by Allan Fish
It’s said that it was Orson Welles’ favourite moment in Citizen Kane. The reporter Thompson sat in Bernstein’s office as the Chairman of the Board kills the time that’s the only thing he has. He begins to tell a tale of how back in the 1890s he was on the Jersey ferry and saw a girl. You know the details. The white dress. The parasol. He barely saw her for a moment, but barely a day went past when he didn’t think of her. All it took was a moment.
Can greatness be bestowed out of so little? Our cinematic memory banks are full of such moments, individual shots, throwaway lines. Yet we know these moments. We know the director who framed the shot that won’t go away, or in some cases the DP who literally shot it. For lines, we know who wrote the scripts. The DP may have won an award for his work, or been nominated. The writer, too, may have received plaudits. Yet these are moments borne out of much larger wholes. Yet what of the real moments, where the moment is all you have?
There are so many of them, but how do we honout them? Who has heard of the likes of Ken Sansom, John Philliber, Dave O’Toole, Madge Blake, LeRoy Daniels, Dick Elliott, Wallace Scott or Tom Dugan. Not many, I’ll wager. Yet each one is lodged in your hard drive, for Ken Sansom was the security guy at the Malibu estate with the penchant for impersonating Hollywood stars of old in The Long Goodbye, John Philliber was the diminutive elderly janitor at the office in Double Indemnity, Dave O’Toole was the postman berating Will Hay for wasting his time in Oh Mr Porter!, Madge Blake was Dora Bailey, the Louella Parsons of 1920s Hollywood in Singin’ in the Rain‘s Grauman’s Chinese theatre opening, LeRoy Daniels was the shoeshine who Fred Astaire dances with in the arcade in The Band Wagon, Dick Elliott was the big guy on the verranda who berates James Stewart for his seductioin technique in It’s a Wonderful Life and Wallace Scott was the cabbie buddy of Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past who knows that he’s in trouble because he doesn’t look like it. And finally, Tom Dugan? He was Hitler, or the ham actor playing him, in To Be Or Not To Be, a patron saint for cinema’s spear carriers for all time.
I actually have seen most of them in other films – Madge Blake, for example, is the perfume customer charmed by Gene Kelly in An American in Paris – and yet you won’t find them printed in film books. Yet at least their names were locatable, which is more than can be said for the girl in the picture thet adorns the top of this piece. It’s a famous scene – surely anyone who has seen the film in question couldn’t forget her – but she’s not listed in the credits. It’s the penultimate scene of Scrooge (1951), a film I watch every Christmas as indeed many do across the civilised world, and old Ebenezer has begun the thawing out process and goes to his nephew Fred’s for Christmas dinner. He knocks on the door and is welcomed by a young maid, who smiles at him, and is in a state of shock as she obviously realises who it is. He pauses before the lounge door, turns, and she nods back a smile to him to encourage him to enter. It’s a nothing part, but she’s like that girl on the Jersey ferry; I can’t forget her. Yet I can’t find out her name so I can even remember it in the first place. Then again, Bernstein didn’t have that girl’s name either.
All of the aforementioned bit part players would still fall under the umbrella of the character player in old Hollywood. Yet sometimes such a player only has to turn up on screen to know they’ll soon be doing more. Remember Audrey Hepburn as a waitress in the Rio opening of The Lavender Hill Mob, or Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in The Girl Can’t Help It, or Sharon Stone as the shallow glamourpuss on the opposing train in the film within a film in Stardust Memories. Somehow in retrospect their rise seemed thoroughly predictable. Others played so many small parts they’d get tossed the occasional bone. Do we remember Gerald Hamer for anything other than the killer in The Scarlet Claw – it certainly stayed with Victor Erice, as La Morte Rouge showed – or Sam Adams as anything other than as the sarcastic butler in Laurel and Hardy’s Dirty Work. Indeed, Laurel and Hardy made legends of these otherwise bit men; Jimmy Finlayson, Charlie Hall and Billy Gilbert all appeared in hundreds of films, but it’s for those two reelers they’re remembered, just as the Marx Brothers would have been lost without Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont and Douglass Dumbrille, and as Will Hay would be lost without Moore Marriott, Graham Moffatt, Charles Hawtrey or Claude Hulbert. There were others who had niches of their own; Arthur Housman was the comedy drunk for all occasions, Charles Lane was the bespectacled fast-talking agent or insurance guy who never smiled (most iconic perhaps as the tax man sent packing in You Can’t Take it With You), Allen Jenkins and Ed Brophy were gangsters, comedy or otherwise, Al Bridge was the gravel-voiced gem in most of the Preston Sturges classics who even stopped by in It’s a Wonderful Life to tear up George Bailey’s arrest warrant with a great big smile; Eric Blore and Robert Greig were butlers – in the same film in Sullivan’s Travels – J.Farrell MacDonald had been a character star in the silent era and ended up in blink and you’ll miss ’em parts for John Ford, most memorable as the bartender in My Darling Clementine. Or Robert Warwick, who was in everything from the Errol Flynn swashbucklers to I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang before becoming one of the Preston Sturges repertory company and getting a final great part as the drunk Barrymore-esque actor in In a Lonely Place for Nick Ray. Ray was a master of the ‘moment’; were Ian Wolfe and Howard da Silva ever better than in They Live by Night? It would be as hard to forget Burt Mustin’s turn as the rancher at the beginning of The Lusty Men as it would be to remember him in anything else. Think of Hungarian Steve Geray, immortalised as the cuckold in The Moon and Sixpence and Uncle Pio in Gilda who would finally get a lead in a film too few people have seen, So Dark the Night. Other character actors such as George Zucco, Raymond Walburn, Franklin Pangborn, E.E.Clive, Cecil Kellaway, Aline MacMahon, Charley Grapewin, Donald MacBride, Alan Mowbray, Porter Hall, Eduardo Ciannelli, Albert Basserman, Joseph Calleia, Elisha Cook Jnr and Ned Sparks would become recognisable figures, though their names remained largely anonymous at the time.
Other countries had their own equivalents. France had the Pythonesque moustachioed Gaston Modot, who often would appear in only one scene and invariably take it, or little wiry Noël Roquevert, who looked like a prototype old cuckold, Raymond Cordy who seemed to forever play taxi drivers but got his lead in A Nous la Liberté for René Clair who always seemed to find a place for him somewhere, and amongst a select group of old women, there were Sylvie, that modern day Mme Thénardier Jane Marken and, least observed but most precious of all, that four foot nothing old sparrow Gabrielle Fontan. In Britain there were equivalents, too, with our own Fontan in Edie Martin. Not a name most will know, especially Stateside, but the likes of The Man in the White Suit, Oliver Twist and The Titfield Thunderbolt are unthinkable without her, however brief her contribution. Then there’s was nosy parker Ivor Barnard, with his wonderfully Dickensian countenance, ideal for playing crooked clerks, Bible-bashing doom and gloom men and even, in his great final role, an assassin in Beat the Devil. And that ultimate milquetoast, poor Eliot Makeham, priceless as the poor clerk in Night Train to Munich who gets into trouble with the Nazis, and as the inevitable cuckold who predictably is among the deceased in Friday the Thirteenth. There was Miles Malleson, with his splendid nose, the hearse-driver in Dead of Night, the hangman never again to be content with hemp in Kind Hearts and later dirty old man in a mack in Peeping Tom. And while for Hollywood mothers we had Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi and Jane Darwell, depending on the class, in Britain we had imperious old Marie Lohr or working class Mary Merrall, the poor battered mother in Love on the Dole, who like her Hollywood counterparts could turn villainous, as anyone who saw They Made Me a Fugitive would vouch. And as I’m writing, I recall the old man at the end of Genevieve who is so delighted to find a Darracq car in working order and who nearly costs John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan the race. Few would have known his name, but it was an elderly Arthur Wontner, who’d once played Sherlock Holmes a few times in the 1930s.
In the modern era, the old-fashioned bit part player has disappeared with the studio system. We all have lovely cameos we can’t forget, but there are fewer than once there were. We’ll recall Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day and as poor Sammy Jankis in Memento. Kubrick fans will talk till the cows come home about Philip Stone, and that scene in the mens’ washroom in The Shining, but he was Alex’s father in Clockwork, too, and the loyal servant Graham in Barry Lyndon, equally brilliant in that final scene, arriving short of breath to deliver the bad news to the prostrate Redmond Barry. Today, meanwhile, we are left with a different sort of character actor, and many of the character actors of today come through TV. Deadwood, for example, not only gave us Indie darling John Hawkes but Garret Dillahunt – magnificent in both The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men – and Titus Welliver, who is now a staple in the casts of Ben Affleck’s directorial efforts. Other character players rise to star on TV, as with Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, who would likewise then be mixing it in Affleck’s Argo. Take those great tapestries of recent years The Wire and Game of Thrones; where would they be without their huge roster of character players, many of them unknown at the time, who inhabit them? Take Aiden Gillen, for example, an essential cast member in both those great series, but merely fit for cameos in The Dark Knight Rises on film. They also take advantage of character players already established, so while Thrones may give us new faces like Conleth Hill (Varys), they also give splendid character work to the likes of Donald Sumpter, James Cosmo and dear old Peter Vaughan. In the UK, character players can sometimes be the whole thing. The Red Riding trilogy may have given us great roles for rising star Andrew Garfield and the likes of Sean Bean, Rebecca Hall and Paddy Considine, but it was also populated by the likes of Jim Carter (now ensconced as national treasure as Carson in Downton Abbey), Ron Cook and the ever-brilliant Sean Harris. Harris would also be so clearly the best thing in Showtime’s The Borgias that one rather wished they’d leave the infamous family alone and just do a series about his assassin. And often it’s in such unlikely surroundings that we find our gems. They may not have mere seconds to make a mark like the bit part players of old, but they may only have one episode in a much longer series. To take another example, there’s Harris’ erstwhile colleague in Five Daughters, David Bradley. He may be best known as decrepit Argus Filch in the Harry Potter movies, but his malodorous demeanour has been crucial to many a UK TV costume drama – Vanity Fair‘s lecherous Lord Crawley, thoroughly nasty Rogue Riderhood in Our Mutual Friend – as well as the occasional film part to relish, such as his near-silent Ronnie in Another Year. But the role that perhaps best illustrated his gifts was in an episode in another Showtime piece, The Tudors. No-one would accuse The Tudors of being a subtle series, and yet Bradley helped make one episode so obviously the best episode of the entire series – playing Henry VIII’s beloved jester Will Somers – that it seemed to belong to another series entirely, a series one wished we could have seen instead. Similarly, forty years previously, one recalled Peter Jeffrey, another character star too often overlooked, who gave a truly overwhelming performance in one episode of the BBC’s now largely forgotten prequel to their Henry VIII and Elizabeth I sagas, The Shadow of the Tower, as a heretic in prison.
All of which may not give this piece any particular reason to exist, but that in itself is very much the point. None of the names listed above would be recognised for singling out come the time to giuve out gongs came around. As we build toward another frightful award season of self-congratulation and ill-deserved plaudits, take pause. While we admire the respective young talents of, say, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Rebecca Hall and their like, who are likely to figure every January to March in various lists of nominations, spare a thought for those who will never get such exposure because their parts are generally too small. Now, in the days of the IMDb and the internet, one might think that there will never again be such oversights as not knowing the name of the servant in Scrooge, yet that’s not entirely true. Still there are enigmas; try to recall, or even find out, the name of the actress who played the old lady struggling with the bottle at the bottle bank through the Three Colours trilogy. Often it’s these little moments that stand out when the leads’ histrionics fade to the recollection.