Western Roundup: Unexpected Western Leads

Western Roundup: Unexpected Western Leads

There are many wonderful actors we associate with Westerns, from John Wayne and Randolph Scott to Tim Holt and William Boyd, and too many others to name here.

Beyond those familiar names, occasionally actors not typically associated with Westerns turn up in the genre, often with unexpectedly good results. Here are a few of my favorite Western films starring actors one might not think of as “cowboy stars.”


Franchot Tone, Trail of the Vigilantes (1940)

Trail of the Vigilantes (1941) Franchot ToneFranchot Tone in Trail of the Vigilantes (1940)

One tends to think of debonair Franchot Tone in a tuxedo rather than Western gear, but he fit right in Universal Pictures’ Trail of the Vigilantes. Tone was fittingly cast as Tim Mason, an Eastern marshal sent west to investigate the murder of a newspaperman. Using the moniker “Kansas,” Tim is hired by a rancher (Charles Trowbridge); the Easterner is sometimes tormented by other cowhands (Andy Devine and Broderick Crawford) but he’s also smart enough to outwit them at times and earns their admiration and friendship. Meanwhile, the rancher’s daughter (Peggy Moran) develops an instant crush on the new hand and is determined to land her man. This is a tremendously fun comedic Western which reminded me a bit of the much later Support Your Local Sheriff! (1968); in fact, supposedly Allan Dwan had the original “straight” script rewritten as more of a spoof, which was a brilliant choice. Tone is a good-natured, sly delight from start to finish, cementing my growing admiration for him.


Dennis Morgan, Cheyenne (1947) and Raton Pass (1951)

Cheyenne (1947) Dennis Morgan and Jane WymanDennis Morgan and Jane Wyman in Cheyenne (1947)

Warner Bros. singing star Dennis Morgan appeared in a variety of films, including musicals, light comedies, romances, and melodramas, but he occasionally also turned up in Westerns. In the early ’40s, he was a Mountie in River’s End (1940) and Cole Younger in Bad Men of Missouri (1941), but he had far better Western roles years later, in Cheyenne (1947) and Raton Pass (1951). I particularly like Cheyenne, a Raoul Walsh Western alternately known as The Wyoming Kid. Morgan plays a gambler forced to go undercover and aid a sheriff in discovering the identity of a stagecoach robber. He’s charming and believable as the cagey gambler, and he’s supported by a terrific cast including Jane Wyman and Janis Paige. Raton Pass is more of a Western “film noir meets melodrama,” with Morgan as a tough New Mexico rancher and Patricia Neal as the femme fatale of the piece, a calculating woman who marries Morgan and promptly unleashes a full-scale range war. It’s a tough, gritty film which somehow also manages to fit in a plausible opportunity for Morgan to sing!


Dick Powell, Station West (1948)

Station West (1948) Dick Powell, Jane GreerDick Powell and Jane Greer in Station West (1948)

Dick Powell is most often thought of as either a singing star or a film noir tough guy. Although he had played a radio star pretending to be a cowboy in Cowboy From Brooklyn (1938), he rarely made Westerns. What makes Station West (1948) work so well is that it essentially transfers the hard-boiled tough guy persona he developed in the ’40s to the old West. Powell plays an army lieutenant who arrives in a Western town on an undercover mission, solving the murder of two soldiers. (There seems to be an “undercover mission” theme here which is interesting!) Powell’s lieutenant pretends to be a rowdy type in order to become friendly with the town lowlifes; his sarcastic quips seem straight out of Murder, My Sweet (1944). It’s worth noting that while Jane Greer, as the movie’s femme fatale, and Burl Ives both sing, Powell definitely doesn’t! Powell was at home enough in Station West that the following year he was cast as another frontier lawman, playing a Mountie in the excellent Mrs. Mike (1949).


Edmond O’Brien, Cow Country (1953)

Cow Country (1953) Edmond O'Brien, Helen WestcottCow Country (1953) Edmond O’Brien and Helen Westcott

Edmond O’Brien seems like the quintessential “big city” type, having starred in a number of notable film noir titles, but in the early ’50s he made a few Westerns, starting with The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951), Silver City (1951), and Denver and Rio Grande (1951). My favorite, though, is a little Western called Cow Country (1953), one of those movies some of us like to call a “darn good Western.” O’Brien plays Ben Anthony, who’s running a freight business in an area where cattle ranches are struggling. Ben doesn’t know that his childhood friend Harry (Bob Lowery) is plotting to drive the ranchers out of business and take over their land, and complicating things further is that Harry is simultaneously engaged to two women (Helen Westcott and Peggie Castle) who would clearly each be happier with another man. O’Brien plays a kind, ethical man who seems right at home in the West, and I really wish he’d made many more Westerns than he did. He would later appear in a handful of other Westerns, most memorably John Ford‘s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Sam Peckinpah‘s The Wild Bunch (1968).


Ray Milland, A Man Alone (1955)

Man Alone (1955) Ray MillandA Man Alone (1955) Ray Milland

Like Franchot Tone, Welsh-born Ray Milland is often thought of as more at home in a drawing room than a saloon, but Milland was, in reality, a fine horseman and thus well-suited for the genre. He occasionally turned up in Westerns, such as Paramount’s California (1945) and the very good Copper Canyon (1950), but the very best Milland Western was one he not only starred in but directed, A Man Alone (1955). Milland shows a perfect affinity for the Western, playing Wes Steele, a gunslinger stranded in the desert after his horse breaks a leg. He happens across the nightmarish scene of a stagecoach massacre, and upon riding one of the stagecoach horses to town to report it, he’s repaid by being shot at by the deputy sheriff (Alan Hale Jr.). Before he knows it the town banker (Raymond Burr) has pinned the murders on him, and he manages to hide in a basement during a sandstorm. The basement just happens to belong to the home of the sheriff (Ward Bond), who is sick with yellow fever. Wes ultimately falls in love with the sheriff’s daughter (Mary Murphy) and must engage in a good-versus-evil battle with the murderous banker.


William Talman, Two-Gun Lady (1955)

Two Gun Lady (1955) Peggie Castle, William TalmanPeggie Castle and William Talman in Two Gun Lady (1955)

Before he became district attorney Hamilton Burger on TV’s Perry Mason beginning in 1957, William Talman was perhaps best known as criminals in such films as Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953). He’s surprisingly effective as a Western hero in this minor yet quite enjoyable low-budget Western. He plays Dan, a drifter who arrives in town and goes to work for mean Jud Ivers (Ian MacDonald), who has a psychotic son (Earle Lyon). But Dan may not be quite who he seems — there’s that undercover theme again! He becomes friendly with Kate (Peggie Castle), who has arrived in town to perform a sharp-shooting act at the saloon, and soon Kate and Dan find they have a common goal: Justice for the death of Kate’s parents. Talman and Castle had surprisingly effective chemistry; I bought into their relationship and liked the story. Plus watch for a scene where Marie Windsor appears to accidentally walk into a scene and then walk out again! The same year as Two-Gun Lady, Talman also appeared with Dana Andrews in Smoke Signal (1955).


Stewart Granger, Gun Glory (1957)

Gun Glory (1957) Stewart GrangerStewart Granger in Gun Glory (1957)

British-born Stewart Granger may be most strongly connected with swashbucklers and adventure films such as King Solomon’s Mines (1950) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), but he occasionally dabbled in the Western genre. He appeared in The Wild North (1952) and The Last Hunt (1956), both of which I briefly discussed in my column on snowy Westerns, and he also co-starred with John Wayne in North to Alaska (1960). My favorite Granger Western, though, is Gun Glory (1957), a relatively simple yet engaging story about a gunslinger finally ready to settle down. Tom Early (Granger) returns to the family ranch after a long absence and, after discovering his wife has died, he attempts to begin a relationship with his wary son (Steve Rowland). The town preacher (Chill Wills) and Jo (Rhonda Fleming), who becomes the Earlys’ housekeeper, are two of the only people to welcome Tom’s return, but when cattlemen threaten to stampede a herd through town, the local citizens suddenly find themselves in need of a man with Tom’s skills. Granger is a charismatic presence and seems completely at home as a Western star; like the other films in this column, I think it deserves to be better-known and hope Western fans who haven’t seen it will give it a look.


A few other unexpected Western stars come to mind which there’s no room to delve into here, such as Tony Martin  and John Lund. I’d enjoy thoughts on additional Western leads not typically associated with the genre in the comments!


– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.


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Noir Nook: February Facts

Noir Nook: February Facts

I just love trivia. So in this month of love, I’m celebrating by serving up a bouquet of trivial facts about some of my favorite noir guys and gals!

Peggie Castle Bunny CastlePeggie Castle

Peggie Castle was the first actress to sign with Universal Studios under its “cheesecake” contract clause, which required “any feminine star who has a special physical charm to display this asset” through the first five years of her contract. According to a Universal spokesperson, many young actresses gained fame by posing for these pictures, but later “refuse to permit this type of exploitation, which seems unfair to their public and to themselves.”

Although Lee J. Cobb’s father was initially against Cobb’s acting aspirations (he wanted his son to be an accountant), he was responsible for coming up with the actor’s stage name. Cobb was born Leo Jacoby – his father suggested that he break his last name into two parts, becoming Lee J. Cobb. “When my father did this for me, I knew that, finally, he believed in me as an actor,” Cobb said.

Dorothy Malone was a model student. She was class president for six straight years, salutatorian at her eighth-grade graduation, parliamentarian of the student council, and vice-president of the school chapter of the National Honor Society. She also modeled clothes for Neiman-Marcus, won prizes for the showing and handling of dogs, and for two years was selected as best actress in a local competition.

John Hodiak HeadshotJohn Hodiak

Shortly after signing a seven-year contract with MGM, John Hodiak  shot down the studio’s plans for him to change his name, citing his obligations toward his fellow Ukrainians. He also said that the name Hodiak “sounds like I look.”

While working as an understudy to Gypsy Rose Lee in Star and Garter in 1942, Adele Jergens got her big break in classic movie style. One night, Lee missed a show, Jergens performed in her place, and she was spotted by a talent scout from Columbia Studios, who placed her under contract.

When he was a boy, Edmond O’Brien planned to become a musician. He was inspired by his neighbor, Harry Houdini, from whom he learned a few tricks. O’Brien staged magic shows for his friends in the family basement and dubbed himself “Neirbo the Great” (O’Brien spelled backward).

Jan Sterling’s family was in the New York Social Register. Her ancestors included John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and her grandfather was a manufacturer of harvesting machines who sold out to the Deere Company after the turn of the century.

Burt Lancaster and Nick CravatBurt Lancaster and Nick Cravat

As a young man, Burt Lancaster teamed up with a boyhood chum, Nick Cravat, and formed an acrobatic act known as Lang and Cravat. For seven years, the two traveled around the United States in tent shows, vaudeville, Kay Brothers Circus, and even a stint with the Ringling Brothers Circus. “It was a great life,” Lancaster once said.

Jane Russell was once voted Miss Anatomy of the first half of the 20th century by the Anthropology Club of Harvard College.

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:


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Win Tickets to see “TCM Big Screen Classics: To Kill a Mockingbird” (Giveaway runs now through Mar 9)

Win tickets to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the Big Screen!
In Select Cinemas Nationwide Sun Mar 24 & Wed Mar 27

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

CMH continues with our 4th year of our partnership with Fathom Events - with the 3rd of our 14 movie ticket giveaways for 2019, courtesy of Fathom Events! 

That said, we’ll be giving away EIGHT PAIRS of tickets to see “TCM Big Screen Classics: To Kill a Mockingbird – starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch — a classic among classics, the way it was meant to be seen – on the Big Screen!  The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck, and was nominated for eight, including Best Picture. In 1995, the film was entered into the National Film Registry for culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.

In order to qualify to win a pair of movie tickets via this contest, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, March 9 at 6pm EST.

We will announce the winner(s) on Twitter on Sunday, March 10between 6PM EST and 7PM EST. If a winner(s) does not have a Twitter account, we will announce that winner(s) via this blog in the comment section below.

to kill a mockingbird fathom events

The film will be playing in select cinemas nationwide for a special two-day-only event on Sunday, March 24, and Wednesday, March 27 at select times. Winners will be responsible for their own transportation to the Event. Only United States entries are eligible. Please click here before you enter to ensure that the Event is scheduled at a theater near you and that you are able to attend. (please note that there might be slightly different theater listings and/or screening times for each date)

ENTRY TASK (2-parts) to be completed by Saturday March 9 at 6pm EST…

1) Answer the below question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog post

What is it about “To Kill a Mockingbird” that makes it a classic? And, if you haven’t seen it, why do you want to see it on the Big Screen?

2) Then TWEET* (not DM) the following message:
I just entered to win tickets to see “TCM Big Screen Classics Presents: To Kill a Mockingbird” on the Big Screen courtesy of @ClassicMovieHub & @FathomEvents – You can #EnterToWin here: http://ow.ly/PJHI30nEibS

*If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still enter the contest by simply answering the above question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog — BUT PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU ADD THIS VERBIAGE TO YOUR ANSWER: I do not have a Twitter account, so I am posting here to enter but cannot tweet the message.

NOTE: if for any reason you encounter a problem commenting here on this blog, please feel free to tweet or DM us, or send an email to clas@gmail.com and we will be happy to create the entry for you.

ALSO: Please allow us 48 hours to approve your comments. Sorry about that, but we are being overwhelmed with spam, and must sort through 100s of comments…

to kill a mockingbird, gregory peck atticus finch mary badham scout swingGregory Peck and Mary Badham… aka Atticus and Scout :)

About the film:  Experience one of the most significant milestones in film history like never before with To Kill a Mockingbird. Screen legend Gregory Peck stars as courageous Southern lawyer Atticus Finch – the Academy Award®-winning performance hailed by the American Film Institute as the Greatest Movie Hero of All Time. Based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about innocence, strength and conviction and nominated for 8 Academy Awards.® watch it and remember why “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This special two-day event includes exclusive insight from Turner Classic Movies.

Please note that only United States residents are eligible to enter this giveaway contest. (see contest rules for further information)

BlogHub members ARE also eligible to win if they live within the Continental United States (as noted above).

Good Luck!


–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

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Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – Charlie Chaplin, the Eternal King of Comedy

Silents are Golden Column: Silent Superstars–Charlie Chaplin, the Eternal King of Comedy

Of the many iconic performers that we all recognize today – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean – there is one that stands alone as the most recognizable of all. Even people who’ve never seen his films know who he is – heck, even people who’ve only seen caricatures of him know who he is. I’m talking, of course, about Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin Headshot SmileCharlie Chaplin is credited in over 32 movies!

But while his image has endured, not everyone is as familiar with his backstory. And it’s a remarkable one. Rising from an impoverished London childhood that can only be described as Dickensian, Chaplin not only achieved success and fame not only beyond his wildest dreams but beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In an era when the cinema was still new, he became a megastar whose moving image became a familiar sight across the globe. Arguably, no one before him had ever quite reached that same level of fame.

Born in London on April 16, 1889, Charles Spencer Chaplin was the son of two entertainers. His father Charles Sr. was a popular music hall singer, and his mother Hannah was a soubrette. The family’s history was a tumultuous one. Charlie’s older brother Sydney was the result of Hannah having an affair, and additional half brother, Wheeler, was in the custody of his father and wouldn’t meet Charlie for thirty years. Charles Sr. became an alcoholic, leading to his separation from Hannah around 1891.

 A Young Charlie ChaplinA Young Charlie Chaplin (age 9 or 10)

Hannah and her sons had to scratch out a meager living, at times staying in workhouses or even enduring separation as the boys were sent to various charity schools. Hannah’s health also began affecting her stage career. One a fateful night her voice gave out onstage, and five-year-old Charlie was brought in as a last-minute replacement. His little rendition of “‘E Dunno Where ‘E Are” was a hit, and probably cemented his desire for a life in the theater.

At age 9, thanks to his mother’s encouragement and his father’s connections, Chaplin joined a group of young clog-dancers called the Eight Lancashire Lads. Becoming more and more ambitious as he grew older, he was eventually able to nab a few acting roles in West End plays. But all was not smooth sailing, Hannah had begun to succumb to mental illness, and sadly, at the young age of 14 Chaplin had to commit his mother to a sanitarium. He would provide for her care for the rest of her life.

Both Sydney and Charlie joined Fred Karno’s famous comedy troupe (which also included a young Stan Laurel). The Karno style, which was heavy on slapstick with touches of “wistful” feeling, was a huge influence on Chaplin’s own style. The troupe would eventually tour North America. During a performance in New York City in late 1912, somebody – possibly a motion picture executive, or possibly Mack Sennett himself – was impressed with Chaplin’s performance and made him an offer to join the Keystone Film Company. Figuring appearances in “pictures” would boost his popularity on the stage, Chaplin agreed.

 Charlie Chaplin, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

Keystone, a bustling “laugh factory” always working on several slapstick shorts at once, was an intimidating place to Chaplin at first. But it wasn’t long before the charismatic young comedian began to prove his talent for improvising gags and coming up with comic situations. Fortunately, he found his onscreen “look” early on, improvising an eye-catching costume that would be his signature for the rest of his life: a derby, a tight coat, baggy pants, big shoes, a cane, and a tiny mustache.

Charlie Chaplin Signature OutfitChaplin donning his signature look

After a year of working alongside Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, and other Keystone stars, Charlie Chaplin had risen to be the most popular star of them all. Upon the expiration of his Keystone contract in late 1914 he moved over to Essanay, where his star rose even further, and then to Mutual in 1916, where he made his most celebrated shorts (including The Immigrant and Easy Street, both 1917). Audiences couldn’t get enough of him–soon there was Chaplin merchandise, Chaplin look-alike contests, and even Chaplin imitators popping up in other comedy studios. It was getting to the point where journalists declared that society had caught “Chaplinitis.”

 Charlie Chapling with Chaplin PuppetCharlie Chaplin with Charlie Chaplin Jr.!

After the great success of the Mutual shorts, Chaplin decided he had the clout to be an independent producer and had his own studio constructed on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. Both A Dog’s Life (1918) and Shoulder Arms (1918), set in the trenches of WWI, were huge hits. His follow-ups Sunnyside (1919) and A Day’s Pleasure (1919) were less well received, but all was forgiven with the release of The Kid (1921), a masterpiece that still moves viewers today.

By this point, Chaplin was not only recognized as a masterful comedian but an “artist” as well – likely a first for a slapstick comedian. He had explored the idea of comedy with touches of pathos ever since the Essanay short The Tramp (1915), and in time this style became known as “Chaplinesque.” His character, now known as the “Little Tramp,” began to function as a universal figure for downtrodden-yet-plucky individuals.

Charlie Chaplin The Gold Rush (1925)Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925)

He released only a few features in the 1920s (one of which was a romantic drama, A Woman of Paris, which he only directed), but took immense amounts of care and time with each one. Classic sequences in The Gold Rush (1925), such as “the Dance of the Rolls,” are still much-loved today. The coming of sound made Chaplin uneasy, concerned that a talking Tramp would destroy some of the character’s charm. Accordingly, his 1931 City Lights was defiantly silent, despite a general consensus that silents out of date (such was his fame that City Lights was still a huge success).

After the silent era, Chaplin would only make a few more features, starting with the quasi-talkie Modern Times (1935), regarded as one of his finest works. Both the weight of extreme fame and personal troubles likely contributed to the sparse amount of films. His first marriage in 1918 to Mildred Harris had only lasted two years, and his second marriage to the much-younger Lita Grey went through a very public and bitter divorce. His third marriage to Paulette Goddard would also end, although amicably. Surprisingly, his fourth marriage in 1943 to 18-year-old Oona O’Neill would prove to be a lasting one. The two would have eight children and stay together until Chaplin’s death.

Oona O'Neill and Charlie ChaplinOona O’Neill and Charlie Chaplin

Unfortunately, by the 1950s a combination of a public scandal involving unstable actress Joan Barry and a Cold War-era suspicion that Chaplin had pro-communist leanings lead to a downfall in his popularity. After a 1952 trip to London, the government did not allow him to re-enter the U.S. He accordingly moved his family to Vevey, Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life in an estate overlooking Lake Geneva.

Time, of course, has faded the bitter memories of those later years and preserved Chaplin’s image as a massively influential and beloved figure in cinema. The majority of his films have been beautifully preserved, and retain all of this comedic master’s freshness and mischievous energy. And while the names of many other silent stars have faded, I think it’s safe to assume that the iconic “Little Tramp” will always be known as the king of screen comedy.

Charlie Chaplin Behind the cameraChaplin behind the camera

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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Classic Movie Travels: Bert Lahr – New York, NY and Seattle, WA

Classic Movie Travels: Bert Lahr – New York, NY and Seattle, WA

Bert Lahr NBC MicrophoneBert Lahr (1895 – 1967)

Bert Lahr was lucky enough to have an iconic role in one of the most beloved films of all time. While many will recall his performance as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939), his experience as an energetic performer extended beyond this critical role.

Irving Lahrheim was born in New York City on August 13, 1895, to German Jewish immigrants Jacob and Augusta Lahrheim. Jacob worked in upholstery. Irving was the oldest of three children, including two sisters named Cecelia and Babe.

Irving grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, dropping out of school during his first year of high school to join a juvenile vaudeville act. He took on the stage name of Bert Lahr and gradually worked his way up to top billing while working for the Columbia Amusement Company. His Broadway debut came in 1927 in Delmar’s Revels, which had Lahr playing to full houses. During the show’s run, he performed the classic “Song of the Woodman” routine, which he carried out in the 1938 film, Merry-Go-Round of 1938.

Lahr’s first big success was in the stage musical Hold Everything!, which ran from 1928-9. In the show, he played a prizefighter. This performance was followed by roles in other stage musicals, including Flying High (1930), Florenz Ziegfeld’s Hot-Cha! (1932), and The Show is On (1936). In 1939, he worked alongside Ethel Merman as part of the Broadway production of DuBarry Was a Lady.

Bert Lahr YoungA Young Bert Lahr

Lahr’s film debut came in Flying High (1931), in which he reprised his stage portrayal of the show’s aviator character. He then signed with Educational Pictures in New York, which led him to work in a series of two-reel comedies. Once the series ended, Lahr headed to Hollywood to work in feature films. Beyond his role in The Wizard of Oz (1939), he appeared in numerous shorts and typically appeared in musical comedy films. However, none of these films offered him roles that were quite as memorable as the one he executed in The Wizard of Oz. Moreover, his acting style—typically full of broad gestures and overstated reactions—was better suited for the stage.

The Wizard of Oz would be Lahr’s 17th film and called for him to wear a costume composed of lion fur. Under the high-intensity studio lights required of Technicolor, the costume was unbearably hot. Despite this, Lahr crafted many ad-lib lines for his character. In some cases, several takes were required, as other cast members—especially Judy Garland—could not complete the scenes without laughing. Additionally, the Cowardly Lion is the only character in the film to sing two solo numbers—“If I Only Had the Nerve” and “If I Were King of the Forest”.

Bert Lahr as Cowardly Lion, The Wizard of Oz (1939)Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

During this time, Lahr wed his second wife, Mildred Schroeder. Lahr’s first wife, Mercedes Delpino, developed mental health problems that led to institutionalization. However, in the early 1930s, Lahr started seeing Schroeder while Delpino was institutionalized. Nonetheless, Lahr still loved Delpino and was reluctant to divorce her. Schroeder left Lahr in 1936 to marry another man but eventually returned to Lahr, who obtained a divorce from Delpino a year later. Lahr and Schroeder would have three children: Herbert, John, and Jane. Though Lahr divorced Delpino, he still loved her and divorced her because her severe mental state made it impossible for her to function in a marriage. When she died in 1965, Lahr did not speak for three days. Schroeder and Lahr remained married until Lahr’s death in 1967.

Lahr soon returned to the theater, co-starring in the U.S. premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida. According to John Lahr, Bert’s son, the performance was a flop largely because of the director’s choices, including the decision to limit Lahr’s movements on stage. When Lahr reprised his role with a new director on Broadway, Lahr was offered more freedom in his performance. The short-lived Broadway run was more successful than the performances in Miami. In 1960, Lahr won the Best Shakespearean Actor of the Year Award at the American Shakespeare Festival for his appearance as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later, in 1964, he won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his role in Foxy.

Bert Lahr Waiting for Godot (1956)Bert Lahr in Waiting for Godot (1956)

In addition to working in films and on stage, Lahr also appeared on television. He introduced several productions on the air, performed in commercials, in addition to acting in different featurettes.

Lahr was filming The Night They Raided Minsky’s when he died on December 4, 1967. While the newspapers reported that he died of pneumonia due to the damp studio where the film was shot, but he passed away from a hemorrhage and undiagnosed complications from cancer. His completed scenes were left in the film. When Garland heard of his passing, she was about to go on stage in Las Vegas, Nevada. At her performance, she dedicated “Over the Rainbow” to Lahr, referring to him as “my beloved Cowardly Lion.”
Lahr is interred at Union Field Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens County, New York.

Today, there are few places in existence that would have been of relevance to Lahr during his lifetime. According to the 1920 census, the Lahrheim family resided at 1454 Wilkins Ave. in New York City, New York. Here is a shot of the property today:

1454 Wilikins Ave. New York, NY Bert Lahr Residence 1920s1454 Wilkins Ave. in New York City, New York, today

By 1940, Lahr was living at the Waldorf Astoria. Among his fellow residents were Cole and Linda Porter. In 2016, the hotel announced plans for refurbishment and to convert some of the rooms to condominiums. Several rooms would be turned into apartments, while others would remain as hotel suites. The hotel plans to reopen in 2020. In 2017, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to list the interiors of the hotel’s notable public spaces as landmarks, protecting them from any alteration. The hotel is located at 301 Park Avenue, Manhattan, New York City.

Waldorf Astoria, New York, NY 301 Park Ave. Bert Lahr Residence 1940sBert Lahr 1940′s Residence – The Waldorf Astoria

Perhaps the best tribute to Lahr is the Cowardly Lion costume itself. In 2014, the costume sold for over $3 million at the Bonham’s Turner Classic Movies auction. Today, the costume is on display at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington, located at 324 5th Ave N.

Bert Lahr The Wizard of Oz (1939) Cowardly Lion costumeCostume from Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion

Whether you are in New York or in Seattle, you can easily pay tribute to Lahr and one of classic cinema’s most beloved characters.


–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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Ron Hutchinson

Ron Hutchinson

It is with profound sadness that we at Classic Movie Hub share the news of the passing of our friend and colleague, Ron Hutchinson, who lost his battle with cancer this Saturday. Ron was one of our own. As a regular contributor to CMH, Ron provided a wealth of unique expertise in the classic film world. More importantly, Ron was a man of compassion, humanity, integrity, and a true-blue friend. The fact that so few knew he was even sick reflects the type of man he was, as well.

The Vitaphone Project's Ron Hutchinson speaks at TCMFF 2016 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone presentation; photo credit: Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub; (c) Classic Movie HubRon Hutchinson at the 2016 TCM Film Festival in celebration of the 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone

His preservation, restoration and passionate work in the specialized Vitaphone media was so instrumental, it is impossible not to connect the word Vitaphone to the name Ron Hutchinson. As the founder of the Vitaphone Project and as one the world’s premier film historians, Ron’s unique knowledge has been sourced in over 25 books, documentaries for PBS and TCM, commentary for the DVD boxed set “The Jazz Singer,” and he was an extremely popular presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. As a member of the Classic Movie Hub family, each of Ron’s monthly articles were like unearthed treasures. We felt so lucky when he generously shared his detailed knowledge with us because we knew every contribution came from the best expert available.

In addition to his many friends and fans throughout the classic film community, Ron’s loss is deeply felt by his family. Ron Hutchinson proudly spoke of his children and grandchildren often. Our hearts and condolences go out to you all.

–The Classic Movie Hub Family

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The Funny Papers: Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd, The Slapstick Buddy Duo

The Funny Papers: Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd, The Slapstick Buddy Duo

Lately, I’ve been binge-watching an Amazon Prime show which has also garnered attention at the Golden Globes, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It’s a hilarious delight that many classic film fans may likely enjoy for its classic 1950s/1960s vibe. The cast delivers top-notch performances, as reflected by Rachel Brosnahan’s (as Mrs. Midge Maisel) 2019 Golden Globe win for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series- Musical or Comedy, for a second year. While streaming my latest obsession, I was struck by Maisel’s sidekick’s resemblance to actress Patsy Kelly.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Rachel Brosnahan Alex Borstein“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Rachel Brosnahan’s Mrs. Maisel is inspired by Joan Rivers’ early stand-up days. Alex Borstein as Susie Myerson channels Patsy Kelly, in my humble opinion.

Alex Borstein portrays Mrs. Maisel’s manager, Susie Myerson. Short-statured tomboy Susie and her no-nonsense, wisecracking dry wit provide the complementary balance to perky, pristinely girly Midge. While immensely enjoying the chemistry of this friendship, I noticed the striking on-screen parallels between Susie and the classic character actress Patsy Kelly.

Patsy KellyPatsy Kelly, “Queen of the Wisecracks”

In the 1930s, Patsy Kelly was a popular supporting comic relief on the silver screen. Born to Irish immigrants John and Deila Kelly in Brooklyn, NY on January 12, 1910, this month would have been Patsy’s 109th birthday. Starting at the age of twelve, Patsy was already on the vaudeville stage. Here is where she honed her craft for ad-libbing and comedic timing. Then, the Broadway stage is where she was performing when Hal Roach brought her to Hollywood.

Hal Roach was attempting to create a female Laurel and Hardy duo. He paired beauty Thelma Todd with ZaSu Pitts. In 1933, Pitts left Roach Studios so Roach paired Todd with newcomer Patsy Kelly. From 1933 to 1935, Todd and Kelly made 21 two-reeler comedy shorts.

Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts Hal Roach ShortsThelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts partnered in Hal Roach shorts, 1931 – 1933

Born in Lawrence, MA on July 29, 1906, Thelma Todd was a stand-out with a myriad of gifts in beauty, intelligence, acting and a natural instinct for physical comedy. She seemed destined for greatness. Well-educated, Todd planned to teach but her mother devised other plans that focused on her physical attributes via beauty contests. Upon successfully winning several competitions, she was recruited to the silver screen. A versatile asset to the studios, Todd was adept equally in drama and comedy roles, and she transitioned well from the silents to early talkies.

Soon she was signed to Paramount and her acting career flourished in the late 1920s. In romcoms, westerns, and dramas, she worked with co-stars such as Gary Cooper, Richard Dix, Buddy Rogers, and Nancy Carroll. But comedy was her best strength. She excelled in comedy shorts and was notable in comic pairings with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers (Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932)).

Thelma Todd Zeppo Marx, Harpo Marx Horse Feathers (1932)Thelma Todd with Zeppo and Harpo Marx in Horse Feathers (1932). Todd was the eye-candy version of Margaret Dumont for the Marx Bros. films.
Patsy Kelly and Thelma ToddPatsy Kelly and Thelma Todd became the female Laurel and Hardy team in 21 shorts, 1933 – 1935

Both Todd and Kelly were riding a rocket trajectory in their careers in 1935 when their partnership abruptly ended with Thelma Todd’s death at the mere age of 29 years old. Todd was a smart businesswoman and the nite club she owned was the popular hotspot for Hollywood celebs and tourists alike. When her body was found in her garage, the police rushed to claim her death as a suicide by carbon dioxide. This has been refuted by most, then and now. The prevailing theories center on both her business partner Roland West and Todd’s refusal to yield to the mob’s pressures to turn her club into a front to launder money.

Thelma Todd Sidewalk CafeThelma Todd, savvy business owner, in front of her Sidewalk Cafe

Side note: While in the area for a recent TCM Film Festival, my friends and I visited Thelma’s Sidewalk Café in its beautiful Pacific Palisades location along Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. Gives you goosebumps to see it in person.

Thelma Todd Sidewalk Cafe Original PhotoThelma Todd Sidewalk Cafe TodayThelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe, then and now

Separate from Todd’s unexpected death, Kelly’s career soon suffered its own challenges. Kelly was a reliable B-lister for dry wisecracks. But she was also a rare example in the 1930s of someone who was very honest to the press regarding her sexuality. When her career began to tank as a result, her friend/occasional lover Tallulah Bankhead hired her as a personal assistant during the rough years until television eventually allowed her a chance for a comeback, outside of poverty row films. Times changed and she found work not only on TV but in a few films again (i.e. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Freaky Friday (1976)). Patsy returned to the Broadway stage, as well. Her final stage performance was alongside Debbie Reynolds in Irene (1973). Her final television gig was on the hit show, “Love Boat” in 1979. After suffering a stroke the year prior, Patsy Kelly died September 24, 1981.

Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly’s on-screen teaming was not simply two actors who performed together for a time, they were an anomaly then and now. What Hal Roach attempted was a series of an actual female comedy buddy duo concept, where each is essentially equal and they both focus on physical comedy. It would be easy to have fallen for the trap of Todd playing the straight, thanks to her physical beauty, leaving all the slapstick to Kelly. Luckily for us, Roach could see Thelma was much more than a pretty face and possessed that comic instinct. It would additionally have been a convenient stereotype to set up a power imbalance between the two in these Kelly/Todd shorts.

Thelma Todd Cary Grant This is the Night (1932)Thelma Todd with Cary Grant in his first full feature, This is the Night (1932)

Rather, these shorts generally place them as working women who are both struggling to make it, always with hilarious results. Similar to the Laurel and Hardy model, friendship is at the core of the relationship, even in those trying moments that lead to funny mishaps. While there are obvious differences in their appearances, one is not forced to play the child-like, daft or inferior one (that is frequently found in comedy duos). Both are usually on equal terms.

I wondered what other female buddy comedy duos have come along in the same vein as Todd and Kelly. Lucy and Ethel (of the “I Love Lucy” TV series, 1951 – 1957) were/are extremely popular characters and created some of the funniest bits in television’s history. But I always got the impression Lucy always had the upper hand in their balance of power. She was clearly the main center of attention so for me personally, they do not quite fit the bill. Then I thought of more modern-day female comics. In many ways, I see Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as carrying on some of that Todd/Kelly vibe. Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph are also hilarious but do not lean into the slapstick side quite as much, although I believe they’re perfect for it. For my money, Melissa McCarthy is the best example of a modern-day instinct for physical comedy. While her ensemble performances are most well-known, she has paired with other female comics in several films that are slapstick gems (i.e. with Miranda Hart and Rose Byrne in Spy (2015), and with Sandra Bullock in The Heat (2013)).

Thelma Todd Patsy KellyThelma Todd and Patsy Kelly creating comedy shorts

While there may be a few examples here and there that come somewhat close, I believe it’s a great loss for all audiences that we have not seen Hollywood attempt to recreate an on-screen female friendship duo that excels in slapstick on par with Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly.

–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub

When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66

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Musical Interlude: Musicals of Hollywood’s Greatest Year

Musical Interlude: Musicals of Hollywood’s Greatest Year

It’s known as Hollywood’s greatest year: 1939.

As we celebrate films released 80 years ago, we think of some of the most obvious film achievements the storied year brought us: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach … The list could go on and on and on.

No doubt, these films are great, but let us consider the musicals of 1939. Many of these musicals are good, and though perhaps not of the caliber as those listed above, they hold their own level of importance.

The year 1939 isn’t just magnificent for the films, but also how it shaped or catapulted the film careers of some of the stars, or how it helped change the landscape of film. Here are just a few musicals that did just that:

Babes in Arms (1939) Mickey Rooney and Judy GarlandMickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes in Arms (1939).

Babes in Arms (1939)
The children of vaudeville stars want their parents to take them on the road with them. When the parents say no, Mickey (Mickey Rooney) and Betsy (Judy Garland) decide to organize their own show with the help of their friends. While Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland already co-starred in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937) and Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) together, Babes in Arms marked their first musical together. Babes in Arms also kicked off the successful “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” format, which their next films followed, and was director Busby Berkeley’s first full-length directorial project at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Balalaika (1939) Nelson Eddy Ilona MasseyNelson Eddy and Ilona Massey in Balalaika (1939).

Balalaika (1939)
Set before the Russian Revolution and World War I, Nelson Eddy plays a Russian prince (posing as a commoner) and Ilona Massey is a singer that is also the daughter of a political activist who opposes of the royalty. The two fall in love but their difference and World War I drive them apart. Speaking of separating screen teams, Nelson Eddy made only two films from 1935 to 1945 without Jeanette MacDonald, both in 1939, first another musical Let Freedom Ring, followed by Balalaika. Balalaika was also the first Hollywood film for Hungarian actress and singer, Ilona Massey, who was later built up as a threat to stars like Greer Garson.

Broadway Serenade (1939) Jeanette MacDonald Lew AyresJeanette MacDonald and Lew Ayres in Broadway Serenade (1939).

Broadway Serenade (1939)
Mary and Jimmy (Jeanette MacDonald and Lew Ayres) are a married performing act — Mary sings while Jimmy accompanies her on piano. Mary is noticed by a producer and is asked to audition for a Broadway part. Cast in the show, her role and fame grew as her talent is noticed. On the other side, Jimmy’s music career is stalled and his wife’s success drives them apart.

As you can see, while Nelson Eddy was off performing without Jeanette MacDonald, she was doing the same. In the only film, she released in 1939, MacDonald co-stars with Lew Ayres. However, this wasn’t MacDonald’s first film without Eddy; she performed with other actors from 1935 to 1939.

First Love (1939) Deanna Durbin and Robert SlackDeanna Durbin and Robert Slack in First Love (1939).

First Love (1939)
In a Cinderella-like story, Connie (played by Deanna Durbin) is an orphan whose only relatives don’t care for her and she is brought up by servants. She falls in love with Ted Drake (Robert Stack) and wants to go to a ball with him, and the servants help her. Deanna Durbin started out as a child star, and First Love is a coming-of-age teenage role for her. She even receives her first on-screen kiss in First Love from Robert Stack. The film is also Robert Stack’s first credited film role.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle Ginger Rogers and Fred AstaireGinger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
As the title suggests, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is a biographical film about married couple Vernon and Irene, played by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who rise to fame as ballroom dancers. Their happiness and careers are threatened when World War I begins. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is different from the 10 other films Astaire and Rogers made together. It is the only biographical film the dancing actors made together and the only one of their films that didn’t have a happy ending.

But what really stands out about The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is that it’s the last film Astaire and Rogers made together until they reunited again 10 years later in 1949 in The Barkleys of Broadway. The separation allowed both to go in slightly different directions. Astaire continued in musicals, but with different leading ladies and more varied plots. Rogers was able to stretch her acting abilities a bit more — performing in films ranging from comedies to drama.

That's Right – You're Wrong (1939) Kay KyserKay Kyser

That’s Right – You’re Wrong (1939)
Popular bandleader Kay Kyser (as himself) leaves his radio show gig to start a career in films in Hollywood. The trouble is, his wild and jokey persona doesn’t seem to fit any script Hollywood has to offer. This may seem like a really odd pick. However, I find That’s Right – You’re Wrong notable for a reason. This is the first film starring bandleader Kay Kyser and his band, who made nine films from 1939 until 1944. Most popular during the World War II-era, North Carolinian Kyser would don a graduation cap and gown, host a quiz show and perform music with his band. While some songs were straight romantic ballads, others were a bit more whimsical and band members would be engaged in singing or other noises during a performance.

While Kyser himself may not have been important in the grand scheme of musicals, his appearance in musicals marked a departure from the old style of musicals and a new variation. Kyser’s big band music in the films generally didn’t help move along the plot (as in traditional musicals); they generally were band performances. This would go on to be mimicked when other bandleaders like Tommy Dorsey and Harry James began appearing in films — but none of them were the star of the show like Kyser.

Which musical will you celebrate 80 years of 1939 with?


– Jessica Pickens for Classic Movie Hub

Jessica can be found at cometoverhollywood.com and on twitter at @HollywoodComet. In addition to her overall love of classic movies, she has ongoing series on her site including “Watching 1939″ and “Musical Monday.”

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Silents are Golden: The Good, The Bad, And The Not-So-Bad Of Silent Era Acting

Silents are Golden: The Good, The Bad, And The Not-So-Bad Of Silent Era Acting

So you’re thinking of taking the plunge and exploring the world of silent films! You’re intrigued by those flickery, black and white images from a time gone by, and are looking to expand your film history knowledge–and perhaps add some new favorites to your movie collection. You’re interested in seeing Clara Bow strut her stuff and Harold Lloyd dangle off that clock, and you’ve heard a lot of intriguing things about German Expressionism. But! there’s one thing holding you back–one thing you’re not sure you can handle. That florid silent film acting.

The Bridal Room (1912) King Baggot and Mrs. Allen WalkerIt was basically this, all the time. Right?

Broad gestures, hands clutching hearts, eye-rolling, occasional swooning–surely this is what’s in store for anyone who attempts to watch century-old motion pictures, or so you feel. And thus, you’ve been a little reluctant to explore that alien world of early 20th-century pop culture (and late 19th-century pop culture, if you’re counting the very oldest films).

Yes, there was certainly plenty of overacting in the silent era–but there was also plenty of understated, naturalistic acting. And there were also specific acting styles that we simply find difficult to get used to, being accustomed to decades of realism and all. But a little knowledge of where those long-gone actors were coming from can go a long way in appreciating silent films.

The most important thing to know about the silent era is that screen acting evolved from the dominant styles on the stage. And it evolved very quickly. Acting in, say, short dramas from 1908 are going to look quite different from your basic feature in 1928–or even 1918.

The Quarell (1912) Chester Barnett and Pearl WhiteThis might not fly in 1928. (Still from The Quarrel,  clipped from Universal Weekly, Nov. 23, 1912.)

For decades–scratch that, for centuries, actors had to make sure their gestures were visible to viewers throughout the theater. Thus, their movements and emoting were often exaggerated or otherwise stylized. Heavy makeup was worn for the same reason (as well as to cope with early forms of stage lighting). Many actors and stage directors felt that the theater was supposed to be “larger than life,” providing an escape from ordinary routine–and broad acting was a part of that escape. Sarah Bernhardt, for example, is famous to this day for her mastery of the “grand manner.”

By the late 19th century, there were certain styles of acting that were very influential. One of the biggest was the Delsarte method, created by French music teacher Francois Delsarte, which taught how to show interior emotions through specific gestures and poses right down to the smallest movements. Thus, an actor might slump and put their hand over their face to show despair, stand straight with clenched fists and a furrowed brow to indicate outrage, etc.

Acting Diagram for Delsarte MethodDiagrams of the famed Delsarte method.

The Delsarte method and other, similar methods that emphasized gesture and pantomime were a big part of Victorian melodrama. So once moving pictures began taking off in the 1900s, many early screen actors attempted to do the same type of acting for the camera that they’d always done onstage. The results were…not subtle.

The Power of Destruction (1912)This was actually one of the subtler ones. (The Power of Destruction, clipped from  Moving Picture World, 1912).

What looked swell on a vast stage looked downright silly blown up on a large screen–directors quickly realized more realistic styles of acting were needed. Some actors couldn’t adapt to the new medium, while others evolved through trial and error. By about 1910 theatergoers were insisting on seeing “naturalness” on the screen, and more and more studios were doing their best to comply. A 1911 Moving Picture World critic put it succinctly: “The reason so many photoplays fail utterly in getting across is due to one thing–unnaturalness…motion picture audiences are getting educated. Producers are producing better and better plays and giving more and more attention to details. But they are going to improve more in the next three years than the next ten–or many of them are going out of business…

By the 1910s, subtler acting styles were common on the screen. Some gesturing and posturing was still common too but was used with more care, utilizing the space in the frame to create just the right mise-en-scène. Pause many dramas from about 1908 to the mid-1910s, and the resulting images could almost be paintings. (Ironically, these more refined works are often the types of films people mean when they talk about silent era “overacting,” but it’s simply because they aren’t used to the mannerisms.)

The Sealed Room (1909)The Sealed Room (1909).
The Female of the Species (1912)The Female of the Species (1912).
Les Vampires (1916)Les Vampires (1916).

Once the 1920s rolled around, of course, naturalistic acting was pretty much the norm. There were exceptions, particularly for stylized films like The Last Laugh or Metropolis, which had Expressionistic settings and grand themes that called for highly operatic acting. And silent comedy, of course, retained much of broad grimacing, slapstick, and exaggerated makeup that was popular in the circus and vaudeville. But even that unpretentious genre evolved throughout the silent era. By the 1920s, audiences were growing tired of nonsensical pratfalling and wanted more logic. As a result, many of the top screen clowns began trading baggy pants and thick eyeliner for tailored suits and jaunty hats.

Harold Lloyd Before and AfterHarold Lloyd, Before (the 1910s) and After (1920s).

So as we can see from this (very quick) overview, silent film acting is nothing to be squeamish about, and can even teach us a little about Victorian and Edwardian theater. You can certainly find bad, overdone performances if you look for them, but there are countless fine examples of realism too, from early Biograph shorts like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to skillful family dramas like Master of the House (1925) to artistic pictures like The Crowd (1928), to name just three. And as far as I’m concerned, much of that stylized acting is worth checking out, too–because in this 21st century, it’s certainly not something you see every day.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.


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Western Roundup: Canyon Passage and The Autry

Western Roundup: Canyon Passage and The Autry

Canyon Passage (1946) Movie PosterCanyon Passage (1946) Movie Poster

Classic film fans in Southern California are fortunate to have a wide variety of opportunities to see classic films, including Westerns, on a big screen.

I recently had the chance to see a 35mm screening of the wonderful Western Canyon Passage (1946) at The Autry Museum of the American West.

As I mentioned here in my Christmas column, the museum was founded by Gene Autry in 1988. Along with his co-founders, his wife Jackie and Mr. and Mrs. Monte Hale, Gene built a museum to “exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West and show how it influenced America and the world.” The museum is also “dedicated to exploring an inclusive history of the American West,” including the histories of Indians and other minorities.

Autry Museum EntranceAutry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, California

The museum houses over 600,000 artifacts and archival materials. As part of chronicling myriad aspects of the Western experience, the museum devotes considerable space and resources to Western films — no surprise, given the career histories of cofounders Autry and Hale! More on the museum will follow later in this column.

The museum has an ongoing film series, “What is a Western?” which is dedicated to exploring Westerns “and the ways in which they shape our understanding of the American West.” Canyon Passage was shown as part of this series, preceded by a very informative introduction by film historian Jeremy Arnold.

Autry Museum Jeremy Arnold Film HistorianFilm Historian, Jeremy Arnold

Jeremy shared the information that the film was based on a novel by Ernest Haycox, who also wrote the story which inspired Stagecoach (1939). The film Canyon Passage was originally envisioned to serve as a reunion for Stagecoach stars John Wayne, Claire Trevor, and Thomas Mitchell.

I agree with Jeremy that as marvelous as those actors are, their presence would have made Canyon Passage an entirely different film, and I’m glad that producer Walter Wanger ultimately cast Dana Andrews, Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy. (I do agree with a suggestion I read that Robert Preston would have been ideal alternate casting for Donlevy’s role, though Donlevy is excellent.)

Canyonn Passage (1946) Brian Donlevy and Susan HaywardBrian Donlevy and Susan Hayward in Canyon Passage (1946)

Director Jacques Tourneur had made a name for himself with low-budget RKO thrillers such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1944), and his most recent film was the Gothic romantic mystery Experiment Perilous. With Canyon Passage, Tourneur had the opportunities of a big budget and extensive location filming in Oregon, and he made the most of it.

As Jeremy noted, part of the film’s uniqueness is its very green outdoor setting, filmed by Edward Cronjager at sites including Oregon’s Diamond Lake and Crater Lake. There have been relatively few films made in Oregon, especially as of the mid-’40s, and with so much of the film’s running time shot outdoors, it gives the movie a fresh and authentically Western feel in its depiction of a frontier town in 1856.

When I first saw the film about 15 years ago, I was a bit confused by its loose plotting; indeed, Jeremy challenged viewers to be able to tell him the plot after the movie! I now see the storytelling style as quite modern, using the “elliptical” methods of a program like Mad Men which doesn’t show everything, only certain high points, and flits from character to character, with some key moments taking place offscreen. Although Logan (Andrews) and Lucy (Hayward) are front and center, Canyon Passage is truly the story of an entire frontier community.

 Canyon Passage (1946) Dana Andrews and Susan HaywardDana Andrews and Susan Hayward Canyon Passage (1946).

Andrews’ character is a merchant who runs a pack mule service to his remote Oregon town. He becomes better acquainted with Hayward’s Lucy, who’s engaged to his friend George (Donlevy), when he escorts her home from Portland.

There is clearly an attraction between Logan and Lucy, yet Lucy remains loyal to George and Logan eventually proposes to Caroline (Patricia Roc), an orphaned young woman who lives with his friends the Dances (Andy Devine and Dorothy Peterson). Caroline’s acceptance of Logan’s proposal disappoints Vane (Victor Cutler), a young man who works for Logan who also loves Caroline.

Canyon Passage (1946) Patricia RocPatricia Roc in Canyon Passage (1946).

The plot, such as it is, is about the characters’ relationships and challenges, whether it’s gradually changing romantic alliances, George (Donlevy) and his gambling addiction, Logan dealing with a bully (Ward Bond, unforgettably evil), or an Indian uprising; we see the community at its best and worst, whether it’s the quick “frontier justice” trial of an accused murderer or the townspeople coming together to build a cabin for newlyweds.

The maturity and kindness of most of the characters in their personal relationships is striking; Lucy and Logan remain committed to George and Caroline until freed by circumstances, and Logan unhesitatingly gives George $2000 to clear up his gambling debts before marrying Lucy. (Sadly, George’s addiction is such that he cannot take advantage of the chance at a fresh start.) The self-possessed Lucy may enjoy kissing Logan, at George’s instigation, but she’s no flirt. The respectful way the lead characters treat one another stands in stark contrast to the bullying of Honey Bragg (Bond), and one of the film’s tragedies is the way George slowly slips into emulating Bragg’s evil behavior himself.

In my thinking, a great film reveals more to the viewer each time it’s seen. It’s been clear to me on previous viewings that George has innate laziness, along with the torments of addiction, but this time I was particularly struck by the way he exists outside the community. During the house raising he’s finely dressed, sitting under a tree with Lucy; it’s not simply that he won’t get his hands dirty with hard work, but emotionally he doesn’t feel connected to the others or desire to help them, as he already has one foot “out the door” of the town.

Canyon Passage (1946) Foreign Movie PosterForeign Movie Poster for Canyon Passage (1946).

I also particularly loved the scene where Logan and Vane find Caroline wandering in the forest after the Indian attack. The way Vane says “Caroline,” with relief, love, and longing in his voice, really affected me — as it does Caroline in the film. She looks at Vane and, despite her trauma-induced confusion, seems to see him clearly for the first time; indeed, Vane’s gentleness seems to help snap her back to reality.

Given the lack of ardor in Logan’s original proposal to Caroline, asking if she likes him enough to marry him, it was fitting that she politely released him from his obligation in favor of Vane. Not only would this give Caroline her goal of a permanent home, but she would also have a man who truly loved her; Logan, meanwhile, is clearly better matched with the more adventurous Lucy, who is willing to spend days on the trail and can support Logan’s need to travel as he builds his business. As Logan leaves the homestead, in the distance we see him shaking Vane’s hand, giving him his blessing, and we know that all will be well for both couples.

One of the joys of a film of this era is the cast; besides those actors already named, the town is filled with great faces like Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges, Fay Holden, Stanley Ridges, and Halliwell Hobbes. Carmichael plays a key role as a sort of roving minstrel and town spy/gossip; he co-wrote the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky” for this film.

Canyon Passage (1946) Ole Buttermilk SkyOle buttermilk sky – I’m a-keeping my eye peeled on you – What’s the good word tonight – Are you gonna be mellow tonight?

The many talented people who made this film combined efforts to provide a richly rewarding viewing experience, and as the final notes of “Ole Buttermilk Sky” fade away, the viewer is both sad to part ways with the characters yet very glad to have spent time in their company.

I hope to return to the Autry for future Western screenings, starting with Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T (1957) in a few weeks.

As described at the top of this post, the Autry has exhibits on many facets of the Western experience, including “real” and “reel.” The museum houses an impressive collection of Western art, with cinema and art history coming together in the fact that there is a gallery named for Western actor and artist George Montgomery:

The Autry Museum Montgomery GalleryThe George Montgomery Gallery at Autry Museum

A peek at some of the movie Western memorabilia in the museum includes guns owned by (top to bottom) Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, and Leo Carrillo:

Autry Museum - Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, Leo Carillo - GunsKen Maynard, Buck Jones and Leo Carrillo’s movie memorabilia guns on display

Carrillo, besides being well known for playing Pancho in the TV Western The Cisco Kid, was also a significant figure in “real” California history; he was a preservationist who served on the State Beach and Parks Commission for years and played a key role in the state taking over Hearst Castle. Today his ranch is a museum, and a state park and an elementary school are named in his honor.

Guns owned (top to bottom) by Gail Davis, Tim Holt, and Gene Autry:

Autry Museum Gail Davis, Tim Holt, Gene Autry Movie gunsGail Davis, Tim Holt, Gene Autry’s movie memorabilia guns on display

The museum also has a gun owned by Wyatt Earp, who was the subject of my December column:

Autry Museum Wyatt Earp GunWyatt Earp’s gun #18

I’m particularly a fan of Buck Jones, who died tragically in the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, so it was quite special to see his saddle:

Aurty Museum Buck Jones SaddleBuck Jones’ saddle hanging in the Autry Museum

A section on singing cowboys includes this ukelele donated by Dick Foran‘s son:

Autry Museum Dick Foran UkeleleDick Foran’s Ukelele in the Autry Museum

The museum has many other film-related treasures, including costumes worn by John Wayne and Alan Ladd, Indian costumes donated by Iron Eyes Cody, a Norman Rockwell painting of Gary Cooper, and Western gear worn by Charles Starrett, Johnny Mack Brown, Hoot Gibson, Russell Hayden, and more.

I encourage my fellow Western fans who have the opportunity to go to Griffith Park in Los Angeles and pay a visit to The Autry!


– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

Posted in Museums, Posts by Laura Grieve, Western RoundUp | Tagged , , | 6 Comments