A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
This book is the latest production of prolific archivist Derek Sculthorpe. If not, “The Man with the Golden Gun”, this independent film researcher is “The Man with the Golden Keyboard” whose busy fingers discover formerly obscure entries in the most obscure newspaper clippings often concerning projects achieved and those missed on the part of his chosen stars. He leaves no living stone unturned as seen in his October 28, 2017 email contact with Tommy Ivo, an actor who once worked with 0’Brien (see p. 215, n.12). In a previous book review, I verified one of his entries concerning Claire Trevor in our local newspaper 64 years ago. So I take his word concerning an enigmatic Lawrence World-Journal 24 August 1962 entry concerning Chaplin’s interest in playing a clown in a concentration camp that I have so far been unable to trace. (1) Is this the genesis of Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried? Anyway, I will cease distraction and return to the “beaten track” by praising once more the meticulous research efforts this author puts into his chosen subject matter.
Containing acknowledgments, introduction, epilogue, credits, notes, bibliography, and index, this twenty-three chapter study from McFarland (2018) chronicles the personal life and career of a versatile actor. The author defines him against the specific context of postwar noir portraying an Everyman whose roles in D.O.A. (1949) and The Bigamist (1953) represented contemporary conflicts and confusion of masculinity following the end of WW 2. However, significant though these roles are, Sculthorpe again depicts the broader context of a performative “wood” against which we may discern the significance of particular elevated “trees” so we recognize the overall context in which this talented actor worked. He was a devotee of Shakespeare, impressing John Gielgud in his performance of Casca in Julius Caesar (1953). O’Brien (1915-1985) attempted to combine stage with screen as did Laird Cregar, earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role of a press agent in The Barefoot Contessa (1954) another film directed by the literate Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The actor directed Man Trap (1961) as well as one 1958 episode of Schlitz Playhouse, “The Town that Slept with the Lights On” and, according to Imdb (but not listed in the book) a 1959 episode of The Joseph Cotton Show “On Trial” that featured the well-known actor and another Orson Welles veteran Everett Sloane. O’Brien also co-directed Shield of Murder (1954) with Howard Koch in which he also starred, and appeared in various genres including comedies and westerns. Like Claire Trevor, O’Brien also worked in radio and contributed to this medium from the mid- 1930s for nearly 20 years between his film and other work. Finally, who can forget his closing lines at the end of The Wild Bunch (1968), “It ain’t what it used to be but it’ll do” evoking my feelings concerning enduring the miserable and present state of higher education with how things progressively used to be. (2)
One value of books by independent researchers like Sculthorpe is unveiling the broader context of an actor’s performance apart from the cinema screen we may be most familiar with. Stage, unlike film, radio, and television, is more ephemeral since it is mostly unrecorded but we must also caution ourselves with the fact that not everything in the other arts has survived. Fortunately, all of O’Brien’s screen work has and the author has viewed them. However, one also wishes for a deeper interrogation of the actor’s varied mode of performance rather than a cataloging of the various works he appeared in. However, this does leave work for the rest of us to do so it is valuable to learn of the existence of many diverse films that fall in danger of neglect so that we can analyze closely how an actor’s particular performance contributes to the entre work. One example is the Alan Ladd Western The Big Land (1957) where O’Brien plays a reformed alcoholic regaining his former dignity only to be provoked and murdered by the insidious Brog played by Anthony Caruso. Seeing this film on first release but never since, I remember the scene when Caruso intimidates O’Brien. He displays mixed emotion ranging from terror to a last attempt to retain the dignity he had fought so hard to restore. This was screen acting at its very best.
The theatrical background of this actor is significant as the author notes and covers in chapter twelve.
“It is often forgotten that he was a stage actor of some reputation before he cast his lot with Hollywood. The verse of the immortal Bard retained a special resonance for him and it was a perpetual joy for him to act in his plays on stage with some of the great Shakespearean players of the time including Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. O’Brien even recorded an album of romantic poems which revealed a far less familiar side of him.” (p.1)
Orson Welles also cast him as Marc Anthony in the Mercury Theatre road tour company of Julius Caesar (pp.9-10; 35) gaining him some good reviews, the offer of appearing as Prince Hal in Maurice Evans’s production of Henry IV, Part One, before Hollywood enticed him to appear in the 1939 RKO production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. John Gielgud later praised his performance in Julius Caesar as “excellent” while dismissing Louis Calhern’s interpretation of the title character as “dreadful.” (p.91) After appearing opposite Michael Redgrave in the 1956 UK version of George Orwell’s 1984, he appears to have impressed the British stage actor so much that he received the offer to play Claudius in a five hour full-length version of Hamlet (well before Branagh) but the project never happened. O’Brien’s casting along with Jan Sterling as Julia was obviously aimed at the American market but as Sculthorpe aptly points out, “it was somehow fitting that two film noir regulars should be cast in one of the blackest noir fables of all time.” (p.129) Two endings were shot: one following Orwell’s original conclusion and another for the American market with Smith shouting “Down with Big Brother”, shot by the Thought Police dying in Julia’s arms, with the heroine also executed for showing a supposedly brainwashed emotion by cradling the dead hero in her arms. However, the intermediaries and retailers chose to release them in reverse order! (3)
Although he wished to serve in World War Two, the beginning of eye problems that would re-occur throughout his entire career, prevented this, so he appeared in wartime stage and film productions like Winged Victory (1943-45) before his Army Air Force discharge in December 1945. The immediate post-war era saw his presence in notable film noirs such as The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), and other films such as A Double Life (1947), that Sculthorpe suggests has claims for inclusion in the briefly attempted Shakespearean noir canon. (p.39). Welles’ Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952) also spring to this reviewer’s mind.
Like his previous books, Sculthorpe meticulously lists projects that might have been. Among them was the prospect of playing the lead in Irving Stone’s misleading fictitious biography of Jack London, Sailor on Horseback opposite Mercedes McCambridge in 1950. (p.54) However, the project re-appeared in a television version directed by John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) with Lloyd Nolan (1902-1985) in the leading role. (4)
Despite the film noir associations of the book’s subtitle, O’Brien was more a versatile actor who appeared in many different genres. Of his Western roles discussed in chapter eleven, Sculthorpe defines his appearances as follows.
“In these films, O’Brien seldom played an out-and-out cowboy; usually he was a qualified man, a mining engineer, surveyor or military officer. In fact, he was not often seen riding a horse and was one of the few western stars who spent most of his time on foot. In common with his appearances in noirs, he was usually a wrong man seeking redress in his own way.”(p .71).
In his later western roles, the actor often buried himself in the part as his characters in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Wild Bunch revealed. He was really a chameleon type of actor and it is doubtful whether anyone could detect a distinctive star persona as these two examples show. In a 1963 episode from one of his TV series, Sam Benedict (1962-63), “Seventeen Gypsies and a Sinner named Charlie”, he played two roles – the series character based on San Francisco lawyer Jake Ehrlich and the title episode character, a former confidence man who takes on the role of a genuine adoptive father looking after orphans. O’Brien’s performance in the latter role was so convincing that he was unrecognizable. It was not until the final credits that the mystery of the missing “guest star” credit in the opening became evident. The star was playing a completely different double role that was entirely convincing, one that earned him an Emmy nomination. (p. 143) After briefly noting the lack of the usual credit, I became engrossed in the episode, wondered who this actor was, and received the answer in the final credit. If Michael Caine once said, “Not many people know about this”, O’Brien’s acting revealed that “Not many people can do this (convincingly)”.
His Oscar winning performance in The Barefoot Contessa that reunited him with Ava Gardner since The Killers received both acclaim at the time and later in a 1985 obituary by Spanish film critic Angel Fernandez-Santos.
“The single quality of the New York actor were condensed in this interpretation, and especially the proverbial intensity of his gestures, which made him an unmistakable, peculiar and resounding actor, with a quality of ambiguity.” (p.112)
Gardner later recalled the actor’s gracious help to her performance as well as his intuitive knowledge of the character she was playing far better than the actual director who invented her. (p.112). He appeared in two films directed by Ida Lupino, The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist (1953), both talents having mutual respect for each other. (pp. 93-100).
Among the actor’s last roles was an appearance in Orson Welles’s once “uncompleted film” The Other Side of the Wind that was begun in 1970 and finally released in 2018 long after this book had gone to press. Those on the set were conscious of the actor’s ill health. It was not until later that the symptoms became recognized as Alzheimer’s that would eventually claim him in 1985 after a long and traumatic decline. Featuring many veterans who had worked with the director such as Mercedes McCambridge and Paul Stewart as well as younger talents representing the “New Hollywood” that Welles criticized, O’Brien delivered a poignant performance as an alcoholic actor with fascist leanings, a role Pat O’Brien turned down (p. 169-170). Appearing recently as the last work the actor did, it presents a really poignant performance by a talent performing his “last hurrah” alongside many others in that film who are no longer with us. It is fitting that this book concludes with an epilogue mentioning his spontaneous recital of lines from Hamlet occurring during a routine 1972 MGM press conference delivered a short time before his removal from public life in which he impressed all present.
This well-documented book, one among many the author has written, stimulates readers to look up the films afterwards and see what we have lost in terms of good professional screen acting today and how we may recover it if circumstances prove positive.
- Sculthorpe, p. 217, n.1. Leonard Lyons. “The Lyons Den: Chaplin Likes Role of a Clown in a Nazi Concentration Camp. “Lawrence World-Journal, 24 Aug. 1962, p.4 (Perhaps Mr. Sculthorpe or any technophiliac can find this reference for me?). He did. In a prompt reply to my July 14 email, he not only supplied a link but also a correction. It is the “Lawrence Journal-World” not what is in the footnote.
- For one such recent example see these pertinent articles by David Walsh on the Bowling Green State University Decision concerning the status of Lillian Gish – https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/06/12/gish-j12.html ; https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/06/25/gish-j25.html; https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/07/06/kapl-j06.html.
- This explains why the version I saw many decades ago on UK television contained the “happy ending” and the VHS copy done for me by a New York friend has the Orwell ending. Thank you, Derek, for clearing up this enigma.
- Released on September 29, 1955, this appeared in the CBS Climax! Series and may not have survived. While O’Brien would have physically resembled London in the later corpulent stage of his life, it is hard to imagine McCambridge as Charmian. In the television version, she played London’s stepsister Eliza (1866-1939) while Mary Sinclair (1922-2000) played Charmian. According to the ImDb synopsis, the film portrayed conflicts between London and the two women as his fame grew. Paul Monash (1917-2003), who later became executive producer of the TV series Peyton Place (1964) and credited for the final teleplay of Salem’s Lot (1979), wrote an adaptation of Stone’s “biography” that infuriated Eliza on its first appearance as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post. See Clarice Stasz, “Eliza London Shepard”. http://london.sonoma.edu/Family/eliza.html.
Tony Williams is author of Jack London: The Movies (1992), Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film International.