Karen Morley, with Osgood Perkins and Paul Muni, in Scarface (1932)
A Book Review by Tony Williams.
This 2019 book from BearManor Media is a well-compiled series of career surveys and interviews of several screen personalities, some of whom may be familiar to the general viewer, others who have been forgotten, but also some familiar faces for those who follow classic film and television. For everyone who succeeded in the Hollywood film industry, several others either fell by the wayside not having gained their opportunity to appear before the camera while others revealed a potential for better things that never materialized for one reason or another. Often refusal to “play the game” or incurring the ire or later lack of interest on the part of studios who initially contracted them resulted in expulsion from the so-called divine realm of Hollywood stardom in the outer darkness that represented not the depths below but B movie assignments. MGM appears to be the worst offender in these records (see the cases of Jean Parker and Paula Raymond on pp. 297 331). However, some decided to retire at the right time often finding to their amazement that they could still have a positive lease of life in their later years. One even received Academy Award nomination, as did Gloria Stuart for her role in Titanic (1998), while others decided that stardom was not worth it and found different pursuits to occupy the rest of their lives.
I remember one short interview on US television I saw during the 1980s that featured James Caan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although it described the first as the better actor, the latter gained the type of stardom his predecessor lost due to co-operating with the system, making himself available for interviews, not displaying awkwardness, and not (then) falling into self-indulgent temptations. Caan did remain a star but one with limited appeal, and he was briefly a contender. Nevertheless, his fall was abrupt even though he did not suffer the type of career decline suffered by the twelve subjects of this book.
Such is the canvas displayed by independent critic Dan Van Neste, one of those many people outside academia who either supply jigsaw pieces that have become missing by accident or neglect to fill in the parts of an entire puzzle that would be deficient without their participation. It is crucial to recognize that, despite the euphoric hopes of film gaining higher education recognition, this has been a mixed blessing. Acceptance often involves arbitrary selection of permissible subjects for research and teaching. These often do not necessarily represent what film can be at its best (I include television also, in case there may be questions here) and the dismissal and ignorance inclusion within the ivory tower can often been as unfair as the arbitrary circumstances that denied these twelve candidates the opportunity for gaining their “time in the sun.”
Van Neste supplies material that has already seen publication in Classic Images and Films in the Golden Age with updated material whenever one of his living subjects for interview has passed away – a natural consequence for those who began their careers in the 1930s. Although he could receive criticism for republishing old material, it must be remembered that academics often either recirculate material written decades ago either in essay collections or as individual contributions to anthologies, especially when the material is good and often represents the “last word” on the subject. Also despite the fact that the material already appeared, the difficulty of accessing past issues let alone the disappearance of some pieces from internet accessibility makes republication crucial. Van Neste has collected his initially independent writings that appeared in magazines over a diverse period, not only now available to a new readership but also collected under a title that reflects the key concept of the articles in the first place, namely potential of stardom and then its loss.
Furthermore, Van Neste has performed a crucial role as an archivist recording interviews with those who are no longer with us, something naturally impossible with two subjects of his previous books – Richard Dix and Ricardo Cortez. This book thus forms an important addition to his role as an archivist of popular Hollywood writing about what is in danger of being forgotten as well as the context within which we may view the screen and television appearances of his selected subjects.
For those who fortunately belonged to a time when television stations often showed classic films acting as repertory theaters for those of us unfortunate enough not to reside in big cities, some names would undoubtedly be familiar. Richard Greene of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-59), Marian Marsh, Karen Morley, Zachary Scott, and Gloria Stuart would be among this fortunate category and, at least, Greene and Scott were still appearing in films during the 50s and 60s. Others would be totally unknown or appear sporadically on some films on television then remain forgotten afterwards. Nancy Carroll, Gloria Dickson, Claire Dodd, John Hodiak, Edward Norris, Jean Parker, and Paula Raymond fall into this second category. However, I’m speaking personally since most young readers may not know the names of any of them, with the exception of Gloria Stuart, thanks to Titanic.
As usual, Van Neste’s expertise and knowledge of his area is first class. The interview technique is genuine and professional designed to put his subjects at ease, not intruding into any personal areas unless it is agreeable to the person concerned. Perhaps the best interviews are those with Edward Norris and Gloria Stuart since he has gained that unique gift of trust placed in his sincerity by the people concerned, especially Edward Norris. This is a book that is valuable source material not only for understanding how the Hollywood system interacted with its contract players, for better or worse, but also how those who could have gone on to better things had luck and the combination of the right circumstances worked for them.
On the finer points of criticism, which this book is not expected to delve into, I would disagree on certain points. I’m skeptical that Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (that displayed what was possibly John Hodiak’s finest performance on stage) exhibited “demented cowardice” (145). I would say that it was more in the nature of a nervous breakdown, indirectly partially caused by the upper class officers under his command, as Lt. Barney Greenwald points out in his final accusatory scene. However, combat veteran James Jones regarded Herman Wouk as a reactionary writer, and here I must defer to the “old soldier” who recognized that Queeg was as much a danger to his men as Captain Cooney was in Robert Aldrich’s Attack! (1956). Eddie Albert also recognized this as much as he understood that Cooney’s father ruined him psychologically. Extreme measures were necessary in both cases
While granting that a Soviet espionage network was active in America during the 30s and 40s, Van Neste ignores the fact that right-wing Republicans (who were also Klan members and anti-semites,) led the attack on Hollywood during the HUAC hearings. This was really an attempt to roll back the gains of the New Deal and tarnish those involved in progressive activities such as Karen Morley. However, Van Neste is not a historian and the material on this issue is complex and immense especially concerning the sincere motivations of the accusers. Yet, the author admits that the investigation “was neither commendable nor successful” (233) and he recognizes the damage caused to post-war Hollywood cinema and those victimized by the hearings.
However, some typos occur that future editions should correct. A misspelling of “illness” occurs on p. 293 (l.3). James Jones wrote Some Came Running (1958), not James Joyce (p. 400).
This 591-page book also comprises forward by Classic Images Editor Bob King, filmographies, selected bibliography, and footnotes, an ideal source for researching the subject matter contained within.
Tony Williams is an independent writer and a contributing editor to Film International.