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First Impressions: Who Struggled? Who Nailed it?


speedracer5
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Jean Harlow day gave me an idea for a thread:

 

Many actors who are given their first substantial role tend to be a bit awkward, stiff, uneasy, or just plain bad.  Very few actors seem to "find themselves" in their first big role and end up floundering for a few years until they find their niche.  I'm not talking so much about bit parts unless it was a bit part that led to a big role or perhaps a bit part so bad that one wonders how someone even got a bigger role in the first place.

 

Jean Harlow spent a few years in small uncredited roles in silent films until getting her first speaking role in the early talkie, The Saturday Night Kid.  She ended up getting her first big role in Hell's Angels.  However, her early leading roles were awkward as Harlow was inexperienced and had yet to find her niche as the brassy sex pot.  She is terrible in Public Enemy.  Her lines sound overly rehearsed.  She sounds like a high school kid performing a play.  I believe she finally found herself in Red Headed Woman.  In that film, she seems more confident and sure of herself.  I believe that she slowly improved with each and every film.  By the mid-30s before her untimely death, Harlow had established herself as a top-rate comedienne.  It's a shame that she was never able to realize her potential.  Who knows what she would have done in the 1940s.

 

On the flipside...

 

Errol Flynn only toiled away in small parts for about a year.  He made his debut as the most beautiful corpse of all time in The Case of the Curious Bride.  His next film, Captain Blood, was his first leading role and he was a sensation.  He would be an A-list star for the next 15 years or so.  There was no turning back for Flynn.  His persona was established from the get-go in this film and even with different settings, his persona was intact.   

 

What actors can you think of who had a rough time transitioning into leading roles, and/or finding their niche in Hollywood? Who came out of the gates right away and didn't have any awkward period?

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Rudy Valee was a performer who struggled. I had already seen him in THE PALM BEACH STORY, I REMEMBER MAMA and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING when I encountered his debut in THE VAGABOND LOVER. His performance in that early talkie antique is so stiff and dour that it is genuinely difficult to believe that he managed to enjoy a six-decade career as an actor and entertainer.

 

 

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Bette Davis. Until she was in Of Human Bondage, she had lots of roles but nothing that really challenged her.

 

I haven't seen Of Human Bondage yet, but I can agree that her earlier pre-code films are definitely no indication of the type of career she'd go on to have.  In some of the precodes of hers that I have seen, like Three on a Match, the studios tried to cast her as the sweet girlfriend type.

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Rudy Valee was a performer who struggled. I had already seen him in THE PALM BEACH STORY, I REMEMBER MAMA and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING when I encountered his debut in THE VAGABOND LOVER. His performance in that early talkie antique is so stiff and dour that it is genuinely difficult to believe that he managed to enjoy a six-decade career as an actor and entertainer.

 

Wow! He seems kind of stiff and humorless in The Palm Beach Story (though it works to balance out the rest of the characters in the film), it's hard to believe he could be even more stiff.  If I ever see The Vagabond Lover on the schedule, I may watch it just to see how bad he was.

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Paul Newman is not very good in The Silver Chalice. He would like to have bought up all the copies and destroyed them. Fortunately, he quickly learned a lot as an actor and made the most of his opportunities.

 

The Silver Chalice is one of my guilty pleasures. Jack Palance and Virginia Mayo are quite entertaining, and the set design is very good.

 

It took a long time for Jane Wyman and Ellen Burstyn to achieve star status.

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Paul Newman is not very good in The Silver Chalice. He would like to have bought up all the copies and destroyed them. Fortunately, he quickly learned a lot as an actor and made the most of his opportunities.

 

The Silver Chalice is one of my guilty pleasures. Jack Palance and Virginia Mayo are quite entertaining, and the set design is very good.

 

It took a long time for Jane Wyman and Ellen Burstyn to achieve star status.

 

Very interesting.  Knowing that Paul Newman was so bad and wanted to burn the copies makes me want to see it even more! 

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Haven't heard about this movie for decades,I only saw the restored version 16 years ago-- the Trouble with Harry.

 

Shirley MacLaine has had a phenomenal career.

 

She became a star overnight on Broadway when Carol Haney broke her ankle and Shirley had to take her place dancing in the Bob Fosse choreographed musical number Steam Heat in Pajama Game.

 

That night Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis, just happened to be in the audience.

 

He took her to Hollywood and there Alfred Hitchcock decided to star her in a movie called The Trouble with Harry.

 

It was her screen debut and she isn't the Hitchcock type at all.

 

But she came through with flying colors-- she had it all, right from the very beginning.

 

 

For that role she won the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year--Actress.

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The Silver Chalice is one of my guilty pleasures. Jack Palance and Virginia Mayo are quite entertaining, and the set design is very good.

 

 

I love this film, but as with THE EGYPTIAN, once again I'm fond of one of those biblical epics that critics roasted and few seem to care about. I agree with you about the set design, this is what struck me and when I recommend the film to others, I tell them that visually it's one of the most creative films since CALIGARI.

 

As for actors who had trouble finding their niche, Bogart certainly qualifies. He made about a dozen films prior to THE PETRIFIED FOREST which secured his place as a film actor but that was only because Leslie Howard insisted Bogie be cast. Then he just kept getting variations on the gangster role and it was only because of the stupidity of George Raft that HIGH SIERRA and THE MALTESE FALCON came to Bogart.

 

On the other hand, Raft was lobbying for CASABLANCA but Hal Wallis said the part was being tailored for Bogart for having been a good soldier and in regards to Raft, Wallis said "he hasn't made a film around here since I was a little boy."

 

Clearly the producer was enjoying the payback he was giving Raft.

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Almost right out of the chute...Marlon Brando. His very first movie role was the lead in THE MEN (1950), a film which would bring him to the attention of the entire country after making his mark on the Broadway stage. His second film role being the film version of the aforementioned Broadway stage play, the classic A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Brando would almost immediately become a sensation throughout the industry.

 

 

Now, taking years before his big break...John Wayne. I just now scanned his filmography and counted 45, yep 45 credits in his early career during the 1930s, most of course in B-movie Westerns, and before John Ford in 1939 would pick him to play the Ringo Kid in Wayne's star-making role in STAGECOACH.

 

 

(...btw...the above two examples were only suggested by Yours Truly with sole regard to the length of time it would take them to become celebrated A-Listers, and without any regard to any subjective opinions some may wish to ascribe to their acting talents or perceived lack thereof)

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I love this film, but as with THE EGYPTIAN, once again I'm fond of one of those biblical epics that critics roasted and few seem to care about. I agree with you about the set design, this is what struck me and when I recommend the film to others, I tell them that visually it's one of the most creative films since CALIGARI.

 

IMHO The Egyptian generally works as a film, the exception of course being bland Edmund Purdom in the title role, which he got after Brando dropped out. Why didn't Fox cast their contractee Richard Burton? (And why did Brando think doing Desiree was preferable to this?).

 

However IMHO The Silver Chalice is pretty much on the camp level (entertainingly so in the case of Palance) aside from the sets, and I'm sure Jack Warner only approved those when he realized how much cheaper they'd be than building full sets.

 

And speaking of The Silver Chalice, has anyone ever actually seen the ad Newman supposedly took out (in Variety in 1968) apologizing for the film? I've never seen it any book and can't find it online.

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IMHO The Egyptian generally works as a film, the exception of course being bland Edmund Purdom in the title role, which he got after Brando dropped out. Why didn't Fox cast their contractee Richard Burton? (And why did Brando think doing Desiree was preferable to this?).

 

However IMHO The Silver Chalice is pretty much on the camp level (entertainingly so in the case of Palance) aside from the sets, and I'm sure Jack Warner only approved those when he realized how much cheaper they'd be than building full sets.

 

And speaking of The Silver Chalice, has anyone ever actually seen the ad Newman supposedly took out (in Variety in 1968) apologizing for the film? I've never seen it any book and can't find it online.

 

I have never seen the ad reprinted. My first spotted reference to it was in a movie magazine called Hollywood Legends back in 1966 and it claimed that the Newman ad was placed in a local paper in Los Angeles when the film premiered on TV in 1961. This was a local airing, it didn't get a network exposure, just syndication. Through the years this has expanded to "Newman took out ads in the trades" and I somehow doubt that. As one of the hottest leading men of the early 60s, he had no need to apologize to industry insiders via the trades. The dates have also changed - you cite 1968, DVD Savant notes 1966 but even at that point the film had already been in syndication for five years.

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Almost right out of the chute...Marlon Brando. His very first movie role was the lead in THE MEN (1950), a film which would bring him to the attention of the entire country after making his mark on the Broadway stage. His second film role being the film version of the aforementioned Broadway stage play, the classic A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Brando would almost immediately become a sensation throughout the industry.

 

 

Now, taking years before his big break...John Wayne. I just now scanned his filmography and counted 45, yep 45 credits in his early career during the 1930s, most of course in B-movie Westerns, and before John Ford in 1939 would pick him to play the Ringo Kid in Wayne's star-making role in STAGECOACH.

 

 

(...btw...the above two examples were only suggested by Yours Truly with sole regard to the length of time it would take them to become celebrated A-Listers, and without any regard to any subjective opinions some may wish to ascribe to their acting talents or perceived lack thereof)

 

I can go along with your thesis on Brando.  But as far as JOHN WAYNE, I do seem to recall seeing an old VERY early '30's movie shown by Bill Kennedy that Bill mentioned Wayne was in it doing the bit part of a young Norwegian deckhand on a "tramp" steamer and supposedly billed under his real name.  When I spotted him in the flick, he was speaking in a Norwegian accent and his character was pretty much a naive young kid who had an affinity for "ginger beer".  I can't remember the name of the picture, and a WIKI filmography list offers nothing about this.

 

As for the topic at hand, in more recent times, I'd have to say DUSTIN HOFFNAM( who turns 79 today) charged out of the gate from HIS first starring role in THE GRADUATE, as did more recently ADRIEN BRODY in THE PIANIST, although it wasn't Adrien's first film or lead role.

 

As far as PAUL NEWMAN and THE SILVER CHALICE goes, having read the book, I'd say I have to go along with Paul's disappointment.  One of the worst book to film adaptaions I can think of.

 

But Paul has certainly made up for it since then.  I'm certain all of us here have made some big mistake in our lives that we STILL regret to some degree.  ;)

 

 

Sepiatone

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Some fall in-between. Like they didn't exactly struggle or nail it in the beginning, but they had good instincts and quickly became stars. I would put Carol Lombard (billed without the 'e' in the beginning) and Joan Bennett into this group.

 

Shirley Booth nailed it right from the start in COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA. Dorothy McGuire also nailed it in CLAUDIA. 

 

Some nailed it, then struggled. I'd say Orson Welles and John Barrymore qualify for this alternate category.

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On the flipside...

 

Errol Flynn only toiled away in small parts for about a year.  He made his debut as the most beautiful corpse of all time in The Case of the Curious Bride.  His next film, Captain Blood, was his first leading role and he was a sensation.  He would be an A-list star for the next 15 years or so.  There was no turning back for Flynn.  His persona was established from the get-go in this film and even with different settings, his persona was intact.   

 

 

 

Actually, Speedy, Flynn's acting debut was playing Fletcher Christian in an Australian production, In the Wake of the Bounty. He is stiff as a board in this one, that relaxed charisma that would later be his on screen no where to be seen. To be fair, though, he had ZERO acting experience (he was an adventurer living by the skin of his teeth when he made this film as a lark) and the film itself is strictly amateurish. I suspect that for a kid who knew nothing about acting at the time that he got no help from the director.

 

Two years later, with Michael Curtiz at the helm of Captain Blood, it's true that Flynn, not that much more experienced as an actor, is amazingly effective in the title role. So he did shine in his first big Hollywood role, no doubt, but not, technically, in his first film role which, fortunately for him, was little seen at the time.

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Mary Astor-- she nailed it (in silent films and early talkies), struggled (in the mid-30s), nailed it (in the late 30s and 40s), struggled in the early 50s, then nailed it again in the late 50s and early 60s. Finally, she retired. She had a roller coaster career on screen.

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After small parts in four films, James Cagney nailed it in his first big role in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Most of the performances in this film (Harlow more than anyone, as pointed out in the OP) don't hold up well. But that is not true of Cagney, who brings a completely authentic sense of the street to his street punk role. It's a performance that established the actor's screen persona, as well.

 

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Sepiatone--The movie you're describing sounds a lot like 1940s' "The Long Voyage Home".  It was directed by John Ford, it takes place on a tramp steamer, and Waynes' character has a thing for ginger beer.

 

Nailed It--Esther Williams--She had two small parts, then starred in her third film, "Bathing Beauty" (1944) and remained a star throughout her career.

 

Nailed It--Howard Keel--He was third billed in his first film "The Small Voice" (1948), second billed in "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950), and remained a star until the studio system ended.  He made a late career comeback in the television night time soap "Dallas" (1978--?)

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I can go along with your thesis on Brando.  But as far as JOHN WAYNE, I do seem to recall seeing an old VERY early '30's movie shown by Bill Kennedy that Bill mentioned Wayne was in it doing the bit part of a young Norwegian deckhand on a "tramp" steamer and supposedly billed under his real name.  When I spotted him in the flick, he was speaking in a Norwegian accent and his character was pretty much a naive young kid who had an affinity for "ginger beer".  I can't remember the name of the picture, and a WIKI filmography list offers nothing about this.

 

The movie you're describing is The Long Voyage Home, which was actually from 1940, after Stagecoach. He was billed as John Wayne in that, as well.

 

They (producers) attempted to make Wayne a star much earlier, with the lead in the expensive, widescreen 1930 film The Big Trail, but the movie was a flop, and Wayne took the brunt of the blame, so he was relegated to poverty row westerns for most of the decade, until Stagecoach.

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Jack Nicholson struggled in minor roles in B-movies (at best), as well as various behind-the-scenes jobs, for over ten years before breaking out in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.

 

His Chinatown co-star, Faye Dunaway, made her movie debut in 1967, with 3 films: The Happening, Hurry Sundown, and Bonnie & Clyde, which vaulted her to the A-list in her first year on screen.

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Okay! Somebody here try and top the following example of an actor whose career would take years and years before his name would become somewhat household known....Richard Farnsworth.

 

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His first and uncredited role would be as a jockey in the Marx Bros' A DAY AT THE RACES in 1937. His first credited role would be on TV's Zane Grey Theater in 1956. AND, it wouldn't be until 1982 and his lead role in the sleeper hit THE GREY FOX when the general public would begin to place name with face in his case.

 

(...uh-huh, so top THAT, out there!...NOT that this is any type of "competition" here, of course) ;)

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Okay! Somebody here try and top the following example of an actor who's career would take years and years before his name would become somewhat household known....Richard Farnsworth.

 

His first and uncredited role would be as a jockey in the Marx Bros' A DAY AT THE RACES in 1937. His first credited role would be on TV's Zane Grey Theater in 1956. AND, it wouldn't be until 1982's and his lead role in the sleeper hit THE GREY FOX when the general public would begin to place name with face in his case.

Good example. I'm assuming he was used as a jockey on camera in the Marx brothers flick because he was a stunt man / stunt rider. 

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Good example. I'm assuming he was used as a jockey on camera in the Marx brothers flick because he was a stunt man / stunt rider. 

 

Yep TB, you're right on here.

 

Here's a section of Farnsworth's wiki bio page:

 

In 1937, age 16, Farnsworth was working as a stable hand at a polo field in Los Angeles for six dollars a week when he was offered employment with better pay as a stuntman. He rode horses in films such as The Adventures of Marco Polo featuring Gary Cooper and performed horse-riding stunts in films including A Day at the Races(1937) and Gunga Din (1939). Farnsworth was employed on the set of Spartacus (1960) for eleven months where he drove a chariot.

 

(...and of course after his breakthrough performance in THE GREY FOX at age 62, he could be seen in many a hit '80s and '90s movie such as THE NATURAL, MISERY and THE STRAIGHT STORY with his name reading quite high in the credits)

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Yep TB, you're right on here.

 

Here's a section of Farnsworth's wiki bio page:

 

In 1937, age 16, Farnsworth was working as a stable hand at a polo field in Los Angeles for six dollars a week when he was offered employment with better pay as a stuntman. He rode horses in films such as The Adventures of Marco Polo featuring Gary Cooper and performed horse-riding stunts in films including A Day at the Races(1937) and Gunga Din (1939). Farnsworth was employed on the set of Spartacus (1960) for eleven months where he drove a chariot.

 

(...and of course after his breakthrough performance in THE GREY FOX at age 62, he could be seen in many a hit '80s and '90s movie such as THE NATURAL, MISERY and THE STRAIGHT STORY with his name reading quite high in the credits)

 

He should have written an autobiography. Imagine the stories that went with him to the grave.

 

In early 2000, I was at the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, where he was being honored for his work in what would be his last film, David Lynch's THE STRAIGHT STORY. He was named Best Actor. He was a legend and everyone was excited about him and the Oscar buzz surrounding him that day.

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