Monday, April 30

James Mason

The man we loved to hate.  He had a voice so recognizable that most people would have named him if they simply heard it without seeing him.  His demeanor was often patronizing and smacked of one that was insincere and sinister and could be equally authoritative and commanding.  As a child watching his movies, I remember being scared just listening to him.

He came to acting with a bit of whimsy; he was sort of curious about it without having any great knowledge or passion.  He soon relinquished all hopes of becoming an architect and became world-famous as one of the best actors around.  He played good guys but is more memorable for his bad guy roles.  He could be anything from heinous and murderous to smarmy and unsavory.  At whatever level he jumped in, villainy wore well on him.  He was top-billed in many films but he would also accept important supporting roles that would showcase his immense talents.

Mason made quite a number of films in his native England before his American debut in 1949 and had four films released in that year.  He made about 113 theatrical films... shall we get to discussing them?  Oh stop, relax... I couldn't.  You couldn't.  I am planning on revisiting 18 of them... some are his best work, some are his most famous, some may not be all that good or were not critical or popular successes, but they all meant something to me.

He was married a number of years to Pamela Kellino, a strange creature who never stopped talking or seeking headlines.  Mason more than likely wanted to keep his private life on the Q.T., but that would not have been possible with a physic woodpecker like Pamela.  Something I liked about them as a couple was their great love of cats and they, in fact, co-wrote a book about cats.  When their divorce became front-page fodder he claimed that the settlement caused him to have to make so many bad movies.

I have not seen many of his earliest British films to this day but two stand out which I saw many years after becoming more familiar with his American work.  The first of these was 1945's The Seventh Veil, as the controlling guardian of a woman who tries to commit suicide.  He and Ann Todd mesmerized me.  Then there was Odd Man Out (1947), a film noir (!) directed by the esteemed Sir Carol Reed, where Mason is a wounded Irish nationalist  playing cat and mouse with the police after a botched robbery.

It was not on a first-run basis that I saw 1949's East Side, West Side, a stylish New York crime drama where he is married to Barbara Stanwyck and cheating with Ava Gardner. Also starring Van Heflin and Cyd Charisse and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, it teamed with scheming and seduction and accusations. 

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) was the first time I ever recall seeing James Mason.   He was dashing Stewart Granger's evil nemesis and they had a most exciting sword fight at the finale.  Deborah Kerr and Jane Greer donned their many petticoats to help round out the cast.  Mason would appear in a number of these swordplay roles.

Since I love big casts, The Story of Three Loves (1953) attracted my attention.  It was a trilogy and he appeared in a segment with Moira Shearer and Agnes Moorehead.  He was the manager of a ballerina who has a heart condition.  Not exactly kid's fare, but I was enchanted and he was a good guy.  This one has been on the tube a lot lately.

Also in 1953 a babysitter took me to see Julius Caesar and while I hated it at the time I came to like more as I grew older.  Of course, Mason would play Brutus in this all-star cast, which included Kerr again and Greer Garson and Marlon Brando.

In 1954 he was in two very different films.  Depending on one's point of view, Prince Valiant was either a well-acted, well-above-average tribute to the famous comic strip or a clumsy misfire. Mason was Sir Brack, the bad guy, and while he was top-billed, Robert Wagner was the title star whom most people agreed looked embarrassing in his little page-boy wig.  Sterling Hayden, Janet Leigh and Debra Paget lent their talents.

I think he was an odd choice for the role of Norman Maine in A Star is Born and I'm willing to guess he wasn't the first choice but he was quite memorable as the actor who becomes a has-been as wife Judy Garland's star rises.  For many this would likely be his most famous role.

A favorite Mason movie of mine is 1957's Island in the Sun.  He was the head of a large international cast.  Perhaps because of its inter-racial theme, 20th Century Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck jumped in and took producer's credit in the hopes it would be a steamy blockbuster.  It clearly didn't achieve that status mainly because the inter-racial love stories were too chaste and vanilla.  I also loved the Barbados location, the title song (sung by costar Harry Belafonte) and the drama surrounding Mason's character who accidentally murders a man he believes is his wife's lover.  Watching ol' Jim spar with canny police inspector John Williams working to unravel it all was inspired.

In 1958 he did a switch playing a good guy in Cry Terror when he could easily have played the bad guy who Rod Steiger (no slouch himself in the menacing department) played.  Mason and Inger Stevens headed a family that is held captive by a crazed gang.  It was a little black and white film that probably did less-than-brisk business but it was a suspenseful ride.

Next comes a film for which Mason is also very famous, North by Northwest (1959), for Alfred Hitchcock, with Mason back to a splendid bad guy role.  He could be every bit as suave as costar Cary Grant and more than held his own with the old scene-stealer in this yummy tale of mistaken identity.

One thing Mason didn't do much of was comedy.  I am not altogether sure he did it well and he certainly didn't look comfortable.  The same could be said of Susan Hayward and it is therefore surprising that they were even thought of for the movie version of a so-so play that made all the theaters-in-the-round, so popular in the day.  But I thought 1961's Marriage-Go-Round was fun and I enjoyed watching these two old pros play off one another.  The silliness has to do with a young, sexpot family friend (Julie Newmar) wanting an older married man to father a child with her.

My favorite of all Mason's roles was as Professor Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962).  Only a James Mason could make a manipulative pedophile seem sympathetic at times.  He plays a teacher who comes to a small town and moves into the home of an over-sexed (frankly, over-everything) mother, whom he marries, in order to remain close to her 14-year old nymphet daughter.  The film was controversial at the time and did a great deal for Mason's status.

In 1965 he made Lord Jim, one of my favorite films that year.  It was based on a Joseph Conrad novel about a 19th century seaman who is branded a coward.  James Mason was tucked nicely away in another of those large international casts playing what else... the bad guy.

The following year he was a nasty German general in The Blue Max.  I do not count war films among my favorites but I do not close my eyes to good ones.  The appeal of this one, aside from Mason, is the stunning aerial photography.

Real-life good friends actor Anthony Perkins and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim loved games, especially whodunit stuff where one relied on clues to figure out the mayhem.  As an extension of this they wrote The Last of Sheila which was made into a film in 1973.  This is one of those little gems that if you have not seen it, you must treat yourself to its delicious plot and superb acting from a dynamite cast that includes Richard Benjamin, Joan Hackett, Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch and James Coburn and oh yes, Mr. Mason himself.  It is in the spirit of the old And Then There Were None plot where one by one people die as we try to figure it out before we're down to one.  It mainly takes place on a yacht and is a wonderful whodunit. 

I was mesmerized by Mandingo (1975) and perhaps I should hang my head, I dunno.  I lost objectivity on this one a long time ago.  I will never forget seeing it at the old Crest Theater in Westwood, California, where guards were placed throughout the theater in case of civil disobedience.  And it came close.  It is a harsh look at slavery during the Civil War and Mason is incredibly sleazy as a plantation owner with a wanton disregard and disrespect for everyone around him except his wastrel son, played by Perry King.  Hearing Mason's voice with that southern drawl was so chilling.

Toward the end of his career, he made Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (1982), one of Mason's finest performances ever, which also won him an Oscar nomination.  Critics of this film generally only mentions Paul Newman's fabulous performance and Mason may have gotten a little burnt by Newman's heat but Mason's contribution is not to be underestimated.  This is one of the best courtroom dramas ever made and as the slimy defense attorney, Mason has one of the film's most riveting scenes in his cross-examination of Charlotte Rampling.  It gave me goosebumps.

There was one movie he did not make and that was 1953's Niagara.  Damn, I think he would have been wonderful as Marilyn Monroe's jealous husband that ultimately was played by Joseph Cotten.  Cotten wasn't bad but Mason would have been better.  Mason said that he turned the role down because he was to die in the movie and his daughter was upset that he had died in so many movies.

I guess I just eat up screen villainy.  Every actor wants to be the bad guy because all the tricks of the trade are employed to pull off the well-defined villain.  And arguably, no one did it better than James Mason whose name alone could pull me into the theater. 

NEXT POSTING:  Heaven Knows Ms. Kerr


  1. My all-time favourite actor. He was just astonishing - so incredibly talented on top of that voice and those looks.
    'A Touch of Larceny' is another good 'un - and proof that he could do comedy! Also starring Vera Miles and George Sanders.

    Thanks for a fun post!

  2. Not to be forgotten is James Mason's poignant portrayal of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, and his savoir faire as the valet turned spy in Five Fingers. Fabulous also as dispossessed lawyer seeking redemption in The Man Between with Claire Bloom. His screen persona is timeless.