Witness Mr. Burgess Meredith, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers.

“I was born a character actor. I was never really a leading man type.” –Burgess Meredith

Burgess Meredith
Oliver Burgess Meredith

WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON 2014

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It’s here again! The most fabulous blogathon honoring those unsung stars that add that certain singular glimmer to either the cinematic sphere or the small screen sky–The character actors we’ve grown to love and follow adoringly. Thanks so much to Aurora at Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club  for hosting such a marvelous tribute once again!

This post’s title comes from the opening narrative for Rod Serling’s favorite Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last.”  ‘Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers’ From Season 1 episode 8 which aired on November 20th 1959.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE “TIME ENOUGH AT LAST”

Directed by John Brahm, “Time Enough At Last” tells the story of a little bespectacled bibliophile bank teller named Henry Bemis ,a bookworm, a slave to the iron fisted hand of time and all it’s dreary inescapable obligatory scars and yearnings.

Burgess Meredith Twilight Zone still

Browbeaten by his wife, boss and even the public at large who see him as an outcast because of his ravenous appetite to read books! Henry can’t even sneak away to read a newspaper during work hours. He’s forced to resort to studying the labels on condiment bottles. She won’t even let him read the ketchup. His harpy of a wife Helen ( Jacqueline deWit) even blackens in the lines of his books at home, calling it “doggerel“– One day as fate would have it, he steals away to the basement vault of the bank to catch up on his beloved preoccupation, when –as many Twilight Zone episodes had been infused with a dose of Rod Serling’s nihilism (as much as there is his hopeful message), the feared 50’s bomb annihilates our vision of the world that was swarming just a few moments before. Suddenly poor Henry seems to be the last man on earth. But wait… perhaps not poor Henry.

Henry Bemis still

As he stumbles through the debris and carefully placed set pieces– the remnants of man’s destructive force, Henry comes upon the city’s public library filled with BOOKS!!! Glorious books…

While he must struggle against the approaching loneliness of the bleak future ahead, he begins to see the possibility of a new world where he could dream, and wander through so many scrawled worlds. Already an outsider he could finally live a life free to be as his boss rebuked him, a “reader.’

Henry starts to amass various piles of selected readings. There was time now. Time enough at last to read every word on the written page without interruption, interference or judgement.

Yet…fate once again waves her fickle finger via The Twilight Zone and leaves bewildered Henry without his much needed glasses, now they have fallen on the great stone steps, crushed by Henry’s own feet. As with every role Meredith brings to life the character of Henry Bemis with so much mirth and pathos.

He’s always just a bit peculiar, idiosyncratic, eccentric, lyrical, salty, sometimes irascible, but always captivating and distinctive, His voice, his persona, his look, his style… Burgess Meredith could always play the Henry Bemises of the world and grab our hearts because he has that rare quality of being so damn genuine.

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Let’s face it even when the prolific Burgess Meredith is playing a cackling penguin– nemesis to the caped crusader Batman or the devil himself (alias the dapper and eccentric Charles Chazen with Mortimer the canary and his black and white cat Jezebel in tow) in The Sentinel 1977 based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz and directed by Michael Winner–he’s lovable!

Burgess as Charles Chazin

He always manages to just light me up. Ebullient, mischievous  and intellectually charming, a little impish, a dash of irresolute cynicism wavering between lyrical sentimentalism. He’s got this way of reaching in and grabbing the thinking person’s heart by the head and spinning it around in dazzling circles with his marvelously characteristic voice. A mellifluous tone which was used often to narrate throughout his career. (I smile even at the simplest nostalgic memory like his work on television commercials , as a kid growing up in the 60s and early 70s I fondly remember his voice for Skippy Peanut Butter. Meredith has a solicitous tone and whimsical, mirthful manner. Here’s a clip from a precious vintage commercial showcasing Meredith’s delightfully fleecy voice.

And his puckish demeanor hasn’t been missed considering he’s actually played Old Nick at least three times as I have counted. In The Sentinel 1977, The Twilight Zone and Torture Garden! While in Freddie Francis’ production he is the more carnivalesque Dr. Diabolo–a facsimile of the devil given the severely theatrical make-up, goatee and surrounding flames… he is far more menacing in Michael Winner’s 70s gem as the spiffy Charles Chazin.

Torture Garden 1967
Burgess Meredith as Dr. Diabolo in Torture Garden 1967

And while I resist even the notion of redoing Ira Levin/William Castle and Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Rosemary’s Baby if, and I’m only saying if… I could envision anyone else playing along side Ruth Gordon as the quirky and roguish Roman Castevet it could only be Burgess Meredith who could pull that off!

burgess & ruth

Also being a HUGE fan of Peter Falk’s inimitable Columbo– I ask why why WHY?! was Burgess Meredith never cast as a sympathetic murderer for that relentless and lovable detective in the rumpled rain coat to pursue! Could you imagine the chemistry between these two marvelous actors!

columbo & burgess

Burgess Meredith all of 5′ 5″ tall was born in Cleveland Ohio in 1907. His father was a doctor, his mother a Methodist revivalist. We lost him in 1997 at the age of 89. That’s when he took his “dirt nap…” the line and that memorable scene from Grumpier Old Men 1993 that still makes me burst out laughing from the outlandish joy of it all!… because as Grandpa Gustafson (Meredith) tells John Gustafson (Jack Lemmon) about how he’s managed to live so long eating bacon, smoking and drinking his dinner–what’s the point…? “I just like that story!”

Meredith, Burgess Street of Chance 1942
Leading man material… Street of Chance 1942

Burgess Meredith said himself, that he wasn’t born to be a leading man, yet somehow he always managed to create a magnetic draw toward any performance of his. As if where ever his presence in the story was, it had the same effect as looking in a side view mirror of the car “Objects are closer than they appear”–What I mean by that is how I relate his contribution becoming larger than the part might have been, had it been a different actor. Like the illusion of the mirrored reflection , he always grew larger in significance within the story–because his charisma can’t help but consume the space.

He took over the landscape and planted himself there like a little metaphysical essence, animating the narrative to a higher level of reality.

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Meredith started out working with the wonderful Eva Le Gallienne joining her stage company in New York City in 1933. His first film role was that of Mio Romagna in playwright Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset 1936 where Meredith plays the son of an immigrant wrongfully executed for a crime he did not commit. He also joined the ranks of those in Hollywood who were named as “unfriendly witnesses’ by the House Un-American Activities Committee finding no work, being blacklisted in the 1950s.  

During the 1960s Meredith found his way back in various television roles that gave us all a chance to see and hear his incredible spectrum of performances. One of my personal favorites, dramatically potent and vigorously absorbing was his portrayal of Duncan Kleist in  Naked City television series episode directed by Walter Grauman (Lady in A Cage 1964Hold For Gloria Christmas

The groundbreaking crime and human interest series THE NAKED CITY– cast Meredith as a 60s beat poet & derelict who is literally dying to leave the legacy of his words to a kindred spirit.

A powerful performance told through flashback sequences that recollect his murder as he storms through the gritty streets and alley ways of New York City  a volatile alcoholic Greenwich Village poet trying to get back his precious manuscript of poems that were stolen as he bartered them away bit by bit for booze -he has bequeathed his work to the anonymous Gloria Christmas. The chemistry between Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart who plays his estranged wife is magnificent. Heckart is another character actor who deserves a spotlight.

 

BURNT OFFERINGS 1976Dan Curtis’ priceless treasure of creepy camp featuring Karen Black, Oliver Reed and once again uniting the incredible Eileen Heckart with our beloved Burgess Meredith as the ominous Roz and Arnold Allardyce.

Eileen Heckart and Burgess in Burnt Offerings-Dan Curtis
Roz & Arnold… charming… creepy!

Another memorable role for me, is his spirited performance as Charles Chazin alias The Devil in one of my all time favorite horror classics The Sentinel. “Friendships often blossom into bliss.” – Charles Chazin. Ooh that line still gives me chills…

Many people will probably love him for his iconic character study of a crusty cantankerous washed up boxing trainer named Mickey in the Rocky series of films. Or perhaps, for his colorful cackling or should I say quacking villain in the television series Batman -his iconic malefactor — The Penguin!

IMDb fact-His character, the Penguin, was so popular as a villain on the television series Batman (1966), the producers always had a Penguin script ready in case Meredith wanted to appear as a guest star.

Burgess Meredith will always remain one of the greatest, most versatile & prolific actors, character in fact… beloved and eternal…

BURGESS MEREDITH TELEVISION & FILMOGRAPHY ON IMBD HERE

BURGESS MEREDITH

 

“Like the seasons of the year, life changes frequently and drastically. You enjoy it or endure it as it comes and goes, as it ebbs and flows.”- Burgess Meredith

“I’ll just take amusement at being a paradox.”- Burgess Meredith

[on his childhood] “All my life, to this day, the memory of my childhood remains grim and incoherent. If I close my eyes and think back, I see little except violence and fear. In those early years, I somehow came to understand I would have to draw from within myself whatever emotional resources I needed to go wherever I was headed. As a result, for years, I became a boy who lived almost totally within himself.”- Burgess Meredith

 

Continue reading “Witness Mr. Burgess Meredith, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers.”

Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Robert Ryan’s death July 11, 1973 with a special nod to Karen & The Dark Pages for their spectacular tribute to this incredibly real man!

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“Ryan was unfailingly powerful, investing his tormented characters with a brooding intensity that suggests coiled depth. Cut off from the world by the strength of their ‘feelings’ his characters seem to be in the grip of torrential inner forces. They are true loners. Ryan’s work has none of the masked, stylized aura of much noir acting. He performs with emotional fullness that creates substantial, complex characters rather than icons.”Foster Hirsch-FILM NOIR: The Darker Side of the Screen

Clearly Robert Ryan’s infinite presence in film and his numerous complex characters manifest an embracing universal ‘internal conflict’ of masculinity. I tribute certain roles the actor inhabited during his striking career. Though he was cast more often in the part as the imposing heavy, the depth and breadth of Ryan’s skill with his rough-hewn good looks should have landed him more roles as a lead male capable of such penetrating levels of emotion. He had a depth that suggests a scarcely hidden intensity smoldering at the surface.

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Robert Ryan as Montgomery in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire 1947
Act of Violence Ryan
Robert Ryan in Act of Violence ’48

A critic for the New York Times reviewing Act of Violence (1948) wrote about Robert Ryan’s persona as the madly driven veteran bent on revenge, Joe Parkson calling him “infernally taut.”

Frank Krutnik discusses ‘Masculinity and it’s discontents’ in his book In A Lonely Street, “In order to make the representation of masculinity in the noir thriller, there follows a schematic run-through of Freudian work on the determination of masculine identity.” Claiming Freud’s work can be co-opted into film with an emphasis of it’s relevance to analysis of the cultural machinery of patriarchy.” He discusses patriarchal culture which relies heavily on the maintenance of a gender-structured ‘disequilibrium’ with it’s roots in the myth of the Oedipal Complex. Involving not only the power-based hierarchy of male service to masculine power but the established normative gender values which inform both the male and female figure.

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Act of Violence Robert Ryan as Joe Parkson co-starring Janet Leigh

Many of the characters in Ryan’s noir world are informed by a cultural ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness and strips the limits of desire as an obligation to masculine identity. Patriarchal power structure predetermines a fixed and limited role that creates a destiny of submission and impotence in Ryan’s characters. But within the framework of these extreme male figures lies an intricate conflict of varying degrees of vulnerability and fragility.

Ryan manifests this duality within hyper-masculine characters. Outwardly physical, confrontational, and hostile, Ryan is a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth. He was never just a dark noir brute or anti-hero but a complex man actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. His performances suggest a friction of subjugated masculinity bubbling within.

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Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer and Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night

The trajectory of the male through the Oedipus Complex encompasses the male subjectivity which is a principle issue in the noir ‘tough-thriller.’ The ‘existential thematic’ link to the Oedipus myth concerns questions of male desire and identity as they relate to the overarching law of existing patriarchal culture substituted for the original fearsome ‘divinity.’ This element is one of the driving psychological themes underlying in any good classic film noir.

In this post I put my focus primarily on Ryan’s characters within the framework of each film and while I discuss the relationship between him and the central players I do not go as in depth as I usually do discussing his co-stars or plot design.

I apply this thematic representation to much of the roles engendered in the films of Robert Ryans‘ that I’ve chosen to discuss here. A patriarchal power structure establishes the tragedy of man’s destiny, a fixed and limited role in the character’s own destiny as there is a predominant power that threatens them into submission and sheds light on their own impotence. So many of the noir characters in a Robert Ryan noir world are shaped by a cultural authority structured through ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness in the male identity that strips away the limits of desire, as an obligation to ‘masculine identity.’

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Ryan’s stoic boxer Stoker in Robert Wise’s The Set Up

I’m focusing on particular Ryan’s roles within a noir context that depict archetypal hyper-masculine tropes and the problematic strife within those characters. Whether Ryan is playing the deeply flawed hero or the tormented noir misfit, his characters are afflicted with an inherent duality of virility and vulnerability, an inner turmoil, alienation, persecution and masochism. It’s a territorial burden that Robert Ryan so effortlessly explores.

These films show Ryan’s trajectory through forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Within a noir landscape, the schism of stark virility and tenuous masculinity exposes the complexity of alienation, masochism and frailty. Robert Ryan’s performances are a uniquely fierce and formidable power.

I’m discussing: The Woman On the Beach (1947) haunted & emasculated coastguardsman Lt. Scott Burnett, Caught (1949) neurotic millionaire Smith Ohlrig, The Set- Up (1949) noble over- the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, Born To Be Bad (1950) misanthropic & masochistic novelist Nick Bradley, Clash by Night (1952) cynical misogynist projectionist Earl Pfeiffer, Beware, My Lovely (1952) morose psychotic vagrant handyman Howard Wilton,On Dangerous Ground (1952) unstable, alienated violent cop Jim Wilson, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) racist persecuted ex-con Earle Slater.

Within the framework of these ‘extreme’ male figures lies an intricate conflict with varying degrees of vulnerability & fragility within the male psyche. The narratives don’t necessarily flesh out this conflict plainly, but Ryan’s performances certainly suggest and inform us about the friction of this subjugated theme bubbling to the surface as he manifests the duality within his hyper-masculine characters. Robert Ryan was a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth.

Robert Ryan

Ryan is never just a dark noir ‘brute’ or anti-hero but moreover a complex male who is actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. A complexity of stark virility and ‘tenuous maleness’ as the narrative witnesses Ryan’s trajectory transforming him through various dynamic forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Outwardly physical, confrontational, hostile and ultimately masculine, and the schism that is inwardly emotional, alienated, self deprecating, masochistic and fragile within the film noir landscape. Robert Ryan’s performances still maintain a uniquely fierce and formidable aesthetic of the ‘suffering-marginalized man.’

Continue reading “Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir”

Postcards From Shadowland no. 9

1933 das testament der dr. mabuse
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse 1933 Fritz Lang
Ace In The Hole
Ace in The Hole – Billy Wilder
Aroused 1966
Aroused 1966 Anton Holden
Bayou 1957
Poor White Trash aka Bayou 1957-Harold Daniels
Blues in the night
Blues in the Night 1941-Anatole Litvak
Edward G Robinson-Little-Caesar with Douglas Fairbanks jr. and Glenda Farrell
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy-Edward G Robinson is Little-Caesar (1931) with Douglas Fairbanks jr. and Glenda Farrell
Experiment in Terror Ross Martin as Red Lynch
Experiment in Terror – Blake Edwards directs -Ross Martin as Red Lynch
Gene Tierney Tobacco Road 1941
Gene Tierney Tobacco Road 1941 directed by John Ford
George Pujouly  Brigitte Fossey Forbidden Games Jeux interdits 1952 René Clément
George Pujouly Brigitte Fossey Forbidden Games (Jeux interdits) 1952 directed by René Clément
Granny-The Southerner
Granny-The Southerner-Jean Renoir
Jeux Interdits
Jeux Interdits
knock on any door
Knock On Any Door 1949 Nicholas Ray
Lena Cabin in The Sky
Lena Horne-Cabin in The Sky 1943- Vincente Minnelli
Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped
Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped 1924 Victor Sjöström
Modern Times Charlie Chaplin
Modern Times Charlie Chaplin 1936
Never Take Sweets From A Stranger
Never Take Sweets From A Stranger 1960 Cyril Frankel
Night of The Demon-Tourneur
Curse of The Demon- 1957 Jacques Tourneur
Peter Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much1956
Peter Lorre in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956
Rashomon
Rashomon 1950 -Akira Kurosawa
Repulsion
Roman Polanski’s Repulsion 1965 Catherine Deneuve
The Cobweb
The Cobweb-1955- Vincente Minnelli
The Last Laugh-letzte mann and emil-jannings in
The Last Laugh 1924-with emil-jannings directed by F.W Murnau
the sweet smell of success
The Sweet Smell of Success 1957-directed by Alexander Mackendrick written by Clifford Odets
Viva Zapata with Marlon-Brando and Jean Peters-
Viva Zapata 1952 with Marlon-Brando and Jean Peters-Elia Kazan directs

Twelve Neglected Characters from Classic Film.

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1) The tragically poetic Pete Krumbein in Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley 1947 played by Ian Keith
Franzi Kartos Caught 1949
2) The flamboyant Franzi Kartos in Caught 1949 portrayed by Curt Bois ‘darling’
Fred Foss- The Dark Corner 949
3) Stauffer, alias Fred Foss in The Dark Corner 1946-played by the wonderful William Bendix in the white linen suit…
Jan Sterling in Women's Prison -Brenda
4) Good hearted kite hanger, Brenda Martin in Women’s Prison 1955 – the eternal pixie Jan Sterling
Brute Force Jeff Corey Freshman Stack
5) Jeff Corey, as the cringing,cowardly informer ‘Freshman’ Stack in Brute Force 1947
Granny Tucker
6) Beulah Bondi as spiittin’ Granny Tucker in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner 1945 ‘Ah shuckity’
Ma Stone- Jane Darwell, The Devil & Daniel Webster
7) Ma Stone in William Dieterle The Devil and Daniel Webster 1941– the grand Jane Darwell
Wills and Jewel talk at tea-Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte
8) Cecil Kellaway as Harry Wills and Mary Astor as Jewel Mayhew in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte 1964
Elisha Cook Jr. Jazz wild drummer Cliff-phantom ladyjpg
9) Cliff the jazz sexed drummer in Phantom Lady 1944– the ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr.
(Ladies in Retirement)
10) Quirky sisters Louisa and Emily Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941Edith Barrett & Elsa Lanchester