Tuesday, September 8

B Leading Men I

Why are some actors not able to climb to the top of the Hollywood ladder?  Is it a lack of drop-dead looks?  A lack of acting talent?  Were they not into playing the game, whatever that might entail?  Maybe it's just a simple ol' they didn't make it because they didn't.  Who knows why and surely it's different in every case anyway.  I suspect to make it to the top, which, like it or not, means fit to play a romantic lead, one's just got to have that certain something.  Undefinable.  Elusive.  Sometimes fleeting.  Maybe these guys didn't have that.  But on the other hand, they had long careers.  Something must have worked.

Richard Conte had the best career of the three men listed here.  He had leading man status in some noteworthy films, although his career probably faded quicker than he would have cared for.  For my tastes, he was a wonderful noir actor, starring in a number of B noirs and doing a damned good job.  He could easily go from a decent good guy role to playing a vicious killer.  What he sold best was his Italian heritage.

Born to a barber and a seamstress in 1910 New Jersey, from a childhood spent often in movie theaters, he wanted to be an actor. He knew about tough from the streets he roamed and when he saw Cagney, Raft, Robinson and others looking larger than life up there on that screen, he felt he could do it too.  He had a variety of jobs, just knocking around not doing much of anything, when he was discovered by director Elia Kazan and actor John Garfield at a Connecticut resort where Conte was wowing 'em as a singing waiter.  Through his connections Kazan got Conte on at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse where he learned his craft and began appearing in plays.  As is often the case, some Hollywood type saw him and Conte was Hollywood-bound.

The war briefly interrupted thespian chores but only briefly.  He had vision problems that nixed his military service but it paid off well back in Tinseltown because inherited some roles that would certainly have been played by more established actors except they were off to war.  If he couldn't be a real soldier, he certainly was a celluloid one in such films as Guadalcanal Diary, The Purple Heart, Captain Eddie, A Bell for Adano and A Walk in the Sun.

He became a noir fixture with Joseph Mankiewicz's 1946 production of Somewhere in the Night, fourth billed, but raised to second in Call Northside 777 where James Stewart is trying to prove his innocence.  He was a cop killer in Cry of the City (1948) and one of Edward G. Robinson's four sons in the excellent House of Strangers (1949) for Mankiewicz again.  The same year he was top-billed for a change in a dark little noir, Thieves' Highway, as a truck driver robbed of his produce.  He played kleptomaniac Gene Tierney's psychoanalyst-husband in the noir, Whirlpool, also 1949.

He started the 50s with The Raging Tide as a San Francisco hood.  Three more noirs followed in the 50s... Blue Gardenia (1953), I believe the first film I saw him in, featured Anne Baxter as a possible murder suspect and Conte as a reporter who investigates.  Highway Dragnet (1954) had Conte on the lamb, falsely accused of murder, with Joan Bennett and Wanda Hendrix in tow.  And best of all he is a mean-ass crime boss in The Big Combo (1955).  For good measure, in 1955 he slapped around Susan Hayward in the Lillian Roth biopic, I'll Cry Tomorrow.

By the 1960s his career was in a bit of free-fall.  Television consumed more of his time and he was off to Italy for some work.  He came back to fall in with Sinatra for a couple of flicks but whatever star status he had had somehow vanished.  Rumor was he was considered for the title role in The Godfather (1972) but ended up accepting a lesser role.

Richard Conte, reliable B leading man, film noir resident, died at age 65 of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1975.

John Lund was handsome and blond and was the affable leading man to a select few of the great 1940s actresses, most of whom were employed at his home studio of Paramount.  He remains fairly well-known for three or so films, otherwise, most folks would probably be hard-pressed to name his work.  He seemed a little boring to me as an actor or maybe I could dress it up and say his characters usually seemed a tad gloomy. 

As one of six children born to a Norwegian glassblower in 1911 Rochester, New York,  Lund remembered his childhood as difficult and with little humor and he was rebellious.  He quit school at 14 and worked in a wide variety of jobs but never stayed long.  The strictness of his upbringing would interrupt the job scene and when he sensed bosses were treating him as his father did, he was gone.  His entrepreneurial spirit led him to introducing a no-smoking program and writing a mail-order manual on mind-reading.

He got hooked on performing when he appeared in an industrial show at the 1939 World's Fair.  On a whim he auditioned for a local play and was hired.  That, in turn, led to more work in summer stock, off-Broadway and then on Broadway in As You Like It and he also wrote the book and lyrics for the revue, New Faces of 1943.  Paramount came-a-hunting, took a long look at those Nordic good looks and hired him on the spot.

Lund's auspicious debut was in 1946s To Each His Home, a romance-drama that captured the attention of an adoring audience.  Lund played dual roles as Olivia de Havilland's illegitimate son whom she gives up and the pilot who fathered the child.  The film's subject matter was very brave for 1946 and as a result folks flocked to it and afterwards everyone was asking who that blond guy was.  de Havilland would win her first Oscar for this lovely little film.

He somehow managed to hold his own opposite Betty Hutton in The Perils of Pauline (1947).  Probably his best and most-remembered role was in Billy Wilder's military comedy, A Foreign Affair.  He is an army captain stationed in Berlin who becomes enamored of a café singer (Marlene Dietrich) and the U.S. congresswoman (Jean Arthur) investigating her.  I came to find Lund uncomfortable looking in comedies but perhaps that was also why he could be so good in them.

Lund went on to appear opposite Barbara Stanwyck in a fine noir, No Man of Her Own (1950), he swam opposite Esther Williams in the same year's The Duchess of Idaho and looked perfectly foolish opposite Martin & Lewis in two My Friend Irma films (1949-50).  One of his best films was the comedy mistaken-identity comedy, The Mating Season (1951), where Gene Tierney as his wife and Thelma Ritter as his mother outshone him.  

I first saw him opposite my favorite actress at the time, Joan Leslie, in the western Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), which, of course, I loved.  He stayed in the saddle for two in 1955, Chief Crazy Horse and White Feather, as a cavalry officer.  By the time he appeared as Grace Kelly's jilted fiancé in her final film, High Society, it was close to being his final film as well.  His career for some reason had petered out.  His last role was as Sandra Dee's disgruntled father in 1962s If a Man Answers.

In 1963 Lund moved to San Diego to pursue business interests.  I suspect he turned away from Hollywood and never looked back.  His only wife died in 1982 after 40 years of marriage, although I believe I read they'd been separated for years.  Lund died 10 years later.  What I read now says death was from heart problems but I distinctly recall my surprise at hearing a newscast at the time saying he died from an AIDS-related illness and had a longtime partner. 

Barry Sullivan is another one of those actors who had the state of inertia about him.  I always wanted to run up to my movie screen, somehow reach in and shake him.  Get mad, Barry, yell, break something.  He settled early on into parts that just didn't require much of him as an actor.  Throughout his career he seemed to play the same dour-faced roles over and over again... diplomats, politicians, sheriffs, senior officers, husbands whose action was secondary to the main plot.

He was one of those unobtrusive B actors who over-populated the films of the big female stars.  Because he never attempted to steal the limelight from Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis, Young, Garson,  Colbert, Wyman or Turner, most of whom would have castrated him had he tried, he was chosen as their leading man, in some cases multiple times.

Born in 1912 New York City, he was the seventh son of a seventh son, a fact that had cultural significance in Celtic families.  Throughout his teenage years he had his mind set on being a lawyer and he would go on to study at New York and Temple universities.  But the acting bug bit him and he would go on to appear on Broadway many times, beginning in 1936.  In New York he made a number of two-reel comedies which increased his appetite to make Hollywood movies.  By 1940 he was out west bouncing around from studio to studio.

He was probably first noticed as Ginger Rogers shrink in 1944's Lady in the Dark and the same year as Loretta Young's fiancé in And Now Tomorrow.  In the mid-to-late 40s he took the film noir route with titles such as The Gangster, Suspense, Framed and Tension.  He played the boorish Tom Buchanan in the 1949 Alan Ladd version of The Great Gatsby.

One of his best villainous roles was as Young's insanely jealous husband in Cause for Alarm (1950).  In 1951 he had the leading male role as Bette Davis' attorney husband (who's trying to dump her) in Payment on Demand.  One of his most widely-seen roles was as the movie director whose reputation is tarnished by producer Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).  He was Barbara Stanwyck's leading man in the 1953 noir, Jeopardy, and in the westerns The Maverick Queen (1956) and Forty Guns (1957). 

In 1955 he was James Stewart's commanding officer in Strategic Air Command and Joan Crawford's cuckolded husband in Queen Bee (a real hoot if you've never seen it).  He comforted an hysterical Doris Day in Julie (1956) and was briefly seen as Olivia de Havilland's husband in the very good Light in the Piazza (1962).  While he continued to work into the late 80s, his films became less significant.  He had long intermingled movies with television but the latter became more of a mainstay in his later years.

Sullivan was married three times and had two daughters and a son.  His son was mentally disabled and Sullivan became a crusader for mental health issues.  He died of respiratory causes in Sherman Oaks, California, in 1994 at age 81.

Next posting:
Joan & Bette

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