Noir Nook: Canada Noir
Canada Day – formerly known as Dominion Day and sometimes referred to as “Canada’s birthday” – is a federal holiday that commemorates the anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This took place on July 1, 1867, when the three separate colonies of the United Canadas, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were united into a single, self-governing nation within the British Empire called Canada. (You learn something new every day, dontcha?)
In celebration of the upcoming Canada Day observance, this month’s Noir Nook is shining the light on a trio of noir vets who hail from Canada. Enjoy!
Born Raymond William Stacy Burr, the actor later to be best known as Perry Mason entered the world on May 21, 1917, in New Westminster, British Columbia. He was the oldest of three children of William, who worked as a salesman for a hardware store, and Minerva (a Chicago, Illinois native), who studied music and played the piano in the local symphony orchestra as well as for the silent movies at the town’s movie theater. When he was six, the family moved to Vallejo, California, where his mother’s family owned a small hotel. In his youth, Burr participated in church plays and school productions; he later honed his craft in repertory and summer theater before making his Broadway debut in 1941 in Crazy with the Heat. The play closed after only seven shows; the production was taken over by then-newspaper reporter Ed Sullivan, who restaged it – and Burr was out. Despite this blow, Burr remained in New York, working odd jobs to make ends meet, and was back on Broadway in 1943, playing a French patriot in The Duke in Darkness. This time, his performance caught the eye of a Hollywood agent, and a short time later, Burr signed a contract with RKO. In 1946, he appeared in his first motion picture, RKO’s Without Reservations, starring John Wayne and Claudette Colbert, and he made his film noir debut the following year in Desperate. In this Anthony Mann-directed feature, Burr played Walt Radak, a local hood who’s bent on revenge when he blames an old neighborhood pal (Steve Brodie) for the conviction and pending execution of his brother.
Burr would go on to appear in numerous other noirs, where he excelled in villainous roles. In addition to Desperate, the best of these included Pitfall (1948), as a disturbing insurance investigator; Raw Deal (1948), where he was memorable as a sadistic gangleader; and The Blue Gardenia (1953), in which he played a wolfish ladies’ man.
On May 1, 1916, Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford was born in Sainte-Christine, Quebec, Canada, the only child of Hannah and Newton, a conductor with the Canadian Pacific Railroad. His entrance had a dramatic prologue: three weeks before his mother was to give birth, a fire broke out in the store over which the Ford’s lived. As a fireman was carrying the very-pregnant Hannah down a ladder, the rungs broke, and both fell two stories to the ground. Luckily, both survived. The family moved to Santa Monica, California, for Newton’s health when Ford was young; he was first exposed to acting while a student at Santa Monica High School. After graduation, Ford performed in a variety of plays with the Santa Monica Players, and later appeared in a production of Soliloquy that first played Santa Barbara, then San Diego, and ultimately, Broadway. Although the play was a flop, Ford did a screen test for 20th Century-Fox a short time later and was cast in his first film, Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939), with Jean Rogers and Richard Conte. After its release, Ford hired Zeppo Marx to be his agent and signed a long-term contract with Columbia Studios. He would be with the studio for the next 14 years and would make his first foray into film noir in 1946, with Gilda. In this popular feature, he starred opposite Rita Hayworth as Johnny Farrell, a small-time gambler-turned-right-hand man of a Buenos Aires casino owner (George Macready) – who just happens to show up on day with Johnny’s ex-girl on his arm (and a ring on her finger).
Ford was a standout in six other noirs, including Framed (1947), with Janis Carter and Barry Sullivan; Convicted (1950), the remake of a 1931 pre-Code starring Phillips Holmes; and my favorite Ford film, The Big Heat (1953). In this feature, helmed by Fritz Lang, Ford stars as a detective determined to bring down the mobsters responsible for his wife’s murder.
A native of Victoria, British Columbia, John Benjamin Ireland was born on January 30, 1914. His mother, Gracie Ferguson, was a piano teacher from Scotland; he never knew his biological father, but Grace later married Irish vaudevillian Michael Noone and had three other children – one of these would grow up to be actor Tommy Noonan). When Ireland was still a child, the family moved to San Francisco and later to Harlem in New York City. His introduction to acting reportedly occurred by happenstance years later when he entered Manhattan’s Davenport Free Theater one day, simply planning to take in a free show. Instead, he learned that the company offered free acting training, and the directionless, financially strapped young man signed up. After a year with the Davenport Theater, Ireland gained experience from a variety of companies, including Clare Tree Major’s Children’s Theater and a Shakespearean company in Delaware, before debuting on Broadway in the 1941 production of Macbeth. His stage successes ultimately caught the attention of Hollywood and Ireland was seen in his first big screen outing, A Walk in the Sun, in 1945. He stepped into the realm of film noir two years later, in Railroaded! (1947). Anthony Mann directed this picture, where Ireland was a standout as a psychopathic hood with a proclivity for perfuming the bullets of his gun.
After Railroaded, Ireland was featured in The Gangster (1947), playing a gambling addict named Karty; Raw Deal (1948), as a gunman known as Fantail; and Party Girl (1958), a rare color noir where he portrayed the sleazy henchman of a 1930s-era mobster.
I wish a Happy Canada Day to all Canadian residents and expats – why not join in the celebration by taking in a noir by one of these Canadian natives? You only owe it to yourself.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
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.
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