Tuesday, October 9

Arthur Kennedy

He was one of the best actors in the business.  In two of my cherished decades, the 1950s and 1960s, he made some damned good films.  If you know movies and movie actors, you are well acquainted with Arthur Kennedy.  If the name doesn't ring a bell, you are likely to remember some of his films.  He wasn't usually the leading actor and the few films in which he was weren't very good.  A couple of exceptions will be noted.  He was, however, the leading male actor in a few more films where an actress was billed above him and some of these films caught on with the public.  No doubt he would have considered himself a character actor.  Most character actors were in stereotypical roles for them, often defined by particular physical or vocal traits.  Kennedy was not that.  It would probably be closer to the mark to refer to him as a second leading man.  Sometimes he got the girl, sometimes he didn't.

He could go from dreamy-eyed idealist to cynical drunks to murdering cowboys to thoughtful dads to thoughtless dads.  In 1950 James Stewart, with whom Kennedy co-starred in three films, said he had a natural honesty which showed in every one of his portrayals.  Who am I to contradict Jimmy?  When I was first sinking my teeth into movies, he seemed to be in a new film every time I turned around.  And I have seen nearly every film he ever made, save the last two dozen or so which weren't so good.

I don't know a lot about Arthur Kennedy's personal life nor does there appear to be much published material on him beyond the limited biographical items.  He was not the stuff of Hollywood legends.  He did not have a face designed by the gods or a body seen on Grecian statues.  He was born without a lot of fanfare into a dentist's family in Massachusetts in 1914, led a fairly ordinary life and ended up being married to the same woman for 37 years.  He wasn't the kind of man nor did he lead the kind of life that would land him on the pages of movie magazines.  I know well what I need to know and that is he was a wonderful actor, a dazzling second leading man.

In his late teen years he developed a passion for acting and pursued it by working in regional theater on the East Coast.  Kennedy hoped it would lead to Broadway and he was thrilled when it did.  He appeared in numerous plays in his lifetime but was never more thrilled than appearing in the esteemed production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman as a son Biff and winning a Tony award for it.  He was a name.

In a later play an audience member by the name of James Cagney saw him and got him to Hollywood and a contract at Warner Bros.  His first role was as Cagney's brother in 1940s City of Conquest.  He would go on to appear in a dozen or so films for the studio that were a mixture of crime dramas, westerns and war films, mostly successful.

Kennedy falls into an elite group of those who have nabbed a number of Oscar nominations without a win.  He would secure four supporting Oscar nods and one for best actor.  I think in this small group he stands out even more so because four of these five films were directed by the same man, Mark Robson.  The first of these came in 1949 when he appeared as Kirk Douglas' crippled brother in Champion as a dour man who is dubious about his brother's chosen profession of boxing.

That same year he appeared in the child-in-danger thriller The Window, appearing as the concerned father of Bobby Driscoll, one of the finest child actors there ever was.  The family lives in a New York tenement and while sleeping out on the fire escape on a hot night, the kid sees a couple murder a man.  No one believes him except the killers.  I just saw this film the other day on TCM and as a result have watched two more Kennedy films from my collection, all of which has resulted in this tribute to him.

In 1950 I thought he and Kirk Douglas and Jane Wyman were all miscast in Tennessee Williams' heralded The Glass Menagerie but it added to their fame.

In 1951 he had one of his rare starring roles in a good film called Bright Victory about a soldier blinded in the war and trying to adjust to civilian life.  It might have paled next to the similarly-inspired The Best Years of Our Lives, released to great acclaim a few years before.  Still, it was a nice little film and Kennedy was most deserving of his only best actor Oscar nomination.

Red Mountain with Alan Ladd and Lizabeth Scott, also released in 1951, might have been the first Kennedy movie I ever saw.  In some ways I should leave it out of my discussion of his films (it's a routine western of three people holed up in a cave warding off the bad guys), as I will a number of others, but it has always been a childhood treasure.  

In 1952 he made two more westerns.  The first is Bend of the River, his initial outing with Stewart.  He was a great bad guy trying to sabotage the efforts of a group in a wagon train trying to settle in Oregon.  Julie Adams, his costar in the earlier Bright Victory, was along for the ride as was a young Rock Hudson.

He stayed in the saddle and moseyed over to Rancho Notorious (1952). It was unsuccessful at the time but now has a camp following.  Marlene Dietrich rules the roost (similar to Butch Cassidy's Hole-in-the-Wall mountain hideout) and Kennedy is a stranger who shows up to romance her and find out which of her many ranch hands killed his fiancée.  I just watched this too.  What a hoot.  Also in 1952 was The Lusty Men.  It was a modern-day rodeo saga  where Kennedy wants to fulfill a dream of being a rodeo cowboy but wife Susan Hayward is resistant and pal Robert Mitchum tags along.

Three interesting films came his way in 1955.  First up was The Man from Laramie.  That was Stewart again but if one thought Kennedy menaced him in Bend of the River, that was just chicken feed compared to this one.  He was lip-smackin' good.  Then came The Desperate Hours, an all-star extravaganza, where most of the attention deservedly went to Humphrey Bogart as a villain out to harass Fredric March and his family in their home.  Kennedy was the cop.  Based on a successful play, it was an even more outstanding as a film.  He copped another Oscar nomination for Trial, as a slimy, communist lawyer.  He and Dorothy McGuire and Glenn Ford were all distinguished in their roles.

As the bad man of Peyton Place

In 1957 he was lucky to be cast in the superior soap opera Peyton Place.  It was based on the best seller that had all of America whispering.  I know I sound like the film's publicist, but I ain't kidding.  (As a 12-year old I sneakily appropriated my mother's copy, hidden under her bed, careful to leave her bookmark in place and not grease up the pages with my Velveeta grilled cheesed little paws.)  Lawdy, it was considered so juicy and scandalous.  Readers' mouths dried up, breasts heaved, jammies got all twisted.

One of the many characters is Lucas Cross, a drunken school janitor who rapes his stepdaughter and gets her pregnant.  How will this get past the censors?   There were those who said a film could never be made.   Well it was and as Cross my pal Arthur Kennedy turned in, I think, his best performance.  He and a couple of other actors in the film were Oscar-nominated.

His final Oscar nomination came the following year when he appeared as Frank Sinatra's not-quite-what-he-seems brother in Some Came Running.  I just watched it the other night, too.  A wonderful film, a wonderful Kennedy performance.

He closed the 1950s with, if not my favorite Kennedy performance, then my favorite Kennedy film, A Summer Place.  I can't fool you; you know it's my 46th favorite film.  Reunited with Dorothy McGuire, he was the alcoholic father of raging-hormoned Troy Donahue in a film of teenage lust and adult adultery.  Mmmm, I can hear that song now.

Luncheon at a summer place

He played similar roles in two films of the early 1960s... a reporter in Elmer Gantry and a correspondent in Lawrence of Arabia.  In each he is a bit of the conscience of the film and in each he has an up-close view of powerful men, letting us, the audience, into their heads.  Each of these marvelous films is all the more so because of Kennedy's steady presence.

In 1961 he returned to his old alma mater Warner Bros to star as Diane McBain's weary father in Claudelle Inglish.   It was a tawdry little drama about a trashy bayou family.  Kennedy gave the film some distinction as did Constance Ford, another Summer Place alumnus, as his sex-starved wife.

In 1962 he made Adventures of a Young Man (as leading man Richard Beymer's father) and Barabbas as Pontius Pilate.  In 1966 he was one of a gaggle of superior actors supporting Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith.  The same year he was one of several scientists who are miniaturized and put aboard a teeny tiny submarine which navigates its way through a human body in Fantastic Voyage.  Better than you might think.

But that was about it for Kennedy's good films.  He made 14 more before he passed away but none would he want to include on his résumé.  He always kept working and said actors need to act.

He died of brain cancer in Connecticut in 1990.  He is buried next to his wife in Nova Scotia in an area they loved to visit.  I like that.

The guy had an impressive body of work.  He did some good acting in some good films.  I hope you'll see some of them.

NEXT POSTING:   Favorite Film #25

1 comment:

  1. I'm watching The Man from Laramie as I type and enjoying it so much I googled Arthur Kennedy and came across your blog. He was a very watchable actor.