Wednesday, July 27, 2011

1-Year Anniversary List: My 10 Top Favorite Leading Men of the Golden Age of Film

Exactly one year ago today, I wrote my first review for Seeing Seepia, which was a list of my favorite films of the 1930s, minus 1939 (for obvious reasons). Although I have only been sporadic in updating my blog, I think *everything* deserves a birthday celebration, so today I bring you a list of my top 10 favorite leading men from Hollywood's Golden Age. These are all actors I like so much that I will watch any of their films purely because they're in it.

Like all my list, this one is entirely subjective and is rated solely on how much I enjoy their performances. As you can see from some of the entries, it's not a list of "heartthrobs," but instead based partially on their acting prowess and partially on my personal preference. Many of them, however, are quite handsome, and the top two I freely and openly admit to be rather smitten with them.

And the winners are...

10. Gary Cooper
There are four Gary Cooper films that everyone should see at least once in their lives. They are: High Noon, The Pride of the Yankees, Sergeant York, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Primarily a western actor, High Noon is perhaps most indicative of his overall body of work, playing tough but morally-grounded cowboys. It can be argued that he portrays essentially the same type of character in Mr. Deeds and Yankees, but this is because no one except perhaps Jimmy Stewart was as good as Cooper at capturing earnest naivete. In the latter film, people always talk about the heartbreaking final scene where he gives Lou Gehrig's famous farewell speech, but I think even more touching is the scene immediately before where he and his wife both try to put on a brave face for each other, unaware that the other one knows Gehrig is dying. Sergeant York is the film for which Cooper won an Oscar, and is perhaps the one which best encapsulates both the earnestness of Mr. Deeds and Yankees while also showing the tough-guy side made famous in the westerns.

9. Clark Gable
This choice is as much in honor of my grandmother as it is from my own opinion, for it was she who insisted as a child that I should appreciate Gable as an actor. Of course everyone remembers him as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, but for me his best role was that of smart-mouthed reporter Peter Warne in the classic romantic comedy It Happened One Night, the film which almost single-handedly put him on this list for me. If you haven't ever seen that movie, it's absolutely essential that you do so now. leave this review until you get done. I also enjoy Gable in the films San Francisco and Mutiny on the Bounty, but can't really warm up to many of his post-WWII roles, which is why he ranks comparatively low on this list. He was, however, the biggest male star of the '30s by far, and the subject of the Judy Garland hit song "Dear Mr. Gable," cementing his heartthrob status that remains strong to this day.

8. Errol Flynn
Of course the silver screen's greatest swashbuckler has to make his appearance on this list. Flynn got his break playing a man driven to piracy in Captain Blood, and he cut such a dashing figure that Warner Brothers decided to keep him in tights and wielding a sword for most of his pictures as well as continuing to team him with Olivia de Havilland with whom he had excellent on-screen and off-screen chemistry. It should be noted that Flynn was an accomplished fencer who did all his own work on his film, and his rapport with De Havilland may have had something to do with the fact that he was smitten with her, though she refused his advances because the rakish actor was already married. Flynn's roguish charm and good looks in addition to his prowess action scenes ensures that he will continue to enthrall audiences in the future as much as he did back in the '30s and '40s. Apart from the classic swashbuckler roles, the greatest of which was undoubtedly 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, Flynn also did a fair amount of westerns, war pictures, and even a classic romantic comedy Four's a Crowd with - no surprise - Olivia de Havilland.

7. William Powell
Powell ranks high on this list almost purely for his work in My Man Godfrey and The Thin Man series with Myrna Loy. He also was famous for portraying the title role in The Great Ziegfeld and the father in Life with Father, but is perhaps more beloved for the first two films I mentioned.

Ironically, Powell mostly played the roles of either debonair gentlemen or impudent scoundrels, and he was equally good at being sincerely snobbish or completely irreverent  (Perhaps the knowledge of how to do one extreme so well aided him in performing the other). His partnership with Myrna Loy worked so well because she could stand up to him and exchange verbal barbs with him without seeming put upon. Powell really is unforgettable as the hard-drinking, smart-mouthed detective Nick Charles in the The Thin Man series, and Powell and Loy were such an explosive combination that they were teamed up for several pictures besides the six Thin Man entries. Most of these other films are forgettable, but 1936's Libeled Lady with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow is a legitimately good romantic comedy. Similarly, Powell's final screen outing before his death was quite memorable, nearly stealing the show as Doc in Mister Roberts.

6. Leslie Howard
I always think it a great pity that Howard never got the opportunity to play my favorite fictional character of all time, Lord Peter Wimsey, because he had both the looks and personality to carry it off as no other person could possibly do. A famed Shakespearean actor, Howard was picked up by Hollywood once the talkies came in to do films of both the Bard as well as other great stage and literary works. He was also instrumental in advancing the film career of the promising young actor Humphrey Bogart, whom he brought in to reprise his Broadway role in The Petrified Forest. As a kid, I didn't appreciate Howard because the only thing I'd seen him in was Gone with the Wind, which, incidentally, I seem to be committing heresy against by ranking the actor who played Ashley above the one who played Rhett.

Apart from his part in that famed romantic saga, Howard's most famous role was probably that of Henry Higgins in the 1938 version of Pygmalion and the title role in The Scarlet Pimpernel opposite Merle Oberon. He also did a very credible Romeo opposite Oberon's Juliet in 1935, despite being far too old for the part. Like all great actors, Howard had the ability to elevate even mediocre fare, and was surprisingly good in screwball comedies such as It's Love I'm After with Bette Davis and Olivia DeHaviland where he parodied his fame as a Shakespearean actor to great effect. Sadly, he died during the Second World War, aged just 50, having made numerous war films for the British government and also working for British intelligence.

5. James "Jimmy" Stewart
If you looked only at his Capra and Hitchock ouevre, Stewart would be immortal with such performances in such films Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonIt's a Wonderful LifeVertigoand Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (he also did Rope  for Hitchcock and You Can't Take It with You for Capra, but those films aren't as well remembered). Much like Bogart, Stewart got his start playing villains in films like After the Thin Man, but he was soon discovered by Capra, who propelled him into stardom by casting him as idealistic youths. With his awkward, lanky features and lisping voice, Stewart came to perfectly embody the American everyman, and would continue to play such roles until the end of the 1940s. As he reached middle age, however, Stewart was picked up by Hitchcock, who saw in him the potential for cynical, tortured souls - perhaps the natural conclusion for characters once filled with hope and idealism.

Although he gave many Oscar-worthy performances, Stuart received only one statuette, garnering that tribute ostensibly for his part in The Philadelphia Story, though it's generally considered a make-up Oscar for his snubbing in Mr. Smith the year before. Apart from his two famous Capra roles, my favorite Stewart character has to be Jeff Jefferies from Rear Window, a bored invalid-turned-voyeur who solves a murder by watching his neighbor's suspicious actions. I find Vertigo far too emotionally intense and abusive to watch, but Stewart's performance in it is certainly dark and riveting.

4. Humphrey Bogart
Of all the actors on this list, Bogart probably has uttered the most iconic lines. Then again, he probably has uttered more than any other actor, period. Well, that's what you get for being in Casablanca. "Here's looking at you, kid," "We'll always have Paris," "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine," "I stick my neck out for no one," and, of course, the apocryphal "Play it again, Sam," (he in fact only ever says, "Play it," though Ingrid Bergman comes the closest by saying, "Play it, Sam") were all lines of Bogie's from that paragon of films. Bogart's other iconic line comes from The Maltese Falcon, where he refers to the titular maguffin as, "The stuff dreams are made of." Apart from those films, Bogart is probably best remembered for his sizzling chemistry with his wife Lauren Bacall in the film noir classics To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo, all of which are excellent movies and probably near the apex of that genre. In addition I also enjoy him in the romantic comedy Sabrina even though he's a bit too old for the role he plays, as well as The Cain Mutiny and The African Queen, the former landing him an Oscar and the second a nomination. Perhaps his best villain role would be in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre where the lust for gold drives him mad.

3. Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire is the physical embodiment of the American musical comedy. He may not be the best dancer ever recorded on film,  but he is the one best suited to the medium. His dancing always appeared to be easy and graceful, even when he was pulling off the most difficult of routines, and he made the act of dancing appear to be the most exhilarating experience in the world, inspiring countless millions to take up the art. In addition although he did not have a great voice, songwriters clamored to write songs for him because he would sing their tunes with absolute precision, something even the best singers of Astaire's generation could not boast.

Although Astaire was not handsome in the least, when he danced with a woman his sex appeal became as great as the comeliest actors of his generation, enabling him to take roles as a romantic lead well into his fifties. There is a big debate as to whether Astaire was a better dancer with a partner or as a solo act, but he is certainly remembered best for his partnership with Ginger Rogers, with whom he made ten films. This collaboration made him iconic as the debonair man-about-town romancing girls and dancing in his signature top hat, white tie, and tails. After Ginger split, however, Fred continued to have a successful career dancing in the movies for the next twenty years, being paired with such stars as Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller, and Leslie Caron. I've already opined that his best film with Ginger is Swing Time, and my favorite of his post-Ginger career is The Band Wagon with Cyd Charisse, though there are many others that can legitimately vie for that title.

2. Laurence Olivier
"My mind has gone blank. I'll never be able to remember! I wonder if this ever happened to Laurence Olivier?" quips Peppermint Patty in a famous Peanuts comic strip. Olivier's name had become so synonymous with the theater by the late 20th century that almost all kids with stage fright might have wondered the same thing. Until Kenneth Branagh came on the scene in the late 1980s, no one could touch Olivier in the realm of Shakespeare, and his contribution to the British stage landed him a knighthood and a peerage (that means he became a Lord, for those [Americans] who aren't familiar with the term).

With his devastatingly good looks and acting prowess, Olivier could have been a king in Hollywood but opted instead to spend most of his time doing plays. Of the films that he did make, the most famous are probably his four great Shakespeare adaptations: Henry V, Hamlet, Othello, and Richard III along with Hitchcock's superb version of the psychological Gothic novel Rebecca1939's Wuthering Heights; and a lackluster performance as Mr. Darcy in a poorly written 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. He also did a lot of historical films in Britain and adaptations of famous non-Shakespearean plays as well. He was married to Vivien Leigh for a long while, and tried to cast her in many of his films with varying degrees of success. Two screen examples of their collaboration include Fire over England and That Hamilton Woman, the latter which seems strangely indicative of their tempestuous relationship.

1. Cary Grant
Cinema scholar David Thomson - with whom I often disagree - for once got it dead right when he said, "There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about Grant - difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously. As well as being a box-office draw for some thirty years, the epitome of the man-about-town, as well as being the ex-husband of Virginia Cherrell, Barbara Hutton, Betsy Drake, and Dyan Cannon, as well as being the retired actor, still-handsome executive of a perfume company - as well as all these things, he was the best and most important actor in the history of cinema [emphasis mine]." This is the opinion I've held since about the age of twelve, but most film critics try their best to discount Grant because of his extreme good looks, popularity, and his lack of an Oscar for any of his roles - although he was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar after his retirement.

Grant, however, deserves Thomson's high compliment because he could play almost any non-musical role and do it well. The epitome of his romantic appeal can be seen in the classic An Affair to Remember, but he could also be comic or even sinister in some of his roles. Perhaps the secret to Grant's sex appeal is the fact his handsomeness so very manly that even in romantic comedies he never seems effeminate although certainly empathetic and compassionate. He was a favorite of directors Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks, both of whom used him in very different ways.

He appeared in four movies for Hitchcock: Suspicion in which he is absolutely frightening at times as Joan Fontaine's scheming, possibly murderous husband; Notorious in which he plays a hard-boiled CIA agent; a debonair ex-cat-burglar in To Catch a Thief; and Hitchcock's favorite archetype of the ordinary man caught in a spy ring in the iconic North by Northwest. For Hawks his best films were probably the screwball classics Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday and I Was a Male War Bride, along with the adventure melodrama Only Angels Have Wings. Other roles for which he is famous include the foolhardy Cockney soldier Cutter in Gunga Din, Katherine Hepburn's ex-husband in The Philadelphia Story, Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace,  a struggling adoptive father in Penny Serenadeand the captain of the submarine in Operation Petticoat. Perhaps the role that best demonstrates his prowess for comedy as well as a dangerous side and his famous sex appeal is Charade with Audrey Hepburn, a personal favorite of mine and one of the last films he ever made. My choice for an underrated favorite is The Talk of the Town with Jean Arthur and Ronald Coleman, where he once again gets to display all three of those aforementioned attributes.

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