A Book Review by Tony Williams.
In one way, my title is misleading. Despite the impressive appearance of Henry Brandon’s Scar appearing as an appropriate “monster from the id” with blue eyes and European presence to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), this impressive labor of love, that could only be published by Bear Manor, is a much-needed tribute to someone who really embodies the concept of “working actor.” Born Heinrich Kleinbach in Berlin and renamed Henry Brandon for obvious career reasons prior to World War Two, this prolific actor in film, stage, and television represented the most important example of a professional and diverse talent. Never really a star but instantly recognizable in all the diverse roles he played, except for heavily disguised appearances in serials such as The Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), co-directed by William Witney, Henry Brandon (1912-1990) represented one of the key examples of the “American commercial actor par excellence,” to paraphrase Andre Bazin’s definition of the Western. This modest but informative book pays a much needed tribute to an actor who appeared in many film and television roles not often in a leading capacity but who managed to make an impression on the audience no matter for how long or short a time he appeared. The co-authors would be the last to suggest that this book is a work of academic scholarship. Instead it is one of those pleasurable and readable texts documenting the appearances of a chosen subject and stimulating readers to follow up and see the actor’s diverse and memorable roles for themselves. In this capacity we should be thankful to publishers such as Bear Manor.
Written by two fans who knew him personally during convention appearances in the twilight of his career, this 512-page book contains an introduction to someone who may have more claim to the title “Man of a Thousand Faces” than Lon Chaney himself. The book covers his work in theater, his three iconic roles in Babes in Toyland (1934), Drums of Fu Manchu, and The Searchers with When the North Wind Blows (1974 running a close fourth, to say nothing about his uncredited heroic role in the Errol Flynn-starring, Norwegian resistance movie Edge of Darkness (1943), his appearances in shorts, comedies, movie serials such as Jungle Jim and Buck Rogers, Westerns, A Pictures, B Pictures, other diverse genres, Z pictures (though I doubt whether John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 really belongs to this category?), post-war television up to 1987, and his frequent fan convention attendances such as The Sons of the Desert where his fondly remembered role as the villainous Barnaby for that 1934 Laurel and Hardy film endeared him to attendees. Another subtitle of this book is “The Vicious Villain of Vintage Cinema” but Brandon was much more than this. Due to his chameleon abilities of burying himself in each role, no matter its ethnicity, he never became identified as a star but delivered distinctive and memorable renditions of whatever role he was asked to play, more often than not in the capacity of a “working” actor as defined by the authors.
Often more than not, an actor doesn’t know where or when his next job is going to happen, if at all. Henry knew this and was more than prepared for his life’s journey that led from part to part in every medium for a period that lasted over seven decades and garnered some 200 big and small screen credits. (xiii)
Merging his personality into the diverse roles allowing him to perform during his heyday, he engaged in underplaying rather than exaggeration in the manner of villainous contemporaries like George Zucco, Peter Lorre, and Henry Daniell.
This allowed him to display subtle character touches in both motion pictures and on television that made him fascinating to watch. These touches were not just to draw attention to his characterization, but they were often in service to that characterization…One might call them “scene stealing touches.” (xviii).
The book contains fascinating items of information such as revealing Brandon performing the action role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1953) via the rotoscope process of animation (94-96) complete with still, while Hans Conreid provided the dialogue. Brandon’s role as Jesse James in Republic Studios’ Hell’s Crossroads (1957) may be worth seeking out due to his “refreshing twist” on a familiar role where he “underplays the part as an experienced, matter-of fact strategist.” (173).
However, despite their valuable listings, the authors often choose to deliver unnecessary plot synopses rather than engage in detailed observations of the nuances within Brandon’s performances, Two Rode Together (1961) being one major example (175-180) where he plays a dignified role reversing his Scar performance in The Searchers as Quanah Parker (the 1961 film serving as Ford’s unofficial sequel). Despite resembling his earlier role, the actor’s nuances in this film are completely different and detailed analysis of each type of performance would have been more welcome rather than material one can access elsewhere. Other films such as Black Legion (1937) where he plays opposite Humphrey Bogart in a film whose anti-immigrant theme is all-too-relevant today, the Frank Borzage directed Three Comrades (1938) from an F. Scott Fitzgerald screenplay, and Greta Garbo’s Conquest (1937) where he delivers a line to the Great Garbo in one scene, are worth exploring. Also, in Vera Cruz (1955), his minor Von Stroheim influenced officer role reveals how he was able to hold his own against screen star heavyweights such as Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster.
Among Brandon’s many theatrical credits was performing the role of Jason opposite Judith Anderson in Euripides’ Medea intermittently during several productions from 1948 to 1965. From what remains available of Anderson’s 1959 performance, it appears that the actress made this role her very own and those who have only seen her as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) will be surprised at the versatility of her performance, something that must also have been true of Brandon both in his stage performances and appearing opposite Anderson in this play. The authors did manage to see the October 12, 1959 Play of the Week 100 minute version of Medea screened for the benefit of audiences who could not see the stage productions that gained her an Emmy Award (335-338) and the surviving stills of the actor (336, 462-464) leave no doubt that he was capable of a really great performance that film and television usually left little room for. That was also true for his unrecorded stage roles in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night. Anderson and Brandon had earlier appeared in Edge of Darkness but shared no scenes together.
Yet though movie and television audiences saw very little of the higher dimensions of this actor’s talent, they did benefit from viewing his many accomplished performances whether in major or minor roles. Towards the final years of his life when acting roles became scarce, he became a much beloved and respected figure in convention appearances, where he was accessible to attendees and always willing to share his experiences of working with talents as diverse as Laurel and Hardy and John Wayne. Rick Greene’s memories of their final meeting on June 28th, 1989 are poignant and extremely touching, a fitting tribute to a rare species of actor who has now virtually vanished from the scene to our collective loss.
This is the type of book that Bear Manor Media is known for. While often publishing distinctive and original works, this press also provides a venue for those dedicated fans to fill in the gaps of a significant cinematic history that could be forgotten but when excavated often leads to interesting avenues of re-discovery. This way one can see the other roles actors were capable of doing but were unable to, within an industry which gave them little opportunity to develop. Yet, they contributed unselfishly to the productions they worked on giving their best during all occasions. Such was the case with Henry Brandon.
However, despite the many merits of this book, certain typos occur that need correction, and as a print-on-demand company Bear Manor will understand that I’m pointing these out not just to “flaunt my erudition” (as one pompous manuscript reader referred to me once!) but to enable corrections for future editions. “Change” should be “Chang” on p.54, para.3, l.3. Denise Darcel’s Countess in Vera Cruz is not “The Emperor’s wife” (p.204, para.4) since anyone familiar with Juarez (1939) knows she is in France at this time. Ward Bond did not play “a character he’d portrayed in the motion picture Wagon Master” (323) since Major Seth Adams is completely different from Ford’s Elder Wigs. Edge of Night should read Edge of Darkness on p. 459, para.3, and also should “Glenda Farrwell” read “Glenda Farrell a few lines down?
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.