Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
grbrpix@aol.com
Search Index Here




Monday, April 06, 2020

Acting Wed Of Myriad Styles


Detective Story (1951) Heats Up A Station House

Ralph Bellamy Dictating To The Wife
I call 1951’s Detective Story the king-polyglot of acting styles, a past-present-future quilt where players from all stripe laid bounty of old and new before us. Here was early float of fresh approach to thesping, an ensemble open to vote as to whose technique worked best. The new “realism,” which really wasn’t new unless we considered Stanislavski (1863-1938) fresh meat still. His theories had lit up anew in Hollywood since the war, students of what became the Method burrowing into mainstream product as the Actor’s Studio in New York schooled more and more young players eager to get in films. Similar instruction would be supplied by California teachers, a boomlet not unlike elocution gurus that helped would-be talkie talent adjust to sound. Detective Story was safely conventional in other ways, being of Broadway origin and a hit to guarantee bidding among studios. 580 performances from March 1949 to August 1950 may have gone longer but for what lead Ralph Bellamy referred to as “horrendous” summer heat. The play had novel things to say about street-level law enforcement, its day-in-life account of a NY station house a jolt to many who barely, if at all, understood how crime fighters did their jobs. “It was the perfect play,” Bellamy recalled. Sidney Kingsley wrote it, him of Dead End fame, that a corker in the mid-30’s with a quick adapt to movies.


Horace McMahon, Les Tremayne, and Ralph Bellamy in Broadway's Detective Story


Bellamy Continues Detecting for TV's Men Against Crime (1949-1953)


I tend to think of movies in a vacuum, as if they sprang upon screens with nothing of importance as run-up. We remember Detective Story because it was a film, more critically, remains a film we have ongoing access to. The play, very noteworthy in its day, lasted no longer than a final word spoke upon stages. I don’t know if legit Detective Story is ever revived … most would argue Why? in view of the property being so imitated, perhaps improved upon, since. Yes, the drama has dated, and maybe Detective Story functions best as a time capsule, but I value, and very much enjoy it, for conflicts played out among a cast we won’t see likes of again. To reality of acting life in the day, I suggest Ralph Bellamy’s memoir, When The Smoke Hits The Fan (published 1979), where he tells of hardship run-up to Detective Story. We think of Bellamy having been on stage and screen from way back (early 1920’s) and assume he prospered by the late 40’s, maybe a weekend house, pool, sport car. After all, he was Ralph Bellamy. The book tells different. Poor Ralph (I said poor) was so bust going into rehearsals for Detective Story that he couldn’t afford food, and had to sign for meals at his NY hotel in hope the play would cash in and he could go off the cuff. Where it rained, however, it poured. Bellamy got a TV series (broadcast live to begin with) called Men Against Crime, where his detective part on stage enabled a rough same for five-years tube run (1949-1953). Episodes are on You Tube (some under alt. title, Follow That Man), each a fascinating relic of primitive vid. Like most hits off Broadway, Detective Story stayed viable for touring. Bellamy wrote how Chester Morris road-played his lead, something I’d give much to go back in time and see.






Meanwhile, Detective Story was sought for films. Everybody wanted it; few qualified, money-wise, to have it. Humphrey Bogart knew the “Jim McLeod” part would be ideal for him, and his independent “Santana” shop. Bogart being pals with Sidney Kingsley (since Dead End, where HB had earlier success) was figured to cinch a deal. Money talked louder, however, in this case Paramount’s. Fair was fair, Para staff director William Wyler stepping up. He had kicked in start dollars for Detective Story, so divined from a start how exceptional the property would be. Among hurt feelings, Alan Ladd’s stood out, him having seen press to effect he would essay McLeod, but inquiry to brass got firm no. Why use Ladd in a thing of merit when his formula vehicles reliably gave milk? It was a same slight older guard stars got as hotter names entered post-war gates (ask Tyrone Power, now second chair to Gregory Peck at Fox). Thus was Ladd soured with Paramount, his discontent shared with fan press, an indelicacy to show vivid he was fed up. A move to Warners would result. Someone asked Ralph Bellamy why he didn’t play McLeod on screens, “Reason? Boxoffice,” his swift/sure reply.






Paramount wasn’t spending like they had. No studio could by 1950. The company released 20 features in 1950, down from 29 in 1949. Etched in more-less stone was edict not to spend over $1.5 million on any negative (Variety, 1-4-50, “industry wide budget reductions of twenty-five percent,” they added). DeMille got go ahead to be lavish on Samson and Delilah, but no one else dealt so flush. William Wyler promised he’d do Detective Story quick-time and for cheap, which he more-less would with $1.8 million the outlay. His cast rehearsed for two weeks and shooting took five. Maybe Wyler felt he needed to prove something --- newfound efficiency? --- because repeat takes typical of him were curbed this time. Kirk Douglas did the Bellamy lead, him off Champion and other heel parts, but aptitude there to be sympathetic, if strung-tight. There was censor noise over abortion as a plot point. Drop that and you might as well not make the movie, said Wyler. OK, so you’d not say the word, describe the procedure, or fully explain what all of cast-wringing was about, but despite it still being a Code world, audiences knew how to decode. Nobody talks the issue straight out, which makes me ask, Would they have in real life? People are supposed to have been much more guarded in 1951, chose words careful, stayed off sensitive topics, profanity, the rest. Did they really? I wasn’t there, so can’t tell you, and defy anyone of my tender age to say one way or the other. I’ll rest on what Wyler told Film Bulletin as his picture went into release: “My own kids want to see Detective Story, and I’m not going to let them do so.”






And now the cast: This being very much an ensemble, no one gets to hog. Kirk Douglas is the pivot, others swirling about him. He gives a Douglas performance Frank Gorshin would have loved. I find KD easy to enjoy especially where he pulls stops. Douglas had come from the stage, was “hot” by column parlance for putting muscle behind words and looking always ready to fly apart at seams. He was a “fun” actor who knew wisdom of giving folks fireworks they paid for. Douglas could do bad pictures and at least make them seem a money’s worth, always better to my mind as a louse rather than nice guy. It is others in Detective Story who merit points too long withheld for being taken for granted. There is Frank Faylen sitting quiet as a desk sergeant, his reactions mimed for most part rather than worded. And yes, he’s good …we’re happy with him around, maybe wondering why he didn’t play McLeod? (boxoffice again, but imagine FF on the road, alternating nights w/ Chet Morris --- the mind spins). Let’s step further: How about Gerald Mohr, or in-for-a-glimpse western stalwart Edmund Cobb, as McLeod? Any could have done McLeod to a brown turn by my estimate. To Frank Faylen, a great character actor who gave 1945’s best job as a mean and prissy alcohol ward attendant in The Lost Weekend, then was an albino heavy in Whispering Smith a few seasons later. Manny Farber once reviewed a Paramount picture and wondered why Frank Faylen wasn’t in it. I knew him most of my life for being Dobie Gillis’ sourpuss father, every episode a Faylen retort to sappy Dads poisoning a televised landscape. Such a great actor ends up being a “Whatever Became Of …,” life unfair indeed. Richard Lamparski looked him up for a nice profile in 1982 (“Eighth Series” among the books). Pardon this Faylen focus --- I am a fan, you see.






Wild cards of Detective Story are Lee Grant and watch-out-here-he-comes Joseph Wiseman, lit fuse reps of Stanislavski. Wiseman is a howl if you don’t let him get on your nerves too much. I wonder how he felt catching Detective Story years after the fact. Did he apologize to the family … pick up his TV tray and leave the room? Not to criticize, for his is a fun performance too (and further laurels to Wiseman as Dr. No). I wonder if he picked up tics from the Actor’s Studio (another Lee Strasberg creation?) but no, Wiseman had been on Broadway from the 30’s, but that’s not to say he wasn’t exposed to the Group Theatre and their bold bids for realism. Trouble is, most glance once at Wiseman in Detective Story and say, Oh, one of those Method nuts. Lee Grant was Method (taught by Sanford Meisner, a proponent), but by no account was/is she a nut. On the contrary, very articulate and a window to what Detective Story was like in its making. Her sit-down for the Archive of American Television recalled a screen debut in the film (she also spoke fluidly to Osborne for TCM). Grant played a shoplifter, pinched by management and now in custody of cops. Coming from the Actor’s Studio in New York and accustomed to stage techniques, she saw the camera as an “invasion” that tripped her concentration. Grant’s response was to turn her back, not realizing that the camera was “a character” alongside herself, and that she would have to learn to “love it.” Such were adjustments any stage player had to make, Detective Story finding spots for legit cast members Horace McMahon and Michael Strong, in addition to Lee Grant and Joseph Wiseman.






Read About Him/Her in Kirk's Memoir --- A Real Eye-Opener
What I enjoy is frisson between these imports and more establishment Hollywood talent. There’s no indication they clashed, but I wonder what each were thinking. Did William Bendix sit and talk about the craft with Joseph Wiseman? Would Lee Grant have had lunch with Cathy O’Donnell? The Method was said to be the counter to declamatory acting previous generations represented, a nod to naturalism. The Detective Story ensemble could not have been more disparate. Think of Gerald Mohr, late of cheap noirs, much radio work, voice employ as “The Scorpion” in Adventures of Captain Marvel (back at beginnings, he was on stage with Bogie/Bogey in The Petrified Forest). Mohr is a marvel in Detective Story, in but brief, best of perhaps all in hindsight. What quiet authority in his playing! Character actors all have their stories, perhaps not spelled out in lights, Detective Story affording so many a chance to shine. We can imagine how rewarding this job was for each. Of note from the Lee Grant interviews, done over sixty years after Detective Story, her still able to quote back lines of dialogue. Pardon me as I struggle to recall a single thing that happened in 1960 … oh, wait … first day of school, and that but barely. The rest, pretty much a blank. Detective Story streams in HD at Amazon and Vudu. There is also a Region Two Blu-Ray listed as 1:33, 1:78, “widescreen” (which it isn’t, or should not be) … proceed at own risk.

10 Comments:

Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- When I read this passage in your post...

Nobody talks the issue straight out, which makes me ask, Would they have in real life? People are supposed to have been much more guarded in 1951, chose words careful, stayed off sensitive topics, profanity, the rest. Did they really? I wasn’t there, so can’t tell you, and defy anyone of my tender age to say one way or the other.

... I thought of the ultra-popular show in radio at the time: Dragnet. The radio Dragnet was documentary in tone and got away with frank, true-crime dialogue. If the topic was rape, they said it was rape. If it was sexual perversion, ditto. All very businesslike and — in the world-weary, seen-it-all vernacular of cops — disgusted and rather jaded.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Re: revivals. I did the play in high school in the 70s (playing Schneider, the Wiseman role) and there was a 1984 revival in Los Angeles with Charlton Heston, Mariette Hartley, and Keith Carradine. (There's a blurry reproduction of the program here: https://tinyurl.com/wgb8x3o).

I saw the Heston production and remember that he did a fairly good job of it. That was the thing about Heston on stage; give him a role of substance -- Macbeth, James Tyrone -- and he was dreadful. Give him a piece of cheese to sink his teeth into -- Detective Story, Sherlock Holmes in "The Crucifer of Blood" (with Jeremy Brett [!] as his Watson) -- and he was fabulous.

7:04 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Eleanor Parker nearly ruins DETECTIVE STORY (and every other movie she’s in) for me, although I find her Oscar nominated role in CAGED to be an unintentional howl. (She has two modes in CAGED; vulnerable naïf/tough cookie, with absolutely no subtlety, and with no transition between the two — I think she got the nom for shaving her head.). When I saw you had done a post on the disparate acting styles in DETECTIVE STORY I wondered if she was in for a drubbing. She wasn’t, but interesting that you parsed the entire cast with nary a mention of the leading lady!

Kirk Douglas never did anything for me (ditto Burt Lancaster and Carlton Heston, three careers that baffle me) — heresy, I know. I loved DETECTIVE STORY when I saw it as a kid, but for me the standouts were Lee Grant (it was the first time I’d seen her and became a lifelong fan) and, oddly, Burt Mustin.

Terrific post, John, as always.

11:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Strap in, readers, because here comes Craig Reardon with more wonderful anecdotes on Hollywood personages he worked with in his career capacity as a make-up artist, beginning with Ralph Bellamy ...


You're a pretty great detective yourself, John! I thought your exhaustive piece on "Detective Story" was out of your top drawer. Great!

As I tend to do, I'm able to rummage around in memory and find a couple of personal items that correspond to your theme or its cast of characters. First and most obvious, to me I mean, is the fact that I had the great privilege and pleasure of meeting Ralph Bellamy in his later years. He was once again cast as the great F.D.R. for the tele series "The Winds of War", Herman Wouk's novel, produced by Dan Curtis. Curtis thought Bellamy ought to be looked at in makeup to more closely resemble F.D.R. This in spite of the glaring fact that the actor had portrayed the President on stage and on screen in Dore Schary's "Sunrise at Campobello" (at least I think it was Schary.) Curtis had worked happily with Dick Smith in connection with his successful daily soap opera "Dark Shadows" (and in one movie version of it), and Dick had gradually become the go-to guy when it came to transforming people with makeup. By 1981, this was very definitely the situation. Dick was unable to take this one on, however, and was kind enough to recommend me (and possibly others).
I got a call and went in and met with Curtis in his office at Paramount, getting my marching orders. I was put together with the makeup man on the show, as well as with Bellamy himself. I drove up to the top of the mountain where he lived at the intersection of Mulholland Drive and Laurel Canyon Blvd. He lived on a short street just about a block west of the intersection. It's a neighborhood of interesting, precipitous views, and a mix of (very) old and some newer manses as well as surprisingly humble homes, particularly as one continues along Laurel Canyon, famous for its contingent of bohemian types as well as the rich and famous. The late Charlton Heston lived in a beautiful complex he'd had built further west where Mulholland and Coldwater Canyon Blvd. (roughly speaking) converge.

1:12 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:


Anyway, I was very interested to read in your piece that Ralph Bellamy was struggling financially in the late '40s, as he'd evidently recovered by the time I met with him. He had a lovely home, with the pool out back and everything. He was a terrific guy, very nice, very cooperative...but reasonably skeptical about the whole idea of him having a kind of transformative makeup applied to play a part he'd already played before and required nothing more than a couple of props, including F.D.R.'s famous eyeglasses and cigarette holder. I was in a somewhat vulnerable position as a young man, too. I looked even younger than I was (which was 28, then). In spite of all this, Bellamy did not put up an serious objection, and went along with the entire drill. I made a life mask of the great man on a chaise lounge out by his pool! His last input to me was that he just hoped that nobody seeing him in makeup would wonder "what's Bellamy got that nose on for?" In other words, he wasn't refusing to wear the makeup; he only hoped it would be helpful and unobtrusive, or in other words, reasonably undetectable. I fully appreciated his point of view as well as my burden in this.
I had a book on F.D.R which leaned toward being a portrait of the man in photos, which of course was more germane to my occupation than any written biography. I studied several pictures of the man and was struck over and over again by the exaggerated nature of his features, a fact which did not allay my concerns nor particularly Bellamy's! But I also felt from experience that in fighting this I would wind up with a result neither fish nor fowl--something that might not ring true as Roosevelt, whatever it might mean as far as converting Bellamy into someone more physically similar. Roosevelt had a remarkably jutting chin, and very patrician pointing nose, and quite a large wattle for a neck. Erk. But, I went ahead with it. Fate intervened however when I received a call from Frank Marshall, who'd been one of the producers on "Poltergeist", which I'd recently completed. They needed some post work done up at I.L.M., pronto, and the staff there was heaped, and he wondered if I'd be available or willing to go up and handle it? I was happy to do it and it meant several additional weeks of employment. So, I realized that although I could just complete the sculpture work for the Bellamy makeup, I'd be unable to manufacture the foam latex pieces, nor would I be able to apply them. For anyone interested beyond mildly in makeup, the next part may amuse them.

1:14 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Three from Craig Reardon:


I knew two other young people who were struggling to break in to the profession. At that time, one of them was in the union--a sine qua non to do this job--and one wasn't. I contacted the one who wasn't, Greg Cannom--who's since earned something like four Oscars, but this was then!--and asked him if he could make the molds and cast up the prosthetic pieces from them. He said he could. Then I approached a mutual friend of his and mine, Ve Neill, who was beginning her career then which eventually also led to at least two Oscar wins, to see if she was able and willing to come in and perform the test makeup. Greg would have been capable but he needed the union affiliation; Ve already had gotten in. I never did see pictures of the test, but it did come back to me that Curtis ultimately decided to forego the idea of using prosthetics and they went with Bellamy as he was, which I'm sure was fine. I am grateful I got to meet him, at all. It's interesting to see the photos you found and selected for this article as they capture the point at which Bellamy was entering a stage in his life where he was in transition from the good-looking younger actor he'd been in such movies as "The Awful Truth" or even "The Wolf Man", and becoming a definitely character face vs 'supporting actor' or almost leading man type.

1:15 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Four and Conclusion from Craig Reardon:


As for your amusing and dead-on, but also fair (I think) assessment of Joseph Wiseman, I loved it. I think Wiseman is terribly over the top in his work of that era, although I haven't seen "Detective Story", in truth. I'm thinking of his appearance in Kazan's "Viva Zapata!", which is I'm sure close enough. Young Lee Grant was gorgeous and I'm sure would have had many offers if she hadn't been snared in the over-correction of the HUAC hearings which degenerated quickly into a partial anti-Semitic witch hunt, IMO I will add. I'm glad for her and for us that she came back with a vengeance in later films, a signal early reappearance being her brief but powerful participation in "In the Heat of the Night".

As for the whole 'method' acting thing, I think as you say here that it was and remains a mixed bag. Some actors used it to leave behind memorably realistic performances, while others, to me, are as artificial and stilted, truly 'theatrical', as anything I've ever seen. Totally unconvincing to my eyes and ears. But, not all! One proud and faithful exponent of the Actor's Studio was, to my mind, one of the greatest of actors, Martin Landau. I believed everything he ever did. I had the great pleasure to meet him when he appeared in three or four nearly consecutive episodes of a TV show I worked on in the early part of this century, "Without a Trace", where he played the father of the star of the show, Anthony LaPaglia. I thought Landau was great. The character was written as Irish and 'Marty' demonstrated for us on the crew a wonderful assortment of what he felt were typical 'NYC accents' of various ethnic origin, and they were all convincing! They all had a character of their own. His 'Irish' version partook a little of the tough Lawrence Tierney or Scott Brady (brothers as you know) variety and rang true. Landau was super voluble and friendly and would talk to anyone, and he loved to talk...to anyone! I buttonholed him outside the stage where I found him smoking. Evidently some are built to smoke and still live forever, and Marty was one. I'd heard that he'd known James Dean, a sacred name in U.S. pop culture (though never one of my personal favorites I admit.) I asked him about Dean, and he looked thoughtful for a second and said, quietly, "He was my best friend." Obviously I'd struck a nerve, but in a good way. Landau had Actor's Studio deep in his heart and almost his DNA, and I think of him whenever, say, Wiseman's style or other self-contorting or otherwise spasmed acting that seems to have had its roots in 'method' or Actor's Studio theories of self indulgence, threatens to make me forget what a moving and believable actor identically schooled and trained could deliver. To me, it all comes down to the individual, anyway, regardless of their biases or influences or training.

Best,

Craig

1:16 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Heh, heh! Ya' did it again, John! You dragged up something I hadn't seen in 40 years and made me want to see it again so bad, we had to rent it immediately that night. Jean and I enjoyed it tremendously! "Acting all over the place!" I can hardly imagine singling out just one performer, such an embarrassment of riches. But, yeah, Neely's shout out to Burt Mustin... at the start of his movie career!

8:58 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

One of your best pieces, well-written, fascinating and often funny. Having seen Kirk Douglas in the role, it's hard to picture Bellamy doing it. He must have been far less explosive, that's for sure.

It's remarkable how 99% of the action (in the movie version) takes place on only one set; those few brief moments elsewhere seem to be excuses just to go somewhere else.

I've hoped that Broadway's Roundabout Theater Company, which specializes in revivals, would mount a new version of "Detective Story". Yes, the abortion angle is dated, but that shouldn't be a problem when, say, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are constantly revived. The 2007 production of "Streetcar Named Desire" (with John C. Reilly) proved my theory that "breakthrough" works don't age well. I had a fantasy that Jackie Gleason saw the original production and thought, "Y'know, if you move these characters to Brooklyn and add a little humor, this could be pretty funny" -- and presto, "The Honeymooners" is born.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Sorry, one more point I neglected to add in my previous comment: William Bendix doesn't get enough credit as a dramatic actor. "Life of Reilly" might have been what he's remembered for (if at all), but he always delivers the good is dramatic parts.

9:57 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

grbrpix@aol.com
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020