Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Small roles in a B-movie.

I'm catching up on my film noir watching on Netflix. It's fun to watch these movies from the 1950s. I enjoy the slower paced storytelling style completely devoid of big explosions. Last night's movie was The Asphalt Jungle, a 1950 crime thriller directed by John Huston.

After watching the movie through once, I decided to watch a little more with the commentary playing. The commenter was a film professor yakking away, mainly interested in why a crime drama would be made at MGM. What struck me was the difference between credits in films then and now. The cast list at the beginning of the film only had eight names. Brad Dexter, who plays a small but pivotal role, is not one of them. His name is in the list at the end of the film, a list of about twenty names on a single card. Dexter was a journeyman actor best known for playing Harry Luck, the trustworthy but avaricious gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven.

Nowadays, the end credits take five or six minutes to roll by and everybody down to the accountants and craft service company is given a moment of on-screen glory. It was a very different situation sixty years ago.

Also at the level of no credit in the pre-film list but on the final cast list card is Marilyn Monroe. She plays Angela, the mistress of the character played by Louis Calhern, the high living attorney who is asked to bankroll the caper at the center of the story. The DVD includes the original theatrical trailer, and Marilyn is important enough to get mentioned there. She was by no means a star yet, just a featured player under contract at MGM. This is one of five movies she worked on in 1950. The biggest role she had that year was as Miss Casswell in All About Eve. She wouldn't be a star on her own until she left MGM and went to Fox a few years later.

And then we get to the uncredited roles. Early in the movie, the main character Dix, played by Sterling Hayden, is picked up by the cops and put in a line-up. A night clerk who saw him commit a crime is asked to identify him.

The guy who gets a few lines as the night clerk is Frank Cady, known best to audiences as Sam Drucker on Green Acres. This is very common when watching 1950s movies. Many people who became regulars on TV in the 1960s were bit players at the movie studios in the 1950s. There were a lot of cast members I didn't recognize, even some who got billing before the movie started, but there were a couple of tiny roles filled by actors on their way to bigger things.

Which brings us to the line-up. The cops bring in two guys to be in the line-up with Hayden that look nothing like him. Hayden is extremely tall, listed at 6'5", the other two guys are an average sized guy who is very swarthy and has a mustache, and a tiny, fidgety kid brought in on a dope charge. None of the actors in the line-up get a line during that scene, but the fidgety kid is played by Strother Martin. Martin is one of the great fidgeters in Hollywood history. On another film, he had a scene with Jimmy Stewart. After the first take, Stewart said, "Okay, he can have a pen or he can have a clipboard, but he can't have both. No one is going to see anything else that happens in this scene if you let this guy have two props."

He had no props in this scene. He just adjusted his collar uncomfortably. Still, it was just enough time for a trivia nut like me to say, "Oh my God, that's Strother Martin!"

Let me say for the record that the yakking film professor in the commentary track did not note the work of either Frank Cady or Strother Martin. It makes you wonder what they are teaching kids at those fancy schools.


susan s. said...

What that professor has is 'a failure to communicate' the important stuff. I absolutely loved to hate Strother Martin.

namastenancy said...

Ditto to susan s. - It took me a minute or two but I finally placed the guy.
Failure to communicate indeed.