A Book Review by Tony Williams.
The title of this review is not accidental. It is deliberately meant to evoke the title of that 1978 book by Charlton Heston, The Actor’s Life: Journals 1956-1976, but with the definite article changed to emphasize the fact that many actors, not all of them major stars, also have fascinating stories about their own life experiences (I only hope that my Facebook friends Brett Halsey and Robert Woods will contribute their own memoirs before long). Until then, readers are recommended to look at this fascinating autobiography published by the indispensable Bear Manor Press and read with pleasure the life and career of David Frankham who still, fortunately, remains with us, living in Santa Fe. Frankham may not ring a bell with most people but those of us who have seen William Witney’s Master of the World (1961) and Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962) will immediately recall the actor’s presence in supporting roles delivering highly polished and professional journeyman actor performances. I use this term in no derogatory sense but rather to praise the type of performative competent craftsmanship seen rarely today but always present as an important asset to most film and television works of the 50s and 60s. As well as belonging to this often unheralded brand of actors unjustly overlooked by most critics, Frankham contributes a very positive and refreshing record of his life and experiences providing a much needed therapeutic counterpoint to current events.
As he writes in his introduction, “I was a jobbing actor for more than thirty years and never really stopped working. This was the era when television seasons offered viewers thirty-nine weeks’ worth of episodes. If you could remember your lines, if you were professional, and if you could act, you could get work” (9). He also qualifies this statement throughout the book by mentioning lucky breaks, the positive thinking he maintains today, and the frequent “kindness” of not “strangers” but rather many well-known personalities such as Dirk Bogarde, Rosemary Clooney, Vincent Price, Elizabeth Taylor and others who offered support to a newcomer at a time when such generosity was not the extinct commodity it sadly is today. Chance plays a prominent role as in that same day encounter with Taylor and Alec Guinness that helped the newcomer find work.
The opening chapters feature his early life, World War Two experiences, his role as a BBC announcer before Rosemary Clooney, a guest on his 1955 radio program, encouraged him to fulfill his dream of becoming an actor in Hollywood stimulated by seeing idols such as Laird Cregar and Gladys Cooper on the big screen. These early chapters also depict his encounters with relatively now little known figures such as popular singer Eve Boswell (1922-1988) and band leader Billy Cotton (1899-1969), but he never mentions the latter’s signature phrase “Wakey Wakey” in his account (71). However, one cannot have everything and this attractive and readable autobiography provides other fascinating details about an ex-patriate finding work in Hollywood and carving out a very respectable career. Unlike most autobiographies and biographies, the reader is spared sleazy details. Frankham did encounter his share of negative experiences but he keeps them to a discreet bare minimum and never engages in scandal-sheet revelation. He leaves readers to fill in the gaps concerning what is already known about figures such as Laurence Harvey and Rock Hudson, who appears to have been a really generous person in many ways.
Other personalities have walk-on roles such as Corporal Broderick Crawford in 1944 in London then functioning as announcer for one of Frankham’s lifelong musical idols Glen Miller (40), while others have more impressionable and long lasting appearances throughout the course of time. The latter category includes Dirk Bogarde in Hollywood or via correspondence while the former category includes Eric Portman, whom Frankham met while appearing on Shirley Temple’s Storybook Theatre Show in 1961. Frankham depicts a different Portman from the personality others have encountered acclaiming him as a “brilliant actor” playing “the villain without any condescension to what was essentially a children’s fantasy” (315). We must also remember Portman’s performance opposite British child star Mandy Miller in Cy Endfield’s Child in the House (1956) that appeared in England during the same time Frankham was beginning his Hollywood career, but it is refreshing to read this positive brief encounter with “a brilliant actor but sort of a sad man” (315).
The three key roles that Frankham is most likely to be remembered for are his unsympathetic ones in Return of the Fly (1959), Master of the World, and his thankless heroic second lead in an episode of Tales of Terror overshadowed by the presence of Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone. However much many star roles escaped him, the essence of Frankham’s entire career was based on integrity and professionalism, the desire to give as good a performance as possible no matter what the role and to keep working as his mentor Vincent Price affirmed, advice that led to work in dubbing and commercials. Working with Charles Bronson in William Witney’s Master of the World resulted in no on-set/off set friction and his description of being directed by Ida Lupino for an episode of Thriller reveals much about her generosity, integrity, and professionalism that must have been common knowledge at the time. Frankham’s dubbing activities in films such as Ben-Hur (1959), Song without End (1960), King of Kings (1961), and Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) brought him into contact with William Wyler, George Cukor, Nicholas Ray, and Vincente Minelli despite not appearing in any of these films. One can only regret that Bogarde turned down the leading role in the last film (probably due to his previous negative Hollywood experiences on Song without End), as Frankham reports (277-278, 324). He also worked with Susan Oliver (see also http://filmint.nu/?p=18389) in a 1965 two-part episode of Dr. Kildare directed by Alf Kjellin, which reunited him with Basil Rathbone, whom he had worked with on Tales of Terror.
From his early experiences as a movie-goer, Frankham was impressed by the acting talents of Laird Cregar (1913-1944) so his references to this very talented but tragic actor forms an interesting thread throughout this book, the stimulus for a quest leading young David Frankham to pursue his own personal Holy Grail odyssey to Hollywood that concludes in the book with a photo of him visiting his hero’s final resting place (483). As well as the personal friends he eventually made such as Gladys Cooper and Doris Lloyd after first seeing them on screen in England, he unfortunately never had the chance to meet his idol whose career was nipped prematurely in the bud, his assignment to Hangover Square (1945) directed by John Brahm preventing him from appearing as Waldo Lydecker in Preminger’s Laura (1944). In many ways, Cregar is the “Rosebud” key to Frankham’s autobiography, but not in any reductive way. As well as playing sinister roles in Brahm’s The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square, Cregar could deliver a significant variety of performance styles. Although Frankham never mentions certain films as opposed to those in which Cregar delivered his most impressionable performances, the actor was very versatile and Frankham may have seen these other films in England that also stimulated him towards becoming as professional an actor possible in different production circumstances several decades later. Cregar also played comedy roles as Sir Francis Chesney in Charley’s Aunt (1941) with Jack Benny in the title role and appeared opposite Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields in Holy Matrimony (1943) as well as villainous roles such as Gestapo chief Funk in Joan of Paris (1942) and the cowardly Gates in This Gun for Hire (1942). He also featured in musicals such as Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943) and historical adventure films such as Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942) dealing with the Academy’s first class of the early 1800s. Versatility and playing different roles are all important in the acting profession, so it is understandable that young David would be drawn to such an unforgettable screen presence.
Hopefully, DVD reissues of TV programs and neglected films will provide more material to assess Frankham’s career, but in the meantime we have this captivating autobiography to read with its very meticulous index. However, I have one very minor point on which to conclude this review.
Since Frankham has long been domiciled in America, he may be forgiven one very minor technical error when he refers to football pools as a “lottery” (61). It may have that equivalence but “pools” evokes a nostalgic view of England as delivered in former Prime Minister John Major’s notable speech that “Fifty years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers.” (1). Writing as someone also nostalgic missing rainy Manchester days with cold summers as opposed to heat and humidity Mekong Delta temperatures in this heart of darkness, British Rail with its cafeterias offering reasonably priced cold tea and stale buns in a pre-Starbucks era, I feel obligated to evoke memories of those middle-aged men crouched over Littlewood and Vernon’s football pools incessantly smoking their untipped Woodbines and dreaming of winning countless sovereigns in an era far removed from Tessie, Boris and Nigel’s present “septic isle”. I’m sure Santa Fe is much better.
- Anthony Seldon, Major: A Political Life. London: Weidenfeld, 1997, p. 370.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international. He has recently authored James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-edited, with Esther C.M. Yau, Hong Kong Neo-Noir (2017).