Tuesday, October 16

Karl Malden

Speaking of second leading men, as I was the other day with  Arthur Kennedy, there is Karl Malden.  A magnificent actor with an impressive body of work, I have seen nearly everything he ever did.  He had a nose for good stories, important directors and the most famous of costars.  He was only top-billed in a couple of films and they weren't successful.  His position in the cast was often third although he happily worked in larger casts and was further down in the billing.

He was not the handsomest of actors and there certainly was the issue of that nose, which rivalled Jimmy Durante's.  When Malden got angry in films, which was often, and that voice reached the highest of decibels, that big nose got kind of red and the end looked bigger than ever.  Still, after I got used to his face in all those films, I never much noticed that schnoz again. 

He could be extremely kind in his roles, which may be why he played a member of the clergy in a number of films.  He always played them, however, with a large measure of authority.  For this reason there was a number of cop roles as well.  Strong characters were his strong suit; weak just wouldn't have worked for him any more than some actors could attempt a song or dance.  It was only natural that his strengths could also come in handy in bad guy roles.  And he had a voice that could reach the heavens. 

He was born Mladen Sekulovic in Chicago in 1912 to a Serbian father and a Czech mother.  For obvious reasons that name needed changing for the movies but Malden occasionally found a way to work his real last name into some of his movies.  His childhood was rather normal and uneventful.  The acting bug hit him in his early 20s and he did some work in the midwest.  Ultimately he made the move to New York to pursue stage work and to join the Group Theater where he met director Elia Kazan.  A military stint interrupted that but after discharge he returned to New York and nabbed a role in Arthur Miller's All My Sons, which happened to be directed by Kazan.  Kazan would then use him in the immense Broadway success of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

He was now a name.   Twentieth Century Fox soon beckoned and would put him in such productions as Boomerang, Kiss of Death, The Gunfighter, Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Halls of Montezuma.  He was quite fine in all (actually he never gave a bad performance) but he was not particularly noticed until he made the film version of Streetcar.  Three of the four leads from the play also made the film, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter being the other two.  Broadway's Jessica Tandy was replaced by Vivien Leigh and she, Hunter and Malden would win Oscars for their roles. 

The first movie I saw Malden in was a war drama in 1952 with Cornel Wilde and Steve Cochran called Operation Secret.  As a kid I quite liked it, although I found it rather routine when I saw it a few years ago.  That same year he made Ruby Gentry as the husband to bayou lass Jennifer Jones.  It was considered kind of sexy at the time and I remember getting in trouble from my mama for sneaking into it.

In 1953 Hitchcock hired him to play a savvy cop in I Confess, a most under-rated movie.  The following year he was reunited with his pals Kazan and Brando and also his New York friend Eva Marie Saint for the blistering On the Waterfront.  He played a priest out to get Brando as a dock worker to do the right thing.  It was an astonishing success for everyone concerned.  Malden was nominated for another Oscar.

In 1956 he made a tawdry little famous film called Baby Doll in which he was the sexually fired-up husband of Carroll Baker.  In 1962 he would play her father in a Cinerama movie I loved, How the West Was Won.  In 1957 he played the hard-driven father of baseball player Jim Piersall in Fear Strikes Out.  I thought Tony Perkins was miscast which may be why the film was not a success.  Malden was his usual best. 

Also in 1957 his pal Richard Widmark was co-producing a military film about treason called Time Limit and he asked Malden to direct it.  It was the only time he did.  It was not particularly successful.

In 1959 he made another western I quite liked as Gary Cooper's nemesis in The Hanging Tree and then played a minister in 1960s Pollyanna.  Watching Hayley Mills' eyes bulge out as he practices  a sermon in his bellowing manner was quite funny.  In 1961 he worked for Brando who was making a stab at directing.  The film was One-Eyed Jacks and it was a western so of course I liked it, but it, too, was not successful.

That same year he was the best thing in Parrish, about tobacco farming in Connecticut.  Fellow Oscar winners Claudette Colbert (in her last theaterical film) and Dean Jagger were other acting stalwarts.  It was a film everyone my age loved, mainly because it starred Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens and Diane McBain.  Sharon Hugueny, Hampton Fancher and David Knapp played Malden's children.  In his 1997 autobiography, When Do I Start?, Malden disparaged the acting ability of one or more of those young actors and said the experience of making Parrish was not a very pleasant one.

A banner year came in 1962.  Along with How the West Was Won, he made All Fall Down, The Birdman of Alcatraz and Gypsy, three very different roles.  He worked with his pal Saint in All Fall Down, where he and wife Angela Lansbury bickered over son Warren Beatty as a worthless womanizer.  This was one of Malden's few subdued roles.  Maybe he was still listless from Parrish.  He was Burt Lancaster's tough prison warden in Birdman, a film with some exceptional acting from a large, glittering cast.  I've always had a soft spot for his Herbie in Gypsy, a hopeful romantic who hopes Mama Rosalind Russell may one day settle down and marry him.

I would not normally mention a film like 1963s Come Fly with Me, a formulaic rehashing of three-girls-in-search of husbands, except for the fact that Malden had one of the romantic roles.  It was rare to see him do stuff like this.

I think he had four particularly good roles left although, like Arthur Kennedy, he still had quite a catalogue to go but they never equaled his earlier work.  First up was 1964s Dead Ringer, as a cop out to prove that Bette Davis killed her twin sister who was Malden's semi-girlfriend.  Seeing the two of them together was watching acting gods.

Next came good roles in two Steve McQueen films.  He was one of several in the orbit of The Cincinnati Kid.  It was to poker what The Hustler was to pool and another wonderful cast including Edward G. Robinson, Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld.  Then he and his pal Kennedy were two of three men McQueen was out to get for the death of his parents in Nevada SmithIn 1970 he played a calming Gen. Omar Bradley to George C. Scott's fiery Patton.

Shortly thereafter he turned to series TV with The Streets of San Francisco, for which, as is often the case with television, he is probably the most famous.  He also did a number of TV movies, several of which were quite good.

One didn't hear much about Karl Malden in his later years, save his autobiography which was a super find for a movie fan of the 1940s, 50s and 60s like me.  He was married over 70 years to the same woman.  He was 97 when he passed away only four years ago.

NEXT POSTING:  Favorite Movie #24

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