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Small Part, Great Acting


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Once in awhile you come across a familiar actor whose work just knocks you out unexpectedly. Occasionally a well written scene is handed to these workhorses and filmed with care and acted with a lifetime of skill and experience. The following are two that I recently enjoyed:

 

In Nightmare Alley(1947), Ian Keith plays a drunken has-been in a carnival married to Joan Blondell, (who also shines here). In one scene, Keith, alone with Tyrone Power at night and longing for a drink, lurches into a beautifully written remembrance of his old spiel as a mind reader. He's barely able to remain upright, but the expression on his face and his retelling of the old days brighten as he remembers and...frankly it's one of the best, brief moments of acting that I've ever seen.

 

In Thieves Highway(1949), Millard Mitchell, who had one of the great lived-in faces, plays a taciturn truckdriver who's so believable that you expect to see the dirt under his fingernails. Most of the time, he's bone tired but also capable of some chicanery, and is the perfect counterpoint to Richard Conte's tough and tense returning veteran. This changes dramatically in one scene when he rescues Conte from being crushed under a truck. The words in the scene are terse, but the expression on Mitchell's face as he struggles to help his unconcious partner is quite moving, as is the last glimpse of Mitchell in the film.

 

Do you have any small parts plus perfectly cast actors to recommend to others?

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What a wonderful thread, songbird2!

 

Two character bits come to mind immediately; both from my favorite film, Holiday Inn (1942). The first is the wonderful comedy scenes performed by Irving Bacon (He will forever be "Gus" to me, the name of his character in the film). A veteran of the horse and buggy age, Gus just can't get the hang of driving a car, prompting Bing Crosby, after much tire screeching and whiplash stops, to remark "This thing will go up and back, but not sideways." Bacon's scenes throughout Holiday Inn are priceless.

 

Next remembered is Louise Beavers, who gives Bing Crosby a hum-dinger talking to in the same film. It's Thanksgiving Day and Crosby is blue, for his girl, Marjorie Reynolds, has been lured away by Hollywood (and Fred Astaire). Louise Beavers bolsters his fighting spirit by saying, "I knows Miss Linda [Reynolds]. I knows her like I knows my own kids. Why, she ain't the fancy type no more than you are. What she wants is what you've got right here. But a lady has to have them things told to her the right way ... If you told Miss Linda how much you loves her, and misses her, and told her that the way a lady likes to hear it told, brother, she'd be the quickest ex-movie star that ever exed."

 

These are my most cherised rememberances of two great character actors in small parts, but may I post again if I think of more?

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De Varenne,

I hope that you'll share more observations anytime! Thanks for reminding me of Irving Bacon & Louise Beaver's contributions to Holiday Inn. Despite his appearance in hundreds of films, for some reason I always remember Mr. Bacon best as the almost wordless Railway Gateman in Spellbound in which he does a great double take when passing Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman through to the train.

 

I loved Louise Beavers in any part that she put her inimitable stamp on, and never more so than in the original Imitation of Life(1934) in which she stole the show from Claudette Colbert and held her own with the sadly underutilized Fredi Washington. Miss Beavers was deeply touching and should've received an Academy Award nomination for her work in this still controversial tale. She created a human being, not an icon in that film.

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I have a couple favorites from both ends of the spectrum:

 

Eileen Heckert in The Bad Seed as the desperate and heartbroken Hortense Daigle, mother of a murdered child. She has two monologues in this film and always receives an ovation when it plays in a movie house.

 

Una O'Connor is such a joy to see as a comic foil. She wasn't given much to do, but she shines in juxtaposition to the horrors of Bride of Frankenstein and lends such sass to the romantic Adventures of Robin Hood.

 

For a secondary duo, I'd like to nominate Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey for their work in Brief Encounter. Their romantic sparring in the train station is a charming counterplot to the main romance that's happening between Laura Jesson and the doctor...

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Jack Nicholson, Reds

 

After quite some time of doing the same over the top classic "Jack" in way too many roles, Jack reminded us all of what a good actor he is capable of being by playing Eugene O'Neill in Reds. A brief supporting role, but the scene with Diane Keaton when he tells her he loves her is Jack acting at his best.

 

Brian Keith, "The Wind and the Lion"

 

"And now gentlemen, I would like to be alone with my bear".

If this wasn't what TR was like in real life, he should have been.

 

Gary Cooper, "Wings"

 

In a small role, Coop captures the camera's heart and signals for the history books that a major star is born.

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I once read an article in "Film Comment" about great one scene performances. The author noted that there are a bunch of these in Hitchcock's films. One that leaps to mind is Leo G. Carroll as the doctor in Rebecca who tells everyone that she was dying of cancer. The contrast between Carroll's cultured experience and the run down circumstances in which he finds himself is unforgettable, and I keep wondering why he ended up in such a place.

 

Also from Hitchcock, two unforgettable bits from Psycho. First, Jack Albertson (?) as the obnoxious rich guy who comes on to Janet Leigh in the realtor's office. "I just buy away unhappiness." Also very good is John Anderson as "California Charlie," the first salesman ever high pressured by a customer (when Leigh wants to change cars.) He knows something is wrong about her, but he can't quite put his finger on it.

 

From Robert Siodmak's work, Alan Napier as Finchley in "Criss Cross." He is the alcoholic criminal mastermind who gives the okay to the armored car robbery. He has dignity and self-contempt all bound together. Also, Vince Barnett in "The Killers" as Charleston, Swede's former cellmate. "Me and Swede used to have great talks about the stars."

 

And Vince Barnett is unforgettable in the 1932 Scarface as Angelo, the guy who can't handle a telephone to save his life.

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> I once read an article in "Film Comment" about great

> one scene performances. The author noted that there

> are a bunch of these in Hitchcock's films. One that

> leaps to mind is Leo G. Carroll as the doctor in

> Rebecca who tells everyone that she was dying of

> cancer. The contrast between Carroll's cultured

> experience and the run down circumstances in which he

> finds himself is unforgettable, and I keep wondering

> why he ended up in such a place.

>

> Also from Hitchcock, two unforgettable bits from

> Psycho. First, Jack Albertson (?) as the obnoxious

> rich guy who comes on to Janet Leigh in the realtor's

> office. "I just buy away unhappiness." Also very

> good is John Anderson as "California Charlie," the

> first salesman ever high pressured by a customer

> (when Leigh wants to change cars.) He knows

> something is wrong about her, but he can't quite put

> his finger on it.

>

> From Robert Siodmak's work, Alan Napier as Finchley

> in "Criss Cross." He is the alcoholic criminal

> mastermind who gives the okay to the armored car

> robbery. He has dignity and self-contempt all bound

> together. Also, Vince Barnett in "The Killers" as

> Charleston, Swede's former cellmate. "Me and Swede

> used to have great talks about the stars."

>

> And Vince Barnett is unforgettable in the 1932

> Scarface as Angelo, the guy who can't handle a

> telephone to save his life.

 

Napier, Barnett,Albertson,and Anderson were all great. But what about Mort Mills, as the creepy cop in "Psycho .

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Sorry for repeating myself in such short order, but I already mentioned this just moments ago on the How We Remember Them thread:

 

I vote for Frank Faylen as Bim, the louche male nurse in the Bellevue drunk tank in "The Lost Weekend." His patronizing manner and insidious looks when he talks to the Ray Milland character speak volumes as to Bim's backstory. Since I had previously known Faylen only as the father of Dobie Gillis on TV, and in numerous b&w movies as the cab driver, counterman, beat cop, etc., it was a remarkable thing to for me see him in Lost Weekend.

 

I own a copy of this movie, and I always get a charge out of Faylen's performance. Those character actors - gotta love 'em.

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Willard Waterman and Lee Patrick as Claude and Doris Upson in Auntie Mame. As absolutely typical American bourgeoisie, they wrung home the all too familiar foolishness of snobbery. Loved both their characterizations. Joanna Barnes as Gloria Upson was perfect, as well (I stepped on the ping pong ball!). The Upson family will be in my memory as long as I have one. Great performances!

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> Couldn't you say that " Dobie Gillis" ruined his

> career,same goes for Adam West as "Batman " ?

 

"Ruined?" I don't see why. The Herbert T. Gillis type was what Faylen specialized in, and he played that type many times after Dobie Gillis. He passed away in the late 1960s.

 

And I wonder how ruined Adam West feels, since he made lots and lots of money from Batman and its licensing, has made his career after Batman into a parody of that success; and he hasn't stopped yet. Being TV's Batman certainly hasn't dampened his sense of humor.

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> I' ve heard that both felt that those roles typed

> cast them.

 

No doubt. I'm not disputing the fact that they were typecast, Ken. However, you know the old saw about what to do when you are handed lemons. Adam West seems to be enjoying it. There are all too many, though, who haven't been able to handle it.

 

However, there are many performers these days who have made a second career of sorts out of parodying themselves. The lovely Char(r?)o comes to mind; and George Hamilton, and Wm. Shatner. With the venue of TV commercials to keep them in the public eye, they are profiting from teasing their own established personas. I say good for them.

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Frank Albertson was Jack Albertson's brother. Though we are perhaps more familiar w/ Jack's work from the original Willie Wonka movie, the excellent The Subject Was Roses, Chico and the Man series, and many bit parts in earlier films. Frank was actually more well known than his brother during the twenties, thirties and forties as a character actor and eager beaver second lead type, perhaps most memorably as Sam Wainwright, the businessman fond of saying "Hee-Haw" in the movie It's a Wonderful Life.

 

Frank and Jack's elder sister Mabel Albertson's face is instantly recognizable to most of us through her kajillion appearances on the tube, most notably in Bewitched as the headachey Phyllis Stephens and as Donald the fiancee's mom in That Girl. Among her most notable films was What's Up Doc? in which she appeared wearing a very distinctive pair of leopard hot pants with matching suspenders, at the age of 71. All for the sake of her art.

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Konstantin Shayne is a little known actor whose distinctive presence in several films has made an indelible impression on me. I think that I first became aware of him in a small part in The Red Danube(1949), set in postwar Vienna. That film was an exploration of the real life tragedies that emanated from the postwar Allied policy ensuring the forced repatriation of thousands of Soviet and Eastern European citizens to communist controlled countries. The stars of this film are Walter Pidgeon, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford, an outstandingly lovely Janet Leigh and Ethel Barrymore, who's very effective as a mother superior, (ooo, typecasting, if I ever saw it.). Yet it's little Konstantin Shayne's bald head,haunted blue eyes and understated, tragic performance that I remember best.

 

**Small Spoiler Alert Below**

Shayne plays a former professor now working incognito as a janitor who is actually a citizen of the now Eastern bloc country. He's tracked down by the Brits, acting on the Allied policy, and about to be sent to a displaced persons camp to be repatriated. The camera holds briefly on Shayne's pensive face as he mouths polite acknowledgement of the British rep's protestation that he's just doing his job. He accepts his fate with formal grace, asking if he could just gather up a few things in the next room, which the soldier, eager to be accomodating, quickly accepts. We hear the door close, and then...It was just quickly done, but really a touching, human moment in an otherwise sometimes overly dramatic film.

 

Other memorable parts played by Shayne, who had been a White Russian emigre following the Russian Revolution, were in the first fifteen minutes of The Stranger(1946) as Orson Welles' compatriot who leads Edward G. Robinson to the fugitive Nazi war criminal and a vivid portrait of the book store owner who fills James Stewart in on some significant San Francisco history in Vertigo(1958). I've never been able to find out much else about the actor, including his real last name--surely, not "Shayne"!

 

A note on the policy described in The Red Danube, if you're interested in the historical background:

At the end of World War II, two million Russians - including White Russians, Cossacks, Slovenians, Croats and Serbs who were POWs or simply living in exile - were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations. Men, women and children were turned over to the Russian secret police at gun-point.This policy, agreed to during the war and more formalized at the Potsdam conference meeting, entailed rounding up many liberated concentration camp survivors and POWs to be shipped eastward and many suicides ensued from this heartless event. Loyal Soviet citizens who'd had the misfortune to be captured by the Nazis during the war were suspect as having been 'disloyal' to their country according to Stalin's megalomaniac paranoid thinking. Even more precarious was the position of the over one million individual Soviet citizens who, ostensibly, willingly enlisted in German controlled armies---though, this may have simply been a desire to survive or see their families survive. Thanks to this policy thousands, perhaps millions of people were persecuted and disappeared into the gulag for the "crime" of surviving.

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So Frank, Jack and Mabel Albertson shared the same parents! Weird! I can conenct Jack and Mabel because they were both born in nearby cities in Massachusetts. But Frank was born in Minnesota--did the family move there? Ironically the oldest (Mabel) lived the longest and the youngest (Frank) died first. I wonder if they ever worked together??

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