Sunday, June 7, 2009

Best Supporting Actor Of 1928-29, Part Two: And The Winner Is ...

[To read Part One of this essay, click here.]

In sifting through the most highly (and not so highly) regarded movies of 1928-29, two supporting performances jumped out at me, the immortal Wallace Beery in William A. Wellman's Beggars Of Life, and the not as well known (to a modern audience at least) but equally talented Ernest Torrence in Buster Keaton's classic comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Beggars of Life is about a teenage girl (Louise Brooks in a per- formance that brought her to the attention of German director P.W. Pabst) who kills her stepfather in order to avoid being raped. Disguising herself as a young boy, she escapes with a passing vagrant (Richard Arlen, co-star of the first movie to win the Oscar for best picture, Wings) only to fall into the hands of Oklahoma Red (Beery), the ruthless leader of a "hobo jungle" who wants the girl for himself.

The story by novelist Jim Tully was based on his own experiences riding the rails during a period of unemployment and homelessness. Well before the Depression would acquaint much of this film's audience with the life they were seeing on screen, Tully hoped to demythologize poverty, showing, for example, the brutality of "hobo jungles" and the ruthless treatment of the poor at the hands of arbitrary authorities.

Wallace Beery makes his first appearance during the movie's second act, arriving at the camp singing and carrying a keg of beer on his shoulder (some prints have Beery's growling singing voice on the soundtrack of this otherwise silent movie, others do not). Even with the lovely Louise Brooks on screen, Beery is the one your eyes are drawn to.

This phenomenon, the supporting performance that makes you forget the rest of the movie, was typical of Beery's career. Admittedly, sometimes Beery could be a distraction, but here he breathes life into a story that had threatened to grind to a halt.

Beery discovers Brooks, who has disguised herself as a boy, is a fugitive with a $1000 bounty on her head. Beery helps her escape from the others and from the police, but whether it's an act of altruism or pure self-interest becomes the central question of the film.

Co-star Louise Brooks was blunt in her criticism of the movie: "[William Wellman] directed the opening sequence with a sure, dramatic swiftness that the rest of the film lacked." But of Beery, Brooks said, "His Oklahoma Red is a little masterpiece."

She's right. Beery plays Oklahoma Red as complex man rather than as a stock villain and, in addition to watching a key early Brooks performance, watching his internal contradictions play out is the main reason to track down this film. It's probably his most overlooked performance in a career that included starring roles in Grand Hotel, Dinner At Eight, Treasure Island and Min And Bill, and Oscar nominations for The Big House and The Champ, the latter a winner for Beery in 1931.

But Brooks was also right about the film overall. The action is repetitive, the acting outside that of Beery and Brooks is amateurish and for a movie inspired by a desire to show what riding the rails was really like, its insights sometimes feel shallow and cliched.

The same year, Ernest Torrence turned in an equally good performance in a better movie, Buster Keaton's classic Steamboat Bill. Jr., and he's my choice for the best supporting actor of 1928-29.

If Buster Keaton was the Great Stoneface because his comedy came from his lack of expression, then Torrence just had a face like an outcropping of stone—granite cheekbones, a long, hard jaw, and a nose that hung so precipitously over his lower lip, it was a danger to anyone who sheltered underneath it.

That face and his imposing size (he was 6'4") made Torrence a natural villain in the Silent Era when filmmakers relied on visual shorthand to tell their stories, but he had surprising range and a fan of silent movies is probably aware of his roles as Peter in Cecil B. DeMille's King Of Kings, the opportunistic rabble-rouser Clopin in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Captain Hook in 1924's Peter Pan and the unlikely but effective love interest in the Clara Bow romance Mantrap.

Here, he plays Steamboat Bill, father to Buster Keaton's college graduate, Willie, and Torrence is one mightily p.o.'ed Popeye who at any moment might pop you one with the fist at the end of his powerful forearm. He provides the perfect comic foil to Keaton who looks like he's never been mad at anything in his life.

The story is simple but the execution is brilliant. Steam- boat Bill's reign as the top steam ship captain of River Junction is threatened by the arrival of a newer, larger, more opulent steamboat bankrolled by Bill's rival in town, John James King. While trouble brews between the two men, Bill's long-lost son in the form of Buster Keaton shows up. Not only is his son Willie completely unsuitable to work on his father's boat, he's also in love with rival King's daughter.

Hilarity ensues. Seriously. This ranks with The General as the funniest movie Keaton ever made.

Director Charles Reisner (and an uncredited Keaton) play up the odd couple story to great effect, the gruff, working class father disappointed in his college-educated son who arrives in town with a ukelele, a beret and a pencil-thin moustache. It helps that Torrence was an inch shy of being a full foot taller than Keaton (who was 5'5") and has shoulders broader than Keaton is tall.

Torrence proved to be a perfect straight man for Keaton, whose understated brand of comedy needed something big to play against, whether it was a train and the Union army in The General or Torrence and a hurricane in Steamboat Bill, Jr. But typical of Torrence's work, he doesn't play the role of father as a one-note villain. Steamboat Bill is unlike his son and doesn't understand him, but Torrence also shows a patient and protective side that makes him a three-dimensional father rather than a one-dimensional ogre. This bit of nuance truly enhances the comedy, which as I said is as good as anything Keaton ever did, which means it's as good as anything anybody ever did.

Despite its brilliance, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was not a success at the box office. Buster Keaton was always an acquired taste and by 1928, audiences had tired of him even as he was reaching his peak.

Torrence's career didn't suffer from the commercial disappointment though. He successfully negotiated the leap to sound movies and made nineteen more films before dying suddenly in 1933 of complications after surgery for gall stones. He was only fifty-four.


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

What a great blog. I hope there's a book a-brewin' here, Mister Parker: You've got the story & you must assuredly have the talent.

Bellotoot said...

Bravo, Mr. P.

Ernest Torrence is stunningly good in Steamboat Bill, Jr. No disbelief here - he and Keaton are father and son. He's perfect, right down to his disdain for the beret!

Michael Powers said...

I've read that "Beggars of Life" was an early sound film, with sparse dialogue on the soundtrack similar to what we find in "The Jazz Singer," and was Paramount's first movie with synchronized dialogue. It's incredible that the studio subsequently fired Beery with the excuse that his voice wasn't suitable for films but it's possible since that voice, similar to Arthur Godfrey's a generation later, was so unusual. More likely it had more to do with Beery's legendarily abrasive personality. To me, he's one of the three or four most interesting actors ever filmed since I've never seen another performer take a scene away from him, and John Wayne in "True Grit" is completely an imitation of Beery, as Garry Wills points out in his book on Wayne.