Wednesday, May 16, 2012

YOU KNOW THE FACE: A Hat-Tip to the Character Actors

          "Do not look at the faces in the illustrated papers. Look at the faces in the street." 
                                         --G.K. Chesterton 

Just before his death in 2007, 100-year-old Charles Lane had begun work on a documentary called “You Know the Face” about his life and work as a character actor.  Unfortunately, the work was never completed; nevertheless, it would have been aptly named, because from 1931 until 2006, Charles Lane appeared in nearly 400 films and television shows, making him one of the most familiar faces in the backdrop of Hollywood productions for whole generations of film-goers.

Charles Lane, looking his usual surly self
Though seldom appearing for long in any feature, Lane filled roles of vastly-varying professions, from reporters to rent collectors, from psychiatrists to census takers, from secretaries to superintendents, and yet he played—almost exclusively—the same sort of character: a sharp-nosed, practical, antagonistic, business-first fellow in spectacles.  Lane himself recognized the queer continuity of all these roles: “Having had so many small parts,” he once said, “there was a character I played that showed up all the time and people did get to know him, like an old friend.”

Walter Brennan
That notion of an “old friend” beautifully sums up the special, undervalued role character actors play in establishing a film's quality and atmosphere—the way they help make a piece of Hollywood artwork “great” or “classic.” Of course, when we speak of “Hollywood actors and actresses,” it’s tempting to think exclusively of the stars, like Clark Gable or Audrey Hepburn.  But while the stars may be the center of everyone’s attention, the truth is that they never could have made those fantastic splashes of talent and popularity without the steady acting support of the forgettable but reliable “character actors:” actors who were type-cast or continually filled minor roles that colored in the background. Recurring in dozens of films, often playing the same sort of character, as Lane did, or at least playing different roles with a soon-familiar face, character actors made films more complete. They acted like pieces of the set or colors in the backdrop on a stage: even though they were never the center of attention, by their excellence of serving their purpose they made a movie more vivid, more realistic—in a word, more like life.

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
as Ma and Pa Kettle 

The inimitable Edna May Oliver
The reason for this was simply because they played people you meet in “real life”: mere “fellows-on-the-street,” non-glamorous side figures, non-heroes—the sort of person you find in the doctor’s waiting room, behind the cash register, on the train. They were there precisely to flesh out the world surrounding the central characters, and consequently they often packed a punch, so to speak, into the tiny tidbit-of-a-role they had.  Good character actors are the spice and color of a film; they are the sort of people of which the world is full—the “common man” incarnate in a particular way, a personality in a crowd.  After all, let’s face it—perhaps it’s true that everyone wants to be Cary Grant (“Even Cary Grant,” as the man himself once said), but the stereotypical hero of a story can often be less colorful than the life-like characters that surround him: the dying old soldier, the hot-tempered Italian grandmother, the dottering country minister, the local drunk, the obsequious villain’s side-kick, the drawling farm boy, the loony old professor, the brusque British police inspector, the wise-cracking taxi driver. 

Victor McLaglen, a Ford regular
These people aren’t the meat-and-potatoes of a film, but they certainly are the relish; and one director who knew this full-well was the legendary Irish-American John Ford.  Ford had a peculiar talent for gathering around him a group of actors and actresses he would reuse again and again as steady characters that seem to link together all his cinema creations into a cohesive whole.  Take for instance, Ford’s cavalry films—She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Rio Grande—each of the movies has an almost identical cast, with a few notable exceptions, and some of the characters even have the same names in the different movies. Ford, a compositional genius, doubtless knew that standardizing his background cast could unify and tighten the impression his films were to make on his audience. When you begin watching his movies, you start to grow accustomed to seeing the same faces in their old place; it’s an evocative sensation, giving the impression that members of a family are gathering around to tell a tale together.  There is a peculiar sort of comfort and delight in seeing those familiar figures again and again, in varying roles but always solidly delivering performances that heighten the atmospheric tint of the whole film.

Peter Lorre
Guy Kibbee
         So, here’s to the character actors, the fellows in the background, the faces in the street. They spice up the stories we love and make them that more believable, because they are tastes of real life--equally full of interesting and unusual people who don’t fit the stereotypes of hero or heroine. They remind us of people we’ve met and known, even in passing, and so they have become to us—as Lane put it—like old friends.   

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