Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday, 15 March 2012

George Brent - An Overdue Appreciation

I really don’t think that George Brent, who was born today in 1899, gets the credit he deserves. It’s not so much the case that he’s an underrated actor but that he’s so under appreciated by people in general. He made his screen debut in 1930 and was signed by Warner Brothers two years later, and from that point on he had an amazing run of films over the next fifteen years or so, starring alongside a who’s who of Hollywood. Brent was never a star in the true sense, rather he was best known as a dependable leading man for a variety of star actresses. It’s in this role that he really shines, lending a firm hand to every scene and always complementing his co-star with his presence. For me, when watching movies of the 30s and 40s, the name George Brent in the credits means that more often than not you are going to see an entertaining film.

Brent was born in Ireland and spent his early years flitting between Dublin and New York, firstly to study and latterly when he was allegedly on the run from Irish authorities due to his IRA connections during the Troubles. He eventually discovered theatre and slowly gravitated towards Hollywood. His early films were unremarkable (including the Rin Tin Tin movie serial The Lightning Warrior, which actually sounds pretty fun) and after a short while he was signed to a Warner Brothers contract. The studio pushed him as a leading man right from the start and he spent the early part of his career giving assured support to stars such as Barbara Stanwyck and Ruth Chatterton (who he briefly married). He stayed under contract with Warner Brothers until the 50s before moving into television and eventual retirement. He died in 1979 leaving a resume that most stars would envy, yet today he is largely overlooked by film fans.

George Brent was not an overbearing actor, displaying instead a smooth, easygoing and relaxed screen persona. He had an affable manner on the screen, quite unassuming yet retaining a dignity and poise in his performance. His confident acting style always brought sincerity and integrity to each part and could lend a touch of class to any production. Myrna Loy remembered having great fun with him but confessed that he was known to be difficult to work with and noticed that he was always very aware of last minute script changes regarding his character. Whatever his motivations for working in this manner, the care and attention he gave to his own positioning in a production paid dividends on the screen where he could always be relied on to provide a careful and steady presence in the face of his often temperamental co stars (both on screen and off). I would imagine that Warner Brothers thought of him as a safe pair of hands to rein in the excesses of many of their diva like stars. It is in this role that he shows true abilities, always stamping his own authority whilst simultaneously letting others shine, which I’d imagine is a very difficult skill.

In fact so good was he at this role that he co starred with Bette Davis a total of eleven times and it is to his credit that he was asked time and again to work with her (more often than not by Davis herself), something I doubt many less able actors would relish for fear of being eclipsed on screen. In Davis classics like Jezebel, The Old Maid and The Great Lie, Brent more than held his own and succeeded in pitching his performances at just the right level in order for her to showcase her skills. Without someone like George Brent at her side it less likely that Bette Davis would have had such a great run of well received performances in her prime years. Eleven appearances together without being seen as a screen couple is a pretty amazing feat and shows that they both knew exactly what their role in each film was to be. Most importantly, in each of these films Brent was never reduced to mere scenery dressing.

Alongside being a favourite of Bette Davis, he also had long running pairings with other big stars of the era, working six times with Kay Francis, five times with Barbara Stanwyck and four times with Ruth Chatterton. He also worked multiple times with Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert and Loretta Young as well as lending his dependable support to vehicles for Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Merle Oberon, Ann Sheridan (who he also married), Olivia de Havilland and many, many others.

However, due to taking the role of leading man to the stars, Brent really never established himself as a star in his own right. In reality, though perhaps being a cut above similar supporting lead actors such as Ian Hunter, Brian Aherne, Melvyn Douglas or David Manners, he did not quite have that special something that makes an actor a star. Though he could be a tough guy, an everyman or a sophisticate, and despite having a good speaking voice and a charmingly suave manner, he lacked that special charisma to take him to the next level. In many of his 30s films such as Miss Pinkerton, Front Page Woman or The Keyhole, one gets the feeling that he got the role because William Powell wasn’t available, and if you compare his performance in these films to any similar Powell film of the era you can quickly see that he was really not quite at the level of a top star. He has a lot of similarities in terms of his style with William Powell when playing light roles but while George Brent merely complements and supports his co-star, Powell always commands the attention and focus of the viewer as the star of the picture.

I’ve no idea what George Brent thought of his career, whether he was disappointed at always playing second fiddle to larger than life stars, or whether he was just happy to be an in demand actor. He received top billing in quite a few films with a variety of starlets in support but none of these films seem to be especially remembered today. Even in his starring role in Racket Busters, top billing went to Humphrey Bogart. I would hope that he was pleased with the job he did in Hollywood, as really it was a highly specialised position and he was probably the best in the business at performing it. I doubt that many actors could survive eleven encounters with Bette Davis and emerge with their reputation and career in place, but he managed it with aplomb.

Often it’s better to realise you are good at one particular thing and stick with it rather than failing in trying to be something you are not. The fact that George Brent was regarded well by his peers and given such potentially difficult parts shows how his particular skills were appreciated by decision makers. In a strange way, if movie goers tend to ignore him it’s probably because he was doing his job correctly, though I think he does need to be recognised for his skills more. Regardless of this, the sheer volume of good films he is in and the fact that he co starred with virtually every top leading lady of the golden age speaks volumes about the quality that he brought to a film. George Brent had a long and successful career and left a host of memorable performances, so maybe sometimes being solid and reliable should not be seen as a bad thing, as he’s the sort of actor that kept Hollywood running by helping others look so good.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Evelyn Prentice (1934) - Where's Asta?

After the success of The Thin Man, MGM decided to put their hot new screen couple Myrna Loy and William Powell in to another picture while they figured out what to do with them and prepared to work on a sequel. The film the studio gave them was Evelyn Prentice, another of the seemingly endless cycle of early 30s melodramas about marital infidelity and intrigue. Despite a decent cast and crew and by all accounts positive contemporary reviews, the film is ultimately rather average, and not really the best showcase for its stars. However, if you are in the right mood (and I was) it’s a supremely silly film brimming with over the top courtroom dramatics, utterly ridiculous legal twists, dubious moral behaviour and featuring possibly the world’s worst barn dance. I had planned to document it’s less than stellar moments but when I looked at the list I had made, one aspect of the movie leapt out at me as possibly the most jarring.

Throughout the film, our stars Myrna Loy and William Powell seem rather muted and lack a lot of the sparkle and chemistry that made them their names together in The Thin Man and the earlier Manhattan Melodrama. Part of the blame for this is surely the tired soap opera of the plot concerning busy lawyer Powell leaving bored wife Loy to suffer the drudgery of a fabulously wealthy lifestyle of endless parties and cocktails (oh, the ennui of it all). Her boredom culminates in a near miss with an affair and (predictably) murder. William Powell has his problems too as Myrna suspects he is having an affair with a former client played by the debuting Rosalind Russell. The film never shows any of his alleged infidelities, tantalising us by fading out just before anything untoward happens, thus putting the focus of the marital problems on the wife. Due to the fact that he’s a man with a respected position in society, the assumption is that he’s obviously innocent. Because that happens. But I digress…

What really got to me was that the couple have a young daughter in the film, played by Cora Sue Collins. Despite the fact that she seems to be largely raised by Myrna’s best friend (played here in a brilliant turn – possibly the only dose of pep in the whole dreary affair - by the under rated and wonderful Una Merkel) and that both parents seem to be too busy working, carousing or moping (usually after the carousing) to bother with child care, something just isn’t right.

For a start, sweet little Cora Sue is a curly haired moppet in a sailor suit of the Shirley Temple variety. She has a nice line in saccharine dialogue, specialising in saying “Mommy, what’s wrong?” with big eyes and trembling lip. In reality though, her plaintive pleas for her parents’ love are probably due to the fact that she never actually sees them.

And of course the most glaring thing that is wrong with the poor child is that frankly, she’s not Asta, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Her character in the film is wrong on so many levels. Firstly, if Loy and Powell ever fictionally procreated (let’s forget about Little Nicky in the later Thin Man films for the moment - actually let’s try to completely forget him) then they would surely produce a more sophisticated and less annoying child. It’s just basic genetics. Okay, in the film the child has largely absent parents, so misses out on the touch of urbane sophistication and expert cocktail shaking abilities of her dad, and the sly wit and fashion sense of her mother. However (and here we could possibly get into a nature versus nurture debate) surely the unfortunate child would have picked up something by osmosis in the brief minutes she spends with her folks? Failing that, if she could have at least picked up a sense of fun, energy and the baffling ability to randomly speak French of her surrogate carer Una Merkel then it would at least be a minor victory for all concerned.

No, this child is failing at all her basic duties. Our ringlet-strewn urchin has had these wonderful opportunities given to her on a silver platter and has single-handedly managed to be oblivious to the glittering world of fun around her. The poor girl probably can’t even tell you the correct glass for a mint julep, and I'd guess is a shockingly bad bridge partner to boot. No, I refuse to believe that this could be the true child of a Powell-Loy fictional union. The only explanation is that somebody must have swapped the baby at birth and that this plot point was edited out of the final print due to timing constraints. Yes, that’ll be it.

There is a strange scene in the film where William Powell, home for a brief moment between busy work assignments spends time playing and exercising with dear little Cora Sue and wife Myrna. The point of the scene is to show the bond between the parents and child and also seemingly to inject a moment of Thin Man style whimsy into the movie. It also shows the underlying tension between the husband and wife while contrasting with the innocence of the child. However, the scene, with its silly exercise routine just comes across as a failed attempt to inject some spontaneity into the movie and to make the characters a bit more likable. The result is just emotionally cloying and despite flashes of the old chemistry the whole thing is just contextually wrong. Firstly the scene seems unnatural for the straight-laced characters and secondly, the addition of an irritating child to the Powell-Loy act seems forced.

Which brings me to Asta. Let's face it, Little Cora Sue bless her heart just doesn’t have the charisma, the poise and the raw cinematic presence of Asta. To me, Asta is as much a part of the Powell – Loy act as Dorothy Lamour is to Hope and Crosby (not that I’m comparing the two but you know what I mean). In fact it’s a shame that after The Thin Man, Asta was not part of the package for other new films starring the pair. Granted, he wouldn’t have always fitted in, but I’m sure he would have had fun trying. Perhaps he got an agent and his doggy demands for bones and sausages were too much for the studio to give in to. I’d imagine that talent like his didn’t come cheap during the meat shortage.

Anyway, despite the fact that Cora Sue Collins is just all kinds of wrong as the fictional offspring of William Powell and Myrna Loy, she generally just looks out of place sitting next to the two stars. Powell and Loy just don’t do soapy melodrama and comfortable family units, or at least they shouldn’t, and anyone who shares the screen with them needs to be able to hold their own and push them to greater heights. A cheeky little scamp like Asta could provide the needed kick in the pants to a film taking itself too seriously, but a curly haired young urchin just makes things worse. Personally I think the perfect child for Bill and Myrna on screen would be Mitzi Green, possibly the only non-irritating child star in Hollywood history. (For more on Miss Green, please see here)

For instance, if poor Evelyn Prentice were sad because of sort of accidentally murdering a man she’s sort of not really having an affair with, little Mitzi would simply do a skipping soft shoe dance number then cheer her up with an impression of George Arliss. That one never fails. She would also come in useful at the dreadful social events her mother has to appear at by insulting haughty guests with a Dorothy Parker-esque put down while mixing a mean manhattan.

Of course she’d still be second choice behind Asta. Evelyn Prentice was obviously a stop gap film given to it’s stars regardless of whether it suited their screen personas, but it highlights so much of what makes the William Powell and Myrna Loy films so magical by showing us what it lacks. The film lacks the characters we would all grow to love, shoehorning them into stodgy melodrama, but most of all the film lacks that special catalyst to free them from the straight-laced theatrics. Cora Sue Collins, an otherwise talented child performer was not the solution. As Myrna said of the film in her autobiography, "The Thin Man had been so perfect for us, such a ball to make, that going into this thing was kind of a bore. It sent Bill into occasional depressions" And if you ask me, any film that made William Powell sad makes me sad too.

The lesson to be learned here is that all you really need to brighten up any picture and give that extra bit of appeal to a new screen couple is a cute dog that does tricks. Hey, some films can win Oscars due to it. Cute children just don’t quite cut it. Evelyn Prentice was a movie sorely lacking something, and that something had four paws and a tail and a special affinity for fire hydrants.