Tuesday, November 15

B Leading Men II

These two B leading men, Paul Douglas and Broderick Crawford, have a few things in common.  One is that their leading men status alternated with second leads. Both were burly and loud and gruff. They were born in the same city.  And they shared a famous role, that of uncouth junkyard tycoon, Harry Brock, in the comedy Born Yesterday.  Douglas played the part on Broadway and Crawford in the film.  Let's fill in the stats:
Paul Douglas

He made only 26 films and I have seen most of them, mainly when I was a young kid.  A few I saw because he was the star of them. He was always so watchable. Even when he wasn't speaking or yelling, one couldn't take one's eyes off him because he engaged in so much facial business.  This was one Class-A scene-stealer.

He didn't even come to films until 1949 when he was 42 years old. Had he lived longer I suspect he would have drifted into wonderful character roles that would have taken him a long way.  He rarely made a movie where he wasn't a true force of nature.

Though he had a blue-collar appeal, his true color was silver.  Yes, that fancy spoon that stuck out of his mouth.  Born in Philadelphia in 1907, his father was a prominent physician and the Douglas family never wanted for anything.  As a youngster he discovered sports... to say he was a sports maniac is an understatement.  He ate, drank, slept and breathed sports, football and baseball being his favorites.

Dramatics first got his attention in high school where a teacher thought he had something special.  People had always showered attention on him and acting was simply added to the rostrum.  His love was still sports.  He took entrance exams at Yale but neglected attending because he was offered a spot on a Philly football farm team.

I always liked his voice and apparently some others did as well because he parlayed throwing the pigskin around on the field to commentating about it on the radio.  CBS in Philly started his lucrative sportscasting career and he became so popular that he added various hosting chores to the slate.  In 1934 CBS moved him to New York and by 1936 he was hosting The Saturday Night Swing Club, an immensely popular gig he kept for three years. He was also the host of three comedy shows... Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Burns and Allen. That's when the acting came calling again.

He began working in theater, mainly stock and off Broadway or off off Broadway. Writer-director Garson Kanin thought Douglas would be perfect as the crude junkyard millionaire in his production of Born Yesterday.  The actor was always loud, mouthy and opinionated so the role was a good fit.  In the stage version, his role was the lead... Judy Holliday and Gary Merrill had lesser roles. Douglas was, as they say, the toast of Broadway.

Some of that movie character bombast might have carried over into real life because Douglas was married five times.  The first three were to non-professionals and the fourth to actress Virginia Field, who divorced Douglas in 1946.  He met actress Jan Sterling when she was Judy Holliday's understudy and they married in 1950.  By all accounts it was a happy union, lasting until the end of Douglas' life.

When Columbia Pictures bought Born Yesterday, it was assumed that Douglas would repeat his success, although Columbia chieftain Harry Cohn wanted neither Holliday nor Merrill.  Finally, everyone won him over on Holliday (who would go on to win an Oscar playing nitwit Billie Dawn) but Merrill was replaced with handsome studio up-and-comer, William Holden.  He would attract even more attention the same year in Sunset Blvd.  The upshot was Holliday and Holden's parts were beefed up and Harry Brock was no longer the lead. Douglas took a pass.

It wasn't a bad tradeoff.  20th Century Fox signed him to a contract and writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz hired him to join Linda Darnell in a tempestuous marriage in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), a brilliantly-written society drama.  There was something so winning about the teaming of a bullish mug with a woman as earthy and gorgeous as Darnell.  Their barbs were some of the best moments in the film.  The public clamored for more and the duo was immediately re-teamed in the comedy Everybody Does It (1949) and then the sports drama, The Guy Who Came Back (1951).

Another sports drama was 1949s It Happens Every Spring with Jean Peters and still another with Janet Leigh, Angels in the Outfield.  Ah sports movies... he must have been in heaven.  He may be known by the public for these films above all others.

For me the best thing he ever did was play Barbara Stanwyck's gentle, cuckolded husband in director Fritz Lang's moody film noir, Clash by Night (1952).  I saw it because my dream girl, Marilyn Monroe, had a small part but I came away astonished at the performances of Douglas, Stanwyck and Robert Ryan.  Further discussion of this film will come when we focus on the 1950s.

Perhaps his most passive role was as one of the corporate bigwigs in the all-star Executive Suite (1954).  Both Stanwyck and Holden were aboard but most of Douglas' scenes were with Shelley Winters.  He made some lame comedies in the 50s but came up with a popular one when he was reunited with Holliday for The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), playing another loudmouth tycoon. He was a nightclub owner in the Runyonesque comedy This Could Be the Night (1957), sparring delightfully with Jean Simmons and Anthony Franciosa.  Another good part was as a wily politician in one of Bob Hope's few dramas, Beau James, also 1957. Vera Miles and Alexis Smith added to the allure.

He began doing a lot of television (never a good sign in those days) and had just been signed for the role eventually played by Fred MacMurray in The Apartment when Douglas died of a massive heart attack at his Los Angeles home.  He was 52.

Broderick Crawford

He had that big, tough and gruff demeanor going for him that Paul Douglas shared but Crawford did it without a trace of humor. Ofttimes Douglas seemed to be winking at us when he went off on one of his tirades but Crawford might have been the victim of his excesses.  He appeared to be an angry, embittered man whose life didn't work out quite how he wanted (certainly his acting career didn't) and he saturated his senses with the sauce.

He certainly began life with an acting pedigree.  Born in Philadelphia in 1911, his parents were both vaudeville performers. His mother, Helen Broderick, became a minor movie actress and her parents were professional singers.  As a little boy he worked occasionally with his family on the stage.  

Despite that, his folks did not see a career in the arts for their bouncing, burly boy.  It's possible, however, that he did see the theater as something for him but those notions were often scuttled when others told him he didn't have the looks of a leading man.  He was given to throwing hissy fits when he didn't get his way and as his girth grew and his voice got loud and angry, he scared the hell out of people.

Assessing the scene his parents sent him to prep school where he excelled in sports and likely enjoyed the greatest, sustained popularity of his entire life.  After graduation he enrolled in Harvard College, the undergraduate liberal arts college of Harvard University, but quit shortly thereafter to become a stevedore on the New York docks, decrying academia was not for him.  Then for several months he worked aboard a tanker.  

Back in The Big Apple, he managed to obtain some radio parts, feeling some safety, perhaps, that no one could see him. Nonetheless, his frequent big, dumb galoot persona secured him his first Broadway role, the simple-minded giant, Lenny, in the 1937 theatrical version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.  He and the play were most successful but he had Hollywood in his veins and decided he'd be there when talk of casting began for the filming of Mice.

All the air came out of his balloon when B-actor Lon Chaney Jr. was signed as Lenny. Crawford had already long been throwing back the hooch and would eventually become a prodigious drinker and setbacks such as the Mice mess could send him off on an alcoholic tear.  It's assumed that due chiefly to his parentage, he needed to make something of himself as an actor but at the same time he chafed at the notion he'd ever be a romantic leading man, and he no doubt wanted that.  Who wouldn't?

Minor parts seemed to be what was in store for him, he determined, and he had quite a number of them.  He managed two films with Gary Cooper, Beau Geste and The Real Glory, and was an unlikely suitor to comfort Loretta Young on the rebound from David Niven in Eternally Yours, all 1939.  

He began the 40s as Marlene Dietrich's vicious bodyguard in the entertaining Seven Sinners and then enjoyed a Lenny-like role as Edward G. Robinson's lackey in Larceny (1942).  But most of this decade is punctuated with Crawford movies that are just too horrifying to detail. I just couldn't. Don't ask me.  Maybe some of this is why he heard the call from Uncle Sam and left Hollywood for a short while.  

And in the midst of this lackluster career, something magical happened.  Broderick Crawford won an Oscar for being the best actor of 1949.  To be sure it was a role he was destined to play, a role no one else at the time could have possibly played... a forever-identifiable role like Yul Brynner enjoyed in The King and I and Liza Minnelli aced in Cabaret.

In All the King's Men, politician Willy Stark was a loud, obnoxious, mean-spirited boozer.  It was important that theatergoers loathe him and see that this politician would be one who abused democracy for his own aggrandizement.  (Hmmm.)  Who better to hire than Broderick Crawford?  It would be like a walk in the park for him. And it certainly was.  The Oscars bestowed its best picture honor and in her first movie role, Mercedes MacCambridge won a best-supporting Oscar.  John Ireland, Joanne Dru, John Derek and Anne Seymour made this quite a special film.  

The following year he would inherit Paul Douglas' Broadway role in Born Yesterday.  I have saved til now the juicy little tidbit that Crawford had first been offered the part on Broadway and only after he declined it was Douglas hired.  If you need time to digest this information, just lean back and close your eyes and take in the magnitude of what I've said.  Return when all is well.

I never saw Douglas play the part but feel he would have been the better choice.  Despite Crawford clearly sharing many of Harry Brock's traits, someone must have forgotten to tell him they were making a comedy.  

From this point on, he made 47 more movies, most of which, again, aren't worth the time.  I had some minor interest in 1954 when he had a rare sympathetic part alongside Ruth Roman in the crime-thriller, Down Three Dark Streets and then as trampy Gloria Grahame's jealous husband in Human Desire.  Most of the remainder of his films were in B westerns or as his staple bad guy.  

In 1955 he began an extensive amount of work in television with the first and most famous of his three series... Highway Patrol. He was the good guy this time but still not so likable because he was always loud and belligerent... and c'mon now, far too out-of-shape to play a cop on the streets.  I still remember his awkwardness running and getting in and out of helicopters.

His drinking was quite out-of-control at this point and he had the ruddy-faced bloatedness that was certainly odd for someone playing a cop.  He also had a number of arrests for drinking during these years which apparently embarrassed the real Highway Patrol.

I hadn't seen his work in years when in 1979 he managed to snag a role by playing himself in the utterly delightful A Little Romance with Laurence Olivier and a very young Diane Lane.

Broderick Crawford was married three times and had two sons.  He died in 1986 in Rancho Mirage, California, from a series of strokes. He was 74.


Next posting:
Movie review

No comments:

Post a Comment