Friday, November 08, 2013

façade: The Two Arthurs

In the 1950s, your average male movie star was nothing less than iconic - bigger than life and capable of making his fans seem small and childlike. I mean, few men off-screen measured up to Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas. They were too intimidating to be our friends. Almost scary.

Closer to real life, as always, were the reliable character actors, and few were as relatable or as memorable as the two Arthurs - Kennedy and O'Connell - men who effortlessly inhabited a world and situations that were as familiar as our own. They were also polar opposites of each other, with Kennedy's characters often trapped in a discordant, dangerous psychological struggles with themselves, while O'Connell's seemingly innate easy-goingness made the viewer feel safe and comfortable.
Kennedy is particuarly unforgettable as the bad fathers in Mark Robson's "Peyton Place" (1957) and Delmer Dave's "A Summer Place" (1959) and as Frank Sinatra's cowardly brother in Vincente Minnelli's "Some Came Running..." (1959), for which he was nominated for a well-deserved Academy Award.

Arthur K. is also compulsively watchable in Joseph Pevney's "Twilight of the Gods" (1958), Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" (1960), Gordon Douglas' "Claudelle Inglish" (1961), David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and Robson's "Trial" (1955), among many other titles.

O'Connell, who appeared in something like 130 films, excelled in two in particular, both directed by Joshua Logan - "Picnic" (1955), as Rosalind Russell's reluctant, way-too pliable boyfriend, and "Bus Stop" (1956), as an old stallion trying to keep a young buck in line. He is bumbling and funny in Richard Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" (1957), solid and funny in Blake Edwards' "Operation Petticoat" (1959) and solid and typically supportive in Otto Preminger's sublime courtroom classic, "Anatomy of a Murder" (also 1959).

The good, gray, seemingly ageless O'Connell also had a curious knack for creating chemistry with the teen stars of his day - in Don Siegel's "Hound-Dog Man" (1959) which had him sharing scenes with Fabian and Carol Lynley; Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), opposite Ann-Margret (as her faux "royal" stepfather) and, most telling, as the cozy fathers of Sandra Dee and Elvis Presley in Paul Wendkos' "Gidget" (1959) and Gordon Douglas' "Follow That Dream" (1952), respectively.


Constance said...

These two actors wore their roles as comfortably as gloves, both of them giving snug, lived-in performances. Your little tribute to them reminded me that there are precious few characters actors of their caliber today - at least in America. Most of the memorable supporting players seem to be British these days.

Alex said...

Thank you. These are two actors who rarely get any credit, rarely are commented upon and, during their careers, rarely let us down. They are the definition of "supporting player," providing a titanic foundation on which the name players could excel.

Barry said...

One interesting aspect of "Picnic" is the way that (I presume) director Joshua Logan found a way to use Arthur O'Connell's trademark characteristics - what you described as his "seemingly innate easy-goingness" - in a way that allowed us to see how it was this very thing that drove Roz Russell's character up the wall: if he wasn't so easy-going, he would have asked her to marry him. And O'Connell lets us see how - without ever admitting it to himself - he uses this same quality as a dodge that lets him avoid marriage without acknowledging to himself exactly what he's doing.

joe baltake said...

Bill- Kennedy is great in "They Died With Their Boots On." His character brings an interesting. modern noir quality to the historic romance of the film.

Barry- Your description of O'Connell in "Picnic" absolutely nails it. He and Russell had amazing chemistry and I think he shares in the shading that she brought to her characterization.

Jay said...

No disrespect to Burl Ives, but Kennedy should've won that Oscar for SOME CAME RUNNING (and Dean Martin should've been nominated beside him for the same film, but that's another discussion).

Another great Kennedy performance not mentioned here is found in Anthony Mann's THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. Then again, the guy rarely faltered, and you can't mention everything!

paul g. said...

I think my favorite Kennedy role is in "They Died With heir Boots On." I love the scene where Errol Flynn's Custer drinks Kennedy under the table, and then the latter's slowly dawning realization upon waking that he's doomed, followed by his final moment of redemption as he finds some courage at the Little Big Horn. Shiftiness - a natural instinct for trying to skirt moral certitudes - was a very uncommon quality to find in American movies of Kennedy's era, and he was able to create some very interesting characters through his willingness to show this very human trait in such a convincing way