Friday, July 03, 2009

"I'll be seeing ya, Herbie!"

Karl Malden (1912-2009) between scenes during LeRoy's "Gypsy" with Natalie Wood (1938-1981)
The divine Karl Malden made 70 movies in 97 years.

Is it odd to call Malden "divine"? Well, he was. To me, at least. He elevated whatever movie in which he appeared, seemingly effortlessly.

Seventy movies - too many to recount here, but his wrenching performance as Archie Lee Meighan in Elia Kazan's "Baby Doll" (1956) serves as a textbook example of what it takes to be a great, seamless character actor. Then there's John Frankenheimer's "Birdman of Alcatraz," made the same year (1962) as Frankenheimer's "All Fall Down" and Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy," in which Rosalind Russell flirted with him in a way that suited Malden: "I'll be seeing ya, Herbie!"
Eli Wallach taunts Malden in Kazan's "Baby Doll"
Film historian David Thomson perhaps put it best with his clever take on Malden in LeRoy's musical: "A standout as the agent/hustler in 'Gypsy' ('62, Mervyn LeRoy), cannily absorbing all Rosalind's Russell."

Then there's Robert Mulligan's "Fear Strikes Out" (1957), in which Malden - presciently? - plays a male variation on "Gypsy's" Momma Rose as John Piersall, a stage father who hounds his son Jimmy (poor Anthony Perkins) to be a star, baseball-division.

But my own idiosyncratic favorite is perhaps his least heralded performance - opposite Claudette Colbert in Delmer Daves' "Parrish" (1961), in which he tried to "man up" Colbert's pampered son, Troy Donahue.

Malden died Wednesday. Goodbye to a great actor, a truly decent man...

Note in Passing: The ever-reliable Turner Movie Classics, always on the ball, will pay tribute to Malden with a mini-festival on Friday, 10 July, with screenings of "A Streetcar Named Desire" (Malden's Oscar winner), "On the Waterfront" and the aforementioned "Birdman of Alcatraz." Savor him.


John Kaiser said...

He was truly one of the greats. My favorite film of his is "On the Waterfront". "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" and "Meteor" are guilty favorites.

jbryant said...

My two fave Malden performances are just about diametrically opposed -- his lecherous Archie Lee in BABY DOLL, and his fiery minister in POLLYANNA.

wwolfe said...

Just having returned from vacation, I'll make belated mention of a favorite Malden performance: as President Bartlet's priest on an episode of "The West Wing" in which the President is trying to decide whether or not he should commute a death sentence. A lovely little gem of acting, showing us a man of good humor, humility, and strong faith. Coincidentally, I got to see "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the majestic Los Angeles Theater about a month ago, and watching Malden's work it struck me that he is the truly tragic character in the movie: a decent and kind man who knows he's hurting the fragile Blanche, but can't rise above his limitations. The look on Malden's face tells us that this character, like Blanche, will never truly recover from his actions. The difference being that he'll always be aware of what he did, while Blanche has escaped to the sad haven of her insanity.

joe baltake said...

Great performance.