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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Acting Styles Merge After The War

Saddle The Wind (1958) Hosts Contest Between Old and New

There’s misnomer afoot where labeling actors that emerged after WWII. Most were lumped into “Method” category, save candy canes like Rock Hudson or Tony Curtis who everyone knew for studio-manufacture. To apply the Method brand was to disparage a newcomer, old-line columnists and critics put off by what they across-board referred to as a scratch-and-mumble school of performing. Marlon Brando gave them ammo with A Streetcar Named Desire, and by the mid-fifties, others would imitate Brando. He’d be a role model for good or ill, but it was less the actor than his creation of Stanley Kowalski that they would mimic. Brando got far afield of the signature part as hirers would let him, but a wider public wanted less versatility than variation on a role that electrified them. Suddenly it seemed you could have integrity plus stardom, so long as you did it Brando’s way. Others were there for inspiration: Montgomery Clift, James Dean … common currency being torment worn on sleeves as opposed to stalwart way of leading men who seemed less real to youth hatched by the 50’s. Studios wanted angry, or at least disaffected, young men to approximate appeal Brando-Dean-Clift had. What was overlooked was star quality these three had in addition to fresh ways at emoting.

John Cassavetes was another brought out of New York and much live television to seek feature ribbons, his pact with MGM a bid to incubate a Dean-ager all their own. Leo’s couple of efforts on behalf of the “Rising Young Star” were Edge Of The City and Saddle The Wind, both profitable, notable in itself, but was Cassavetes what made them so? He was joined by Sidney Poitier in the first, supported Robert Taylor in the next. Saddle The Wind had a script by hot-from-TV Rod Serling, who didn’t think much of the outcome, though critics noted better than usual dialogue. Cassavetes gives exuberant account of himself, the part difficult, for it's not a mere wayward kid he plays, but a deranged one. That obliged harder push on Cassavetes’ part, which stood him further out from lower-key maintained by co-players. Critics hung what seemed like over-acting on convenient “Method” rack, the process understood barely if at all by a public and those who evaluated movies on its behalf. Cassavetes was no adherent of the Method as instructed by the Actor’s Studio under primary direction of Lee Strasberg. People mistakenly assumed that Strasberg taught everybody. He’d take credit for as much over passage of years, but fact was, New York actors (a better label if we must apply a broad one) learned from many whose approaches were as varied. Most derived from the Stanislavski model, which had beginnings in Russia during the last century. A coach who worked with Cassavetes was Don Richardson, who spoke in opposition to the Method and whose techniques remain in use today by disciples. It is much too much a generalization to call John Cassavetes, or any number of his peers, “Method Actors,” but it was a handy shortcut for lazy scribes, and remains so to present day.

A most fascinating aspect of pre vs. post-war stardom is where delegates of both took to screens together. Instances of this run into hundreds. Consider James Dean with veteran colleagues in East Of Eden, or more so, his tilting with convention-built Rock Hudson in Giant. John Cassavetes co-stars with Robert Taylor in Saddle The Wind, a no-contest so far as adherents to the new style saw it, and we could wonder how Taylor viewed the enterprise, but he had nothing here to prove, authority in place thanks to two decades at work on a screen persona that spoke more for him than individual parts needed to. Simple read claimed he “played himself,” but Taylor by 1958 drew on multiple genres and versatility demonstrated since WWII, period in which he was heroic, murderous, psychotic, costume-clad, a wider range than most long-term leading men. Rod Serling referred to Taylor as “square,” which I’d attribute to Serling not having seen enough Robert Taylor movies. Young tyros needed so-called squares to play against and contrast with in any case. Cassavetes and Taylor make a fascinating pair, the uneasy merge of old Hollywood with new. Maybe that's wrong, however, for Cassavetes had no plan to lay siege on filmland. He just wanted cash from jobs to finance independent features made in New York. These were where Cassavetes would distinguish himself. Saddle The Wind is available from Warner Archive.


Blogger DBenson said...

This sort of thing spans all the arts. What's new is mocked, or uncomprehendingly imitated, or both.

New art was almost always pilloried as undisciplined fumbling or outright fraud. How many times over the years did we have publicity stunts and comedy plots about critics falling for canvases painted by chimps, or low-class comics affecting berets?

Likewise each wave of popular music was likewise branded as vulgar noise (even by those who had themselves been branded as such just a few years previously). The popular fictions were either crude no-talents packaged and foisted on the market to drive girls crazy; or near-idiot savants whose rough-hewn sincerity set them against a calcified musical establishment.

Poetry not sanctified by antiquity was almost always reviled as the work of preening posers or useless wannabes. Fiction was generally divided into Respectable, defined by academics, and Popular, defined by sales. Fans of each would sneer down at the other.

When I was growing up, sitcom plots and gags about beatniks were being recycled wholesale to apply to hippie culture. The same jokes were later modified for punk (mohawk wigs and biker costumes) and goth (leftover Munsters), then the multiplicity of trends and fads left pop culture struggling to keep up. You can still find plenty of jeans with faked tears and fraying, carefully designed so people won't think you're just a bum who wore out an ordinary cheap garment.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

One thing I've noticed about 1950's westerns and TV shows is that most male characters wear a rag tied around their necks. That wasn't the style in the late 19th century.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Dan Oliver said...

As I recall, Serling referred to "Saddle the Wind" as "Stop That Fart." It was not a job he was proud of.

Also, shouldn't the mummy on the header be Santa Imhotep? Guess it doesn't quite have the ring of Santa Kharis, does it?

10:27 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

It's always interesting to see two generations of acting styles going up against each other. There's an episode of "Naked City" where one of the lead cops is interrogating a suspect played by Dustin Hoffman. Both are good, but something about Hoffman is far more contemporary.

8:03 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This one used to pop up a lot on the Saturday movie marathons on television. I'm happy that I saw it for the first time in such environment, better to create film buffs than any kind of home video edition.

1:27 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

When Sterling called Taylor "square",perhaps he was referring to Taylor's vocal political leanings, or to his pre-war movie roles. Before 1950 or so, there is not much to warrant much enthusiasm.

9:52 AM  

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