Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Hollywood’s Best (as of 1949)

The stars agree—Ashton Kutcher’s performance in ‘Dude, Where’s My Car’ is not the best of all time.

Mind you, there’s a reason, and it has nothing to do with Mr. Kutcher’s abilities as an actor. The stars were surveyed in 1949. At last check, Mr. Kutcher wasn’t around then. However, reporter Bob Thomas was, and he seems to have done a series of straw polls on the topic of Greatest Performances. You might have guessed some of the names on the list. A couple you may never have heard of.

Actors Cite Best Movie Performances
HOLLYWOOD, June 1.—(AP)—What was the greatest performance in the history of motion pictures?
This is a question that draws sharply divided opinion in Hollywood. I have asked more film stars for their verdicts, since they should be expert on the subject. Here are some of the latest answers:
Gene Autry—“The one I remember most is Greta Garbo in ‘Camille.’ I don’t think that will ever be topped.”
Lucille Ball—“Vivien Leigh in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ It’s a difficult role and she did a great job. I have seen it eight times and try to catch it every year.”
Fred MacMurray— “It’s hard to pick one, but I think Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Stella Dallas’ left the biggest impression with me.”
Claudette Colbert—“I’ll never forget Helen Hayes in ‘The Sin of Madelon Claudet.’ I cried and cried.”
Robert Young—“John Barrymore was outstanding in anything . . . to name one, ‘Topaz.’
And Laurence Olivier’s job in ‘Hamlet’ was one of the best of all time.”
Joan Bennett—“Vivien Leigh in ‘Gone With the Wind.’
Irene Dunne—“Diana Wynward in ‘Cavalcade’ stays in my memory as the best. She was fascinating.”
Alan Ladd—“Clark Gable in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ That was the most perfect casting in history.”
Jimmy Stewart—“I think maybe Frederic March in ‘Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.’ It was a frightening thing to watch.”
Marie Wilson—“Charles Coburn in ‘More the Merrior’ was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, especially the scene where he lost his pants."
Rosalind Russell—“Cary Grant in ‘None But the Lonely Heart.’ I had always considered him an expert comedian, but my opinion of him went up a hundred-fold when I saw him in that dramatic role.”
Diana Lynn—“Garbo in ‘Camille,’ or anything.”
Erich von Stroheim—“This may sound like immodesty, because I directed her, but I would pick ZaSu Pitts in ‘Greed.’ A great tragedienne.”
Gloria Swanson—“I don’t see many pictures, but the best performance I can think of is Van Heflin in ‘Johnny Eager.’”
Gregory Peck—‘Charlie Chaplin in everything; he’s the greatest of actors. He can make you laugh one minute, cry the next. For the actresses, Garbo—especially in ‘Camille.’”
James Cagney—“For an all-round flawless performance, I’d pick J.M. Kerrigan in ‘The Informer.’ There was nothing you could find wrong with it.”
Maureen O’Hara (who didn’t see a movie until she was 18)—“I’d select three: Bette Davis in ‘Dark Victory,’ Fredric March in ‘Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde’ and Charles Laughton in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’”
Coleen Gray—“Laurence Olivier in ‘Wuthering Heights,’ especially the bedroom scene.”
John Lund—“Alfred Lunt in ‘The Guardsmen’—and he’s no relative of mine, either.”

It strikes me as odd that many actors insist comedy is more difficult than drama, yet “best performances” almost always tend to be dramatic, as if a comedic performance can’t be taken seriously because a comedy isn’t serious.

The mention of Robert Young, whose television career later overshadowed his work in films, gives me a chance to post another nice-looking newspaper movie ad, this one from 1939. Through the ‘30s and into the war years, there were all kinds of virtually plotless films solely designed for star-gazing. ‘Honolulu’ is one of them. Young was one of the stars.

George Burns and Gracie Allen were to supply the laughs but, oddly, one of radio’s most famous comedy couples spent virtually the entire film apart. Below is one of Gracie’s numbers. Yes, Gracie sings. And you’ll quickly perceive she’s not with the real Marx Brothers. They’re actually the King’s Men in disguise; they were singers on a show featuring another of radio’s most famous comedy couples, Fibber McGee and Molly.

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