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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Star Personas Gather Up Greatness

Where Gimmicks and Tricks Made Great Actors

Gary Cooper Appears As a Friendly Witness Before the House Un-American Activities Committee

Jeff Corey in the Foreground, with Jack Carson, Gary Cooper, and Lauren Bacall, in Bright Leaf

Clark Gable and Charles Lane in Teacher's Pet
From Alan Ladd, a quote: “Maybe I can’t act, but I know the gimmicks. I studied acting all my life and know what’s good for me.” There’s defensive tone here, as if Ladd saw the category critics and some of a public kept him in. He realized that sector was not what made or maintained his stardom. Ladd went chin out by admitting “gimmicks” that drove his performing. The humble hat was common to stars “just playing themselves,” which as often meant laughing at themselves wherever “real” acting was addressed. Gary Cooper got room-filling howls for a HUAC “friendly witness” turn where questioners asked his profession, and he tentatively replied “actor.” The stronger a star’s persona, the more doubt must be cast on ability, “true” ability as defined by those who saw versatility, preferably demonstrated on a stage, as barometer of an actor's skill. Cooper and Ladd both used “gimmicks.” Cooper said as much to colleague Jeff Corey (“I only have two or three tricks at best, and that’s not enough, is it?”) when both took thesp classes in the 50’s --- I said the 50’s, a point at which Coop could have stayed home fielding job offers reliable as sun-up. He knew he was doing something, plenty, right, but sought, always, to be better.

Alan Ladd Early On, at Right, in 1936's Pigskin Parade

Ladd So Big a Star That Frame Blow-Up Stills Of Him Were Used to Promote a Wartime Reissue of Captain Caution

Clark Gable was like that too. Character actor Charles Lane recalled one of their films together: “Clark … was a man of great insecurity in his work.” Lane had come back half-an-hour early from lunch. “There were three grips eating their sandwiches out of paper bags, and Gable --- rehearsing all by himself. I said, ‘What in God’s name are you doing?’ He said, ‘Oh Charlie, I stink so in this thing, I’ve got to do something about it.’” Lane characterized Gable as “a very hard worker” (this in 1959, a point at which Gable too could have rested on laurels). These quotes, by the way, are from Jordan R. Young’s outstanding collection of interviews, Reel Characters. Jeff Corey observations derive from Close-Ups, edited by Danny Peary, a classic book from 1978. Back to Alan Ladd and his quote: Yes, he studied, and bigger yes, did know what was good for him. That study meant trial/error. Look at Captain Caution and 1941’s The Black Cat to see Ladd feeling his way toward effective screen presence. He would try “acting” in both and learn that to try hard need not mean trying too hard. Others gave advice, Ladd wired to levels of talent in both motion pictures and radio, latter where he’d develop a richly expressive voice the equal of anybody’s. This Gun For Hire demonstrated that underplaying “was good for him,” and that lesson would not be forgot.

Ladd went all out for action, but tamped down for dialogue and quieter scenes. No one would catch him over-emoting again. He kept his audience guessing, which women in particular liked. Could a man so impenetrable be reached by anyone? Ladd left most of expression to his eyes, reporting after work one day that he had done a particularly good “look” for cameras, a kidding remark, but serious too because he knew that’s where his strength was. No, Ladd did not play himself, unless himself was a process needing years to shape and perfect. I think the reason Ladd slowed in the 50’s was circumstances of his offscreen life corroding the model developed in more-less youth. He didn’t look the same or move as before, the Ladd persona by this time inflexible. Withhold of emotion perhaps made him too rigid, more so in a decade where trends in lead men rewarded outburst and even tears where event called for it, or didn’t. But viewers wanted Ladd as they knew him best, or not at all. Less work near the end reflected choice of the latter. Through the 50’s at least, he had an audience, and Jack Warner for one said that Alan Ladd was a most bankable of stars then at work. Melancholy woven into the persona from early on continued to resonate. Teens even could be moved by it, as in Ladd as identification figure for isolated high schooler Sal Mineo in Rebel Without A Cause; his "Plato" keeps a photo of the star pasted inside his locker, one outsider living vicarious through another.

Ladd and Co-Star Edward G. Robinson Welcomed By Jack L. Warner for Hell On Frisco Bay

Odd thing was, Ladd’s offscreen image differed utterly from the closed shop of his film persona, as if to say latter was all pretend just like movies and everyone who performed in them. The dissent was too ingrained however, so that lone wolf Ladd of the screen became our concept of the “real” Alan Ladd, rather than uneasy exemplar of perfect family life as put forth by a mainstream press and fan magazines. As told before, I had an elementary school band teacher named Priscilla Call, formerly Priscilla Lyon, and once a child actress in movies and radio. She was represented by Hollywood agent Sue Carol, a prime architect of the Ladd image, and married to him as well. The Ladds would host Sunday cookouts for Sue’s clients, so Priscilla was invited often. She told me that Alan Ladd was polite but withdrawn, joining the party for a while, then retiring to the pool where he’d swim laps alone. Any witness to this, Priscilla for sure, might say, “Yes, here is Alan Ladd as he really is,” a figure in keeping with what we saw of him in movies.

Ladd’s persona was at once steadfast and variable. Each time, it seemed we might break through and understand him better. Shane was a truest reflection of this because George Stevens knew the acting instrument he had in Ladd. A brilliant enough director did wonders with an established image, for he could find and reveal subtleties others would not see. It was no coincidence when Ladd said he learned more about acting from Stevens than any director he ever worked with. An outstanding film actor, and Ladd was certainly that, accrues much over years of honing a screen image. Each part adds layers to a deepening mosaic. A star who’s been around long enough is known to us as well as family members. It is why loyalty to them was so acute, especially during the Studio Era when the most capable of them emerged. A Ronald Colman anecdote: He was invited to do a cameo in Around The World In 80 Days, for which he got a bucket of cash, or a Cadillac, or some such windfall, I forget which and it doesn’t matter, but someone asked him how it was that he should be paid so exorbitantly for a single day’s work, to which Colman replied, “This is not for one day’s work … it is for a lifetime of work.”

Hell On Frisco Bay is primo Ladd, and great to have back in circulation after years gone begging for decent prints. Warner’s Blu-Ray is Cinemascope-wide and a mile high for fans who have waited so long. There is reward for seeing a star exactly as we want him, Ladd in modern dress, just sprung from Alcatraz for a killing he didn’t commit, bitter toward a wife that has not stayed faithful for five years he was in the jug, to that add fact “Steve Rollins” is an ex-cop, and there is corruption in the force he must root out. Who needs favorite stars to be “versatile”? The best personas were fixed, and happily so. Smart players like Ladd protected them. Lead men too eager to widen range often as not stumbled. Hell On Frisco Bay was 2018’s comfort disc for me. Ladd’s accumulation of “self” by 1955 lends even his physical decline a grandeur. The Ladd history, fed by continuity of an image congenial to us, lends depth to “Steve,” who does what we expect of Alan Ladd, the persona larger than any individual part he would play. Was it producer Ladd (his “Jaguar” company) who suggested Edward G. Robinson for lead nemesis, because the idea was inspired. The two crackle singly, and together (AL to Eddie, “I’d like to kill you so much, I can taste it”). Of course, Robinson brings freight of his own to Hell On Frisco Bay. Was it sour aftertaste of the war that made his crime lords so much crueler than before? Dialogue here is really nasty, especially the way E.G. abuses Fay Wray, an unexpected and welcome supporting presence. Ladd as Jaguar head knew how to cast his vehicles, never hogging the frame where others had opportunity to shine. I could go on, but it’s enough to say that Hell On Frisco Bay is a viewing must, and Warners’ Blu-Ray looks terrific.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Read David Mamet's books TRUE AND FALSE and BAMBI VS> GODZILLA. Mamet states, "Invent nothing. Deny nothing. Stand up. Speak up. Stay out of school."

Self doubt is nurtured in us along with our mother's milk. Mamet writes,“Any system built on belief functions through the operations of guilt and hypocrisy. Such a system, whether of acting training, meditation self improvement etc., functions as a Pseudoreligjon and is predicated on the individual’s knowledge of his or her own worthlessness The system holds itself out as the alleviator, cleanser, and redeemer of the guilty individual
“Now none of us is free of self doubt, and none of us is free of guilt. We all have thoughts, feelings, episodes, and tendencies which we would rather did not exist.

“A guilt-based educational system, which is to say, most acting training, survives through the support of adherents who were guilty before they signed up. who came to classes and failed (how could they do otherwise, as the training was nonsense), and were then informed that their feelings of shame_which they brought in with them—were due to their failure in class, and could be alleviated if and only if the student worked harder, “believed” more. “

Tain’t gonna happen, McGee.

"Most teachers say you should go to school to get your degree to have something to fall back on. Aside from being a huge lie, that also creates a very high level of mediocrity, because nobody who really believes that is going to take the leap of faith required to be a serious artist. Stay out of school."--Ellis Marsalis to his sons Branford, Delfeayo and Wynton.

"I had wonderful teachers in the first and second grades who taught me
everything I know. After that, I'm afraid, the teachers were nice, but
they were dopes...I have a lack of ideology, and not because I have an
animus against any particular ideology; it's just that they don't make
sense to me...they get in the way of thinking. I don't see what use they
are...University and uniformity, as ideals, have subtly influenced how
people thought about education, politics, economics, government,
everything...We are misled by universities and other intellectual
institutions to believe that there are separate fields of knowledge.
But it's clear there are no separate fields of knowledge. It is a
seamless web."-Jane Jacobs

"You have no need that any man should teach you."-1 John 2:27.

"Film students should stay as far away from film schools and film teachers as possible. The only school for the cinema is the cinema."-Bernardo Bertolucci.

What it comes down to finally is faith in the hardest thing to have in which is not God but ourselves.

The critics are best ignored. Jean Cocteau said, "Whatever is criticized in your work keep it. That is yourself."

The people who criticize are soon forgotten. The people they criticize are long remembered.

"Eduard Hanslick, the critic whom he (Richard Wagner) caricatured in DIE MEISTERSINGER and who hated him ever after, now lives only because he was caricatured in DIE MEISTERSINGER."--Deems Taylor, THE MONSTER.

6:52 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Hi John,

Thanks for a fun read. It must be hard work to write such a thoughtful analysis.
It reminded me of something Fred MacMurray supposedly said which goes something like this: "An actor has two expressions, hat on, hat off." My wife and I have been watching My Three Sons daily, and Fred pretty much follows that path as far as two expressions go.
Back to Alan Ladd. I sometimes feel sad watching his films, knowing how things wound up for him.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Paul Dionne said...

Long time reader, but hardly ever a poster - John, this was one of your best and most heart-felt missives, esp staying on Ladd. Also, appreciate Reg Hartt's answer above - all truisms. As time goes on, we all in our own way, age gracefully and find as we go along....we know nothing -

paul dionne

10:58 AM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

To Reg Hart:

Other than phonetics and multiplication tables, I never learned a damn thing from teachers in twelve years of schooling, other than their cruelty and imperious hypocrisy. I had an American Literature teacher in high school who’d never even heard of the world famous North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe. Can you believe that?

12:11 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Sadly, yes.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Yes, brickadoodle, I can believe that. "It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without"--Albert Einstein.

"My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be
teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which
infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by
myself."--George Bernard Shaw.

"Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by
education."--Bertrand Russell.

"School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the
result of teaching. And institutional wisdom continues to accept this
axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary."--Ivan Illich.

"We get three educations. The first is from our parents; the second is
from our schoolmasters. The third is from life. The last makes liars
of the first two."--Montesquieu.

Johann Fichte: “It is impossible to eliminate the disobedience gene in people who learn to think for them self.”

Fichte was about creating people who obey. So are our schools.

3:42 PM  
Blogger shiningcity said...

Can't imagine any current long-time star that would qualify as a family member in other than the Manson family. Well, maybe Tom Hanks.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I'm not sure that a poverty of imagination qualifies anybody to moralize about film stars.
Movie stars are like family to us film fans because they are familiar characters, not because we want them - or more accurately, the characters that they portray - to actually be members in our own families.

5:29 PM  
Blogger shiningcity said...

Re Filmfanman: We are not talking about adopting movie stars here. Rather, recognizing those humanistic qualities in a star that identifies his or her character that one can relate to. A certain amount of moral judgement is required. If you are serious about it, of course.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Let's leave that murderer morality out of it.

Morality, thou deadly bane,
Thy tens o' thousands thou hast slain!
Vain is his hope, whase stay an' trust is
In moral mercy, truth, and justice!
--Robert Burns

11:22 AM  

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