Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Great Characters: Eve Arden

If you have ever found yourself wishing you had thought of just the right comeback at just the right time, in a way you have wished that you were Eve Arden.

She was the master of the witty retort, and although it's true that she didn't write her own lines (at least as far as I know), she delivered them as no one else ever could -- with an acid tongue alongside a tiny bit of honey.

Just as I had found Walter Brennan on that faithful companion of my youth, television, so Ms. Arden was one of my weekly visitors in Our Miss Brooks. There she was the ever-harried school teacher dealing with hipster students and a demanding principal, all while trying to maneuver a marriage proposal from Mr. Boynton, the shy, clueless biology teacher. (It was the 50s, after all.)

To me, she was funnier than Lucy. (I know that's blasphemy, but what can I say?) And again, as I found with Mr. Brennan, the best was yet to come as I discovered the Eve Arden who had entertained audiences on the big screen from as early as the 1930s.

In over 60 movies and for 50 years, she was the wise-cracking best friend to some of Hollywood's greatest actresses. Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her performance in Mildred Pierce, and Eve was nominated as best supporting actress in the same film. “Supporting actress” was the perfect job description for her. Among her dozens of outstanding performances there was her role as secretary to defense lawyer James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder. She added a slightly lighter touch to this ground-breaking film that focused on murder and rape, without compromising the seriousness of the subjects.

She never seemed to get the guy, though, which always puzzled me because as far as I was concerned, Eve Arden had it all. Beauty, wit, sophistication (but never too much sophistication) and an amazing ability to put blowhards in their place (a valuable skill in any era).

Commenting on the Soviet Union's press policy in Comrade X: “Probably the government has decided that from now on all foreign correspondents must be blindfolded and led around by seeing-eye dogs.”

In response to Jack Carson's line “I hate all women, thank goodness you're not one of them,” in Mildred Pierce: “Laughing Boy seems slightly burned at the edges. What's eating him?”

In waiting room at police station from the same movie: “Well, what is this, a class reunion?”

In real life she was nothing like her acerbic characters. Except that she was a good friend. Long before it was true of Sarah Lee baked goods it was said that “Nobody doesn't like Eve Arden.”

She was devoted to her family, as evidenced by her decision to basically retire from acting to raise her children. But being a nice person sometimes brings good karma and at a time in her career when she might have been the subject of any number of “Whatever Happened to” articles, she re-emerged into the public consciousness as the befuddled Principal McGee in Grease and Grease 2.

Just as an aside, Eve Arden was so popular that when she appeared on What's My Line, she had to use a buzzer to answer yes or no to the blindfolded panel trying to guess her identity. Why was that? Because there was no pitch or register or accent that could disguise the voice so familiar to millions.

That's a lot of fame for one of the great "character actors" ever.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Great Characters: Walter Brennan

I've been a big fan of movies ever since I can remember.

Especially the old movies. Cagney, Bogart, Stanwyck, Garfield, Hepburn, Gable, Cooper, Tracy … they have been the headliners in some of the great entertainment experiences of my life. But as much as I love the old stars, there was an even larger group of men and women who added the texture and depth to some of the greatest movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

They were the character actors.

Over the years, the term has come to be known as a sort of actor's actor. You hear the multi-million dollar faces on the big screen claim to be more like character actors than stars. Sometimes that's true and sometimes it's not. But these handful (and many, many more) were the real deal.

They were the best friends, the flunkies, the befuddled policemen, the judges, the clerks, the henchmen, the drunks, the mobsters – and one time the Wizard of Oz.

I've always wanted to find out more about these familiar faces, so I thought, “Why not do a some some simple Internet research on them?” Since no good reason not to occurred to me, I'll begin with probably the best one ever.

Walter Brennan was one of my grandmother Reilly's favorites. Not quite in her Grand Trio of Red Skelton, Ed (“The Perfect Fool”) Wynn and Lawrence Welk, he was still must-see TV for her before that term even existed. The show was The Real McCoys, and she never missed it.

I could not quite understand how such a sweet woman could be so attached to a character like Amos McCoy, who I saw as loud, cranky, mean, intolerant and almost always wrong. Of course, this is a good example of why people seldom ask the advice of 9-year-olds.

What I discovered in later years is that Walter Brennan was the King of Character Actors. I'm not alone in that opinion. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar three times. (But maybe that wasn't such a great percentage when you think about it, since he was in over 130 movies total – including at least four silent ones.)

He was comical as Humphrey Bogart's drunken partner in To Have and Have Not, and comical AND scary (no easy feat) as Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner. He teamed up with Cooper to play his down-and-out, harmonica-playing traveling companion in Frank Capra's classic Meet John Doe, a part that inspired a song just a few decades later by a group called Floyd's Big Gun.

And he added a touch of quality to dozens of lesser-known movies that sorely lacked it.

The irony about my discovering Brennan playing a crotchety old man on television is that he had been playing old men on stage and in films since he was in his 20s. I recently saw him playing a bit part as a limousine driver in a fairly forgettable movie from the early 1930s (one of my great pleasures in life is Turner Classic Movies). I calculate that he would have been around 35 at the time, but he looked every day of 50.

It was a glimpse of what was to come.

Thanks to Google and Wikipedia I have discovered that he was pretty much the opposite of me politically. They characterize him (no pun intended) as ultra conservative in his personal life, supporting Barry Goldwater and eventually George Wallace in their presidential runs.

But that doesn't diminish my enjoyment of his work at all. I will look in on any movie that shows him in the credits, and prepare myself for the next little jewel of a performance, no matter what the quality of the rest of the film.

Yes, Grandmom Reilly was definitely onto something.