and legend slowly straighten out and lead back to past sins of the fathers.
And Mr. Kristofferson and McConaughey excel in their respective characters, with Kristofferson blatantly, frighteningly going over the top at times. While Mr. Conaughey sits in the background. Taking it all in and patiently waiting for the proper moment. Unaware that their actions will swing back decades later.
Adding to the weight Mr. Cooper bears as old wounds are reopened. Amidst the busy and slowly expanding town. And sprawling outback near the border as Sam explores past windfalls and re-establishes his relationship with schoolteacher and administrator Pilar. Creating a solid foundation for an expansive tale that travels at its own speed. In a wide and neatly tucked in tale written, directed, edited and produced by Mr. Sayles. Backed by superb cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. And a rustic, suspenseful soundtrack by Mason Darling. Creating the definition of a critically acclaimed and later, criminally forgotten personal project.
Which clears the decks for a small, compact and very worthwhile family tale and period piece, focusing on the world-changing events of 1959. Russia’s launching of Sputnik and its orbiting above post war U.S. soil. Witnessed by a young Homer Hickam as the gauntlet of what would be known as the “Space Race” was thrown down.
Peoples’ Exhibit 2: October Sky (1999)
The place: Coalwood, West Virginia. Coal Country USA, in the waning years of the Eisenhower administration. One of dozens of “company towns” throughout the state. Owned and operated by a large industrial corporation, profits of which provide the housing, police, fire department, schools and church. Producing a meager living for the families, whose men work in the mines.
A township in the valley of two mountain ridges. And a place where most would like to leave. Though the only way out for those young men coming of age is a sports scholarship. Not a great list of options for teenager, Homer (surprisingly good Jake Gyllenhaal), whose older brother, Jim (Scott Miles), has just won a football scholarship out of town.
Overshadowed by the launch, very early in the Cold War, of the first orbital satellite, Sputnik, property of the Russians, the ENEMY. And its ability to be seen in the night sky by Homer and other townspeople. Sending Homer to seek out his friends, math geek Quentin Williams (Chris Owens), inspired machinist Ray Lee Cook (William Lee Scott), and Sherman O’Dell (Chad Lundberg) to take the pulpy science fiction novels and illustrations they love to the drawing board and their next steps. First as a hit-and-miss hobby, as early launches blow up before launching from Homer’s front yard, to a later attempt that launches beautifully, then crashes miles away and sets fire to distant acres of forest.
And through it all, Mr. Cooper’s John Hickam watches from a discreet distance. Not sure what to make of his son’s latest fascination. As small accidents in the mines slow extraction and production. Going the extra mile to keep the workers together as the first whiffs of interest from Unions make themselves known. Uncovering and dealing with small, sometimes innocuous, acts of sabotage.
One that may have caused a small cave-in. And sent John to the hospital after rescuing several men deep in the main mine. Looking toward a bleak future while trying to avoid arguments between his wife, Elsie (Natalie Canerday), who wants the best possible future for Homer. And Homer, who has the grades and the backing of his teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern). Who knows the ins and outs of academics and its scholarships. And supplies Homer with several books on advanced mathematics and aerodynamic design.
The books come in handy in helping Homer prove that his and his friends’ earlier rocket did not cause he forest fire. Calculating the exact location of the rocket in a stream miles from the disaster. Getting the town folk behind the team. While garnering a very positive story in the local paper. And beyond in the process.
The winning of a Science Fair propel Homer and his friends to new heights. And a much more sophisticated venue in Indianapolis, Indiana. Where their model’s thrust nozzle is stolen. And a new one is machined and delivered early the next morning after a tense all night refinement session. I’ll leave it right here. Lest I tip my hand on one of the better no-frills family films of the 1990s!
What Does Mr. Cooper Bring To This Role?
One of the most complete and fully fleshed-out Dads of the 1950s. Hard-working and -loving. Though acutely aware of his family’s situations. And its slim odds of something, anything better, who goes to the mines every morning to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. Though, while convalescing after a cave-in, not really sold on the idea of his youngest taking up the baton and riding the cage down.
Pulled in several directions at once. Amidst anger from fellow miners, The disruption of life long friendships over a tragic mistake. And its following retribution. Mr. Cooper does what he does best! Adds depth, shadow and presence to a roughly sketched character. Embodies it with his worn, lined visage and slow, never hurried gait. And makes it his own.
Creating a believable foundation for Mr. Gyllenhaal to lash out with teen angst in discovering he is good at and enjoys its pursuit, no matter how harebrained to may seem to his Dad. Also notable for how reined in and respectful Mr. Gyllenhaal’s Homer is in this regard. Explaining a future he and his father cannot fully comprehend. And how he wants to fit into it.
Very high marks for Joe Johnston for fluidly juggling the main story. Which is Mr. Gyllenhaal’s to carry. As well as so many subplots that swirl about. And reel themselves in so nicely long before the final credits. A capability that will pay off so well in later films, Hidalgo and Captain America: The First Avenger. Aided by cinematography by Fred Murphy. Editing by Robert Dalva. Superb hardscrabble and dirty art direction by Tony Fanning, making parts of Eastern Kentucky look so much like the smoky hills of West Virginia. Aided by a memorable, period-tinged soundtrack by Mark Isham.