Tuesday, August 26

Second Leading Men

They are not to be confused with character actors although sometimes they become that.  They are also not to be confused with leading men although they sometimes land a role that is the lead.  The three actors showcased here, David Brian, Jack Carson and Zachary Scott, were all Warner Bros contract players who never quite rose to the upper echelons.  But like all actors worth their salt, they contributed greatly to your experience of watching that movie.

A lot of second male leads supported big-name actresses in a couple of different ways.  At Warners, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland and others might make a smaller film, one without much fanfare, or what might be termed a woman's picture, and the leading man could be one of the men mentioned here.  Or it could be a big picture and in this case he is the second male lead, the boyfriend who loses her to a bigger-name actor.

Here's an example of second leading men heading up the cast in a woman's picture.  In Joan Crawford's best film, Mildred Pierce (1947), her leading men were Zachary Scott and Jack Carson.  It was a woman's picture all the way and Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney or John Garfield would have taken a pass, but not Scott or Carson who needed to elbow their way into what leading parts they got.

David Brian was brought to the movies by Joan Crawford.  He had been a song and dance man in his native New York.  I don't think he ever had a musical gig in films.  At 6'5" with blond good looks, he always looked a bit dangerous to me.  When he scowled, I couldn't swallow my popcorn.  He was ideal as villains and in westerns.

When Crawford discovered him, he was in between marriages and I am guessing they got to know one another pretty well, Crawford being Crawford.  She talked to the right folks and got him a contract at Warners and into a picture with her... Flamingo Road (1949).   It was a role she could play in her sleep... a trashy woman looking for redemption.  Brian plays a political hack she charms into marriage to help her fend off her enemies.

He made two more pictures with the predatory actress, both decidedly B-efforts, both enjoyable, and in both he is a gangster and she is again a bad girl trying to go good.  They were The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and This Woman Is Dangerous (1952).  He managed to play Bette Davis' rich boyfriend (she is married to Joseph Cotten) in one of her least-successful films, the rather dreary Beyond the Forest (1949).  He was top-billed in his best role of all, as a defense attorney in the wonderful Intruder in the Dust (1949) although the central part belonged to the superb character actor, Juano Hernandez, who himself was enjoying a rare lead role.

Brian played the bad guy in two decent westerns, Randolph Scott's 1951 Fort Worth and Gary Cooper's 1952 Springfield Rifle.  Also in 1952 he played a wannabe suitor of Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid (her best film) but she only had watery eyes for Victor Mature.  In 1954 he was one of many in John Wayne's all-star The High and the Mighty.

From here on Brian drifted into television while continuing to make B movies.  He was married to actress Iris Adrian (aka Lorna Gray) for many years.  He died in 1993 at age 78 from heart disease and cancer.

Jack Carson was the most successful of these three men.  Some would argue that he was more of a character actor than a second leading man and while I am fine with that, he had enough second leads to qualify him for this category as well.  Manitoba-born Carson came to Hollywood in 1937 and signed on with Warners in 1941.  He had been a vaudeville performer.  He could sing a little, dance some, excelled in drama and was a virtuoso in comedy.  He was famous for his double-take.

He worked with at least four people in several films.  In his earliest Hollywood days at RKO, he costarred with Ginger Rogers in six films and lost her to the leading man in all but then won her as her leading man in 1951s The Groom Wore Spurs.  At Warners, he was teamed with handsome crooner Dennis Morgan in a dozen or more projects.  Warners had hoped they would challenge Paramount's Crosby & Hope pairing.  He and Jane Wyman were a dynamic comedy team in a half dozen films.  He was Doris Day's leading man in her first three films and billed over her in two of them.  They were also a brief romantic duo but she apparently said goodbye because of his drinking.

In the thirties and forties, he made some wonderful films, some at Warners, some on loanout.  You may remember him in such movies as Stage Door, Destry Rides Again, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Strawberry Blonde, The Bride Came C.O.D., The Male Animal and The Hard Way and Mildred Pierce, two of his finest dramatic performances. 

Most of his films in the 1950s were in dramatic roles, two of them in films as fine as they come.  In 1954 he costarred with Judy Garland and James Mason in A Star Is Born (by far the best of the three versions) as a publicist.  My favorite Carson performance was as Gooper Pollitt (what a name!), elder son of Big Daddy, brother to Brick, brother-in-law to Maggie, husband of Sister Woman in 1958s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Since it was one of my favorite films ever, you can read about it here.

By the 1960s his long movie career was winding down and he performed mainly on the tube.  He was married four times... most famously to actress Lola Albright and one of his wives was formerly wed to Forrest Tucker.  He died in 1963 of stomach cancer, oddly on the same day as actor Dick Powell.  Jack Carson was only 52 years old.

Zachary Scott wanted desperately to be a big star and he never made it.  He spent most of his adult years depressed about the fact that he was not bigger. He thought he easily outshone actors he supported in films. I think the sad part is that he was a completely competent actor who fit into villainy and snobbery like he would a fine suede glove.

He was never lacking for a high opinion of himself, which made his lack of Hollywood ascent particularly troubling for him.  Born in Austin, Texas, to a wealthy surgeon, he spent his early life completely adored, particularly by his socialite mother.  His father expected him to take up the family business but Scott had his eyes on acting.  He performed in local plays and then on Broadway and it was there in a performance in Those Endearing Young Charms that Jack Warner discovered him.  Scott could not have known then that he who giveth may also taketh away.

Director Jean Negulesco's moody film noir, 1944s The Mask of Dimitrios, was Scott's first film.  He played the title role, in flashback, of a cad who has been murdered with Peter Lorre on the trail.  Faye Emerson was Scott's leading lady in the first of their five films together.  The next year Scott was top-billed in Jean Renoir's The Southerner about a poor family trying to make a living off the land.  It was a respected offering but little-seen over the years.  Scott received good notices and why not?  It required good acting.  What did this effete Texan know about being poor?

He was never better than in playing the heel in Mildred Pierce and it would set in motion the remainder of his good performances.  Never more comfortable than in wearing a smoking jacket and a cravat with an ever-present cigarette holder, his natural aristocratic bearing came through whether he played a wealthy character or not.  His next film, Danger Signal, again with Faye Emerson, had him deliciously playing a man who married and murdered women for their money. 

He must have chafed when assigned to take second billing to studio newcomer Dane Clarke in Her Kind of Man (1946) and Whiplash (1948), continuing his sleazy characters, which included another Crawford flick, Flamingo Road.  Rare good guy roles in Flaxy Martin (1949), as a lawyer hoodwinked by Virginia Mayo, and Born to be Bad (1950), as a wealthy man who leaves fiancee Joan Leslie for golddigger Joan Fontaine did little to enhance his career.

Scott, it seemed, was always out of money.  He spent lavishly and managed poorly.  Into his adult years he constantly borrowed money from his parents and rarely repaid it.  Too timid to ask them for money more than he did, he took to asking Jack Warner, usually an out-and-out loan, but sometimes advances on his salary.  Warner tired of this and didn't renew his contract.  Scott hid his bisexuality (primarily due to two marriages) a lot better than he hid his alcoholism.

He returned to Broadway, did plays in England and some television but they never provided enough money or acclaim for his high-brow tastes.  He returned to Austin, tail between his legs, and died there of brain cancer at age 51 in 1965.

A Brief Stay in the Limelight


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