And so, after much delay, I’ve finally come back to wrap up my series of posts on Elisha Cook Jr., one of film’s all-time great character actors. I’m hoping to start contributing more posts (either on this or on a newly revamped blog) sometime in the near future, but time is obviously not as plentiful as it was when I started this blog, so I’m making no promises.

The last post on Elisha Cook looked at his post-noir years in the 50s and 60s, when he began moving into other film genres like westerns and, more importantly, began what would be a long and steady career in television. Cook had already come a long way since breaking into films in the ’30s, but he still had a long ways to go in what would be a long, active acting career. Cook’s most memorable film roles – in films such as Maltese Falcon, Shane, and The Killing – were all behind him, but he continued to appear regularly in films and to do a good job in them until the early ’80s. His final really well known film role came in 1968 as the apartment manager in Rosemary’s Baby. It was a small role, but Cook – still looking baby-faced at nearly 65 years of age – did his usual good work.

cook.jpgCook worked much more frequently in television in his later years and almost all his acting jobs in the 80s were for TV. To a new generation, in fact, Cook was best known for his final role – the recurring part of “Ice Pick” on Magnum P.I., which he portrayed in the series from 1983 to 1988.

His career was cut short around 1990, when the elderly Cook suffered a disabling stroke. He would live for another five years, but his acting career was over. He died in a nursing home in California on May 18, 1995, at the age of 91. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Cook had been married “at least twice” (it always was hard to pin down facts on the reclusive Cook’s personal life) but left no known survivors.

Survivors or no, Cook’s legacy in Hollywood had already been ensured for quite some time. Early in his career, he had been a key component to the success of the noir genre, adding as much to the films in his fall guy roles as the troubled private dicks and femme fatales who headlined them. He was the master of portraying the bullied scapegoat, and he had some of the most memorable death scenes in classic film history. Cook rarely had large roles, but he always seemed able to make a lot from a little. He eventually became one of the more recognizable faces in cinema and one of the greatest character actors of all time.

It’s somewhat interesting to think what Cook might have been able to achieve with all his talent if he had been alive in the current day and age. The post-modern age has certainly shifted the focus of film, and the big screen is no longer the exclusive realm of dashing leading men and ladies. Rather, non-conventional storylines now offer fantastic parts for actors following in Cook’s line, and actors like William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti have garnered tremendous accolades.

Would Cook have been able to achieve similar success? Who knows. . . he certainly seemed talented enough. In the end, however, debating such points is pointless. What we do have is a long film career stretching over 50 years – one marked from beginning to end by professionalism, skill, and class. While Cook may have always been content with his small roles and never seemed to strive for more, he certainly left a mark on cinema that was disprortionately large compared to these small roles.

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Most of my contact with film theory is purely incidental. I try to avoid being saturated with theory and analysis as it completely changes the way you watch films, making it harder just to sit back and enjoy the show. Even so, I am aware that vast amounts of literature have been dedicated to the subject of the meaning of the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film. It’s a critical debate somewhat akin to literature’s search for Hamlet’s tragic flaw – e.g., the source material is so rich and open-ended that the matter will probably never be resolved to everyone’s liking. Being rather joyfully ignorant of the criticism, I know only some of the broad, high-level ideas of what the birds supposedly symbolize in the film – the most common arguments saying such things as they represent nature’s unwillingness to be subjugated, the struggle between repression and sexual freedom, etc. (I actually came across a very insightful blog this past year that summarized in one place all the major schools of thought regarding the meaning of the birds, but alas, it looks like said blog has since disappeared from cyberspace, leaving behind no trace.)

Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it a few times now and have started to notice new things, but I actually found myself with a somewhat critical mindset when I watched the film thebirds2.jpgwith Wifey this past weekend (by the way – it’s getting to be that time of year where more and more creepy films might be showing up on this blog) and was wondering quite a bit about this ever elusive meaning of the birds. In particular, I was pondering what connection, if any, there was between the bird attacks and the personal relationships of the film’s main characters. It was this line of thinking that really got me to thinking about how the concepts of space and boundaries are used in the film. At the risk of beating a dead horse, here are my two bits on the subject, which I’m sure have already been said more eloquently and in more detail elsewhere. . .

Have you ever noticed how much Hitch plays with space and boundaries in the film? The entire film is full of scenes of birds in cages, people hiding in the confines of cars or phone booths, people barricading themselves in houses and reinforcing the windows and doors, etc. From the very get-go, with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in the pet shop, the conversation deals with all the birds trapped in their cages – one of which Melanie accidentally releases, causing a little comedic foreshadowing of what will become a much darker theme throughout the film – i.e., the inability of these manmade boundaries to hold. This impulse of man to set boundaries is evident throughout the film – not only with physical enclosures, but also the psychological and social boundaries people try to set. The subplots involving Melanie and Mitch and his family all deal with variations of this issue. Is Melanie too free in her flirtations and would it be right for her to be more restrained? Is Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), too protective of Mitch, and is that better or worse than Melanie’s father, who abandoned her while she was still young? Bodega Bay itself is a geographic representation of this need for boundaries. It’s a town physically removed from the business of San Francisco (a city described at one time in the film as “an anthill up the foot of a bridge”), and the small hamlet is full of people highly suspicious of outsiders.

As is often the case in Hitchcock films, the conflicts highlighted in these subplots echo the main action of the film. Much as many of the characters try to enclose themselves within narrow social roles and closely guarded rules of propriety, birds.jpgthey also seal themselves indoors, trying to protect themselves from the viciousness of the bird attacks. In both cases, the film seems to come to the conclusion that such manmade boundaries – whether they be physical enclosures, social roles, or just the metaphysical lines of Linnaean taxonomy – are useless. Despite its self-enclosure and isolation, Bodega Bay is not safe from the chaos of the outside world. The birds do not stay in their little pigeon-hole man created for them in the power structure. The boarded up windows and barricaded doors cannot keep them out. Melanie is not as free-spirited and incapable of being a responsible mother figure as we thought she was. Nor is Lydia as heartless and cold.

At any rate, that’s my little ramble on the subject. I just did a quick browse of some of the existing criticism on the Web (it’s plentiful and not hard to find), and it doesn’t look like I’m that far off from what many others have said. Looking at space and boundaries is just one way of looking at what appears to be a major school of thought on the film – one that argues that the film demonstrates how man’s carefully constructed world is always just teetering on the edge of chaos. At any rate, I apologize for the long-winded analysis today. It’s just that The Birds is one of those films – like so many of the great ones – where it is so thought-provoking that it’s tough not to start forming elaborate opinions about it. It’s an interesting subject, and if anybody else has opinions about it, please feel free to share.

When last we left Elisha Cook Jr. in our journey through the great character actor’s life, he had just hit it big, becoming one of the most recognizable supporting actors in Hollywood due to his success in the noir boom of the 40s and 50s. killing.jpgThough he was doing noirs with regularity throughout the 40s, he never stopped doing other roles as well, and while he continued to the occasional noir in the 50s (including some of his best work in a role that was his personal favorite – George in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film, The Killing), he distanced himself somewhat from the genre and began to focus more on other types of film.

While he ventured into other genres, it’s worth noting that his roles stayed more or less the same. Cook still played the small, nervous sort who was more likely than not to get beat up, taken advantage of, or killed. This was demonstrated in two of his better known roles from the early 50s – Don’t Bother to Knock and Shane.

Don’t Bother to Knock is another example of why the legend grew inside Hollywood that appearing early in your career in a film alongside Cook would ensure your future super-stardom (Judy Garland in Pigskin Parade being a case in point). In this film, none other than Marilyn Monroe makes her feature debut (she had previously done only numerous small roles). Cook plays the concerned but rather ineffectual uncle of Monroe, who plays a deeply disturbed teenaged babysitter. In 1987, Cook relayed the following anecdote describing his first meeting with Monroe:

“She came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to play my uncle, right?'” Cook recalled.

“‘That’s right, Miss Monroe.’

“Then she looked at me and said, ‘No incest.'”

(quoted from “The Face is Familar; The Name is Elusive” Dec. 24, 1987, Chicago Tribune)

This may have been just good-natured ribbing, but it didn’t seem Marilyn’s character was taking any chances, and during the course of the film, she ends up knocking her kind-hearted guardian unconscious while his back is turned.

The following year, in 1953, Cook starred in what is probably his best known role of the 50s – Frank “Stonewall” Torrey in Shane. This role and many of his other roles in westerns did not depart drastically from those he had in noirs. He still was typically the sacrificial lamb in the waiting, the would be tough who can’t back up his bravado, the neurotic gunfighter who never sees it coming. As David Thomas describes in his 1995 Film Comment article “Junior,” Cook is in Shane primarily as “a setup, the obvious victim to demonstrate Jack Palance’s lethal authority.” Something that is not frequently noted of Cook’s work here and in several of his other roles, however, is his willingness to fight. Particularly as Torrey, Cook shows a nobility just in the fact that he is brave enough to stand up to a man that everyone else is afraid of. Cook may have always been on the losing end of things, but more often than not, it was not an end that simply rolled over and died.

Shane marked Cook branching off into different territory, and he would begin to do westerns fairly regularly for the next 25 years or so. He also began doing some horror films, including two Vicent Price films – The House on Haunted Hill and The Haunted Palace – although he didn’t do the horror genre quite as much as you might think, considering how well suited his naturally bug-eyed, cowardly face custom-fitted him for such roles (particularly in the melodramatic, somewhat campy Price pictures).

The main change to Cook’s career in the 50s, however, was his move into television. The growth of television attracted many Hollywood veterans, so this certainly wasn’t an uncommon move. But the new medium seemed a good fit for Cook. For one thing, the end of the studio system in Hollywood had a profound effect on supporting actors like Cook. In an interesting LA Times article from December 22, 2000, Stephen Farber explains that the studios of the 30s and 40s had not only stars under contract, but numerous supporting actors as well, which is why there were such terrific ensemble pieces during those years. Unfortunately, the end of the studio system led to increased power to the stars unwilling to share the limelight, and as a result, “secondary roles were smashed to smithereens.” Honestly, such a shift probably had only a minimal effect on an actor like Cook, who even in this new Hollywood environment, was talented and recognizable enough to continue to still find good supporting roles. And yet, Cook’s workmanlike approach to acting (he was often quoted as saying he didnt’ have the “privilege” of reading scripts; rather, guys would just call him up and tell him “You’re working tomorrow”) seemed very well suited for the quicker, cheaper production values of television. Other than an appearance on a 1955 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, I have not seen any of Cook’s earliest TV roles. Yet, it’s clear from the shows he was doing that he was still working in very much the same vein as he had done before (he was primarily taking roles in westerns and noir/detective type shows) just in a different medium.

And with these changes, the stage was set, more or less, for the remainder of Cook’s career. cookstartrek.jpgHe continued to regularly do movies – including many quite good ones – but he would soon be doing much more work in television and would appear in many classic television shows, including Gunsmoke, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, Batman, etc., etc. When we return to Cook in the final post in our series, we’ll take one last look at this Hollywood legend, reviewing some of his later acting roles and his lasting legacy.

High Sierra (1941)

August 3, 2007

highsierra.jpgHigh Sierra is best known for being a pivotal film in Humphrey Bogart’s career. It was the last of his films where he received second billing (co-star Ida Lupino actually had top billing, as Warner Brothers was trying to capitalize on her popularity resulting from the previous year’s hit They Drive by Night), and it was the first film where he demonstrated to studio execs that he had real potential for success as a leading man. This film really captured Bogie on the cusp of super-stardom. In the next year, he would star in The Maltese Falcon, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And yet, High Sierra had so much else going for it as well. The credits for the film reads like a who’s who of studio-era Warner Bros. Legendary director Raoul Walsh was in the midst of perhaps the greatest span of his long career, being in the middle of a run with Warner that included such films as The Roaring Twenties, They Died With their Boots On, and Gentleman Jim. Executive producer Hal Wallis – one of the all-time greats – had already overseen many great films and was about to lead Warner to even greater heights in the early 40s. And as if having these men on board wasn’t enough, the script was written by a versatile and emerging film talent who was about to burst on the scene in a major way, John Huston.

The film itself follows a basic enough plot. Some strings are pulled to get notorious bank robber Roy Earle (Bogart) pardoned and released from jail. An operation is in place to have Earle head west, where he will lead a couple of younger thugs in one last big heist. In the company of his cohorts is a young lady named Marie (Lupino) who winds up being similarly minded to Earle in her yearning for freedom and independence. Such freedom finally looks like it might be attainable for both Roy and Marie, but will it be possible once their big job goes awry?

I often see the film described as an early film noir, but I’m not convinced of that. It certainly has a few noiresque elements and definitely would influence later noirs (consider the parallels between it and Huston’s later masterpiece, The Asphalt Jungle, for example), but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a noir. In fact, to a fan of the hardboiled, tense atmospheres of the noirs to come, High Sierra probably seems somewhat over-sentimental and melodramatic.

I tend to like this film more than your average viewer – it’s one of my favorite Bogie films, in fact – and I think this difference of opinion is likely based upon the first two-thirds of the film. This part of the film is admittedly rather uneven and clunky, owing from a major subplot where Roy befriends a country family (headed up by Pa, played by Henry Travers) and, longing for the simpler life they represent, tries unsuccessfully to woo their daughter Velma (Joan Leslie). These scenes seem somewhat dated and a bit sappy. But to me, it’s this rather awkward subplot that makes the final third of the film that much more effective. Roy’s inability to start over with Velma not only clears the way for a romance to bloom between he and Marie, but it also is just another notch in a long row of disappointments. It symbolizes the rut that both of them feel they are forever stuck in. As a result, when Roy and Marie finally begin their ill-fated run from the police highsierra2.jpg(not to mention from their past lives), there’s a certain desperate happiness to them, as if they understand that all their past attempts at legitimacy were failures and that this is their last shot at freedom. It’s like a breath of fresh air – not only for the characters, but oddly enough, for the viewers too, who are finally free of all those painful sitting room scenes with Pa and family and able to see Bogie and Lupino on their mad dash, which is what they’ve been wanting to see all along anyway.

Looking at Bogie’s screen romances, one might think of the various films he did with Bacall and think about their spark and style, or one might think of Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca and think of the couple’s nobility. Well, Roy and Marie’s romance is notable for quite another reason – its sincerity. The couple’s relationship seems honest and heartfelt and down to earth. You can’t help but start pulling for them. I won’t give away the ending, which Walsh filmed on location in the High Sierra mountains and contains some fantastic shots, but I will say that it’s a powerful ending that gets me no matter how many times I watch it. If you haven’t already, give High Sierra a chance, and you’ll understand how Warner Bros. knew that they had a new leading man on their hands.

It barely took a month before corporate America caved to the pressure of my blog. It was June 15 when I posted this blog, inquiring as to the whereabouts of a Barbara Stanwyck box set. While the relative lack of reaction to my post left me to think that my crack reporting skills on this critical topic had shocked all my readers into silence, it turns out that I had actually inspired them to go out and picket the studios and get some petitions signed. Now, barely a month later, Warner has issued this press release from July 23, announcing a Stanwyck signature collection coming out this October. The films to be included released are:

  • Annie Oakley (1935)
  • East Side, West Side (1949)
  • Executive Suite (1954)
  • My Reputation (1946)
  • To Please a Lady (1950)
  • Jeopardy (1953)

Barbara Stanwyck is probably my favorite classic actress, but I must confess that I have not seen any of these films. That is not to say that they’re bad. There’s a representative mix of genres here, including a sample of Stanwyck’s work in westerns (Annie Oakley) and film noirs (Jeopardy). Also, you have some real star power in here, with stars such as Clark Gable, William Holden, Van Heflin, Ava Gardner, and James Mason appearing in these films. In particular, Executive Suite looks like it might be a real winner, as it’s difficult to go wrong when you have Robert Wise directing a Ernest Lehman script. Certainly, a quick perusal of some of the bulletin boards from around the Net show that many people are euphoric over the news of this release.

I must admit, however, that I’m not completely sold. While I trust the word of other Stanwyck fans that these are good films, I can’t shake the feeling that this signature collection lacks some of the punch of some of its predecessors. Unfortunately, Warner’s more recent releases in the signature line have been veering in this somewhat watered-down direction. Nonetheless, at least Warner has tried to cater to classics fans the ways certain other ones have not (e.g., Paramount seems to care very little about its classics list).

All the same, this is good news to know that a Stanwyck collection is coming out. As I mentioned in my other blog, the rights to her films are scattered across numerous studios. On the one hand, this is bad, since it makes it so difficult to assemble a nice looking set. On the other, perhaps that means other studios will soon be following suit, which means that this Warner set coming out in October might be just the beginning. . .

Over on the Noir of the Week blog, there’s an interesting article by Glenn Erikson about the history of the alternate endings of Kiss Me Deadly. It’s a little long, but if you’re a fan of that particular film or noirs in general or of film preservation, it’s a good read.

I did not see the film until a few years ago, after the long-lost ending had already been restored. However, my DVD has the other, alternate ending, so I was able to see the mutilated version as well. kmd3.jpgNot only is Kiss Me Deadly one of my favorite films, but the ending on the beach as Aldrich originally filmed it is one of my favorite scenes in classic film, so I was shocked to find that it had been so butchered. Yet, as Erikson’s article describes, this alternate version was the ending that for decades critics assumed was the correct one, and consequently, there is a great deal of criticism incorrectly discussing the “deconstructed” nature of Kiss Me Deadly‘s ending. At any rate, read it if you’re interested.

As part of my ongoing posts on Elisha Cook Jr., we’re next going to take a look at Cook’s noir films – the genre he is most often associated with. Cook was part of the noir movement from the very beginning, having been cast in Stranger on the Third Floor – the 1940 film most critics point to as the first true noir film and the beginning of the classic noir period. This classic noir period is subsequently said to wrap up with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil film in 1958. While Cook was not in Welles’s film, he was nonetheless a constant face in many noir films on through to the very end, making Baby Face Nelson in December of 1957. In many ways, Cook could be viewed to develop alongside the genre – just as the film noirs during those years were becoming more mature and sophisticated, Cook’s noir roles and what he brought to them likewise expanded.

As important as Stranger on the Third Floor is to film history, it is not available on DVD and I have never had a chance to see it. Regardless, it was not until the next year with the release of the classic The Maltese Falcon that things really began to click, both for Cook and the noir genre. The film was a lot of firsts – John Huston’s directorial debut, Bogie’s first unqualified hit as a leading man (though one might argue that High Sierra fits that bill) – but perhaps its most important was as the first true noir masterpiece. The film set up many of the standard conventions that would be recycled and played with over and over again during the following two decades.

After having seen Cook in so many film roles where he made the most of his flacid, bug-eyed expressions to skillfully portray various ill-fated and in-over-their-heads characters – it’s somewhat difficult trying to picture the man just kicking back and relaxing. cook-wilmer.jpgAnd yet, by the early 1940s, the Hollywood career of Cook, now in his mid-30s, had evolved to the point where the reclusive actor could simply retire to the High Sierra hills between films and fish for trout as he waited for the work to come to him via studio courier. It was in these hills that Huston sent word to Cook that he wanted him for what would become Cook’s best known role – the gun-toting Wilmer. Cook nailed the role. It’s one of those where it’s impossible imagining somebody doing it better. It’s interesting because Cook actually appears “tougher” as Wilmer than he does in most of his subsequent noir roles, despite the homosexual undertones of the role and that he was pushed around throughout the film by Bogie’s Sam Spade and eventually set up as “the fall guy.”

After Falcon, Cook made another noir classic, I Wake Up Screaming. He continued to make films in other genres, but for the most part, he was associated with noirs throughout the 40s. He took a hiatus from Hollywood in late 1942 (apparently for military service – though I’m having trouble locating what branch or any other details), and did not return to the big screen until 1944. His first film upon his return was Phantom Lady, a film that should be included in any discussion about Cook, as it is one of the most frequently cited roles in the literature about him. Unfortunately, this is another one not yet out on DVD and that I have not seen yet. (Seriously, somebody needs to start releasing these. Do I next need to blog about the need for an Elisha Cook Jr. box set? I’ve already devoted more time to him than most people do, so don’t think I won’t do it.) The late 40s brought more noir classics, including Dillinger, The Big Sleep, and Born to Kill. The advent of the 50s brought a shift in Cook’s career, as he started doing more western films and suddenly became active with television. He still did the occasional noir, however, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 film, The Killing – another of Cook’s best performances.

The fall guy, the scapegoat, the cuckold, the neurotic, the whipping boy, the pushed-around sidekick. cook-borntokill.jpgWithout fail, Cook appeared throughout these tough guy films in less than tough guy roles. He was too bad to be a good guy but not quite bad enough to play the bad guy (his best known nickname was “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”). And yet, he played these roles so well that they continued coming to him, and his portrayals would set up many of the lasting noir conventions. Cook played an integral part in the noir legacy. In many ways, he helped add humanity and believability to the films. Face it – we all want to identify with the Bogies or Mitchums or Stanwycks of the noirs, who always seem to have the answer or else know how to go about getting it, but finding ourselves in similar situations, we might very well find ourselves over our head and panicking just to stay afloat in treacherous waters. Cook’s roles often remind us of the danger inherent in these situations and the less-than-noble ways people often truly respond to such dangers.

The other night, I watched The Secret Love of Martha Ivers for the first time. It’s a 1946 film by legendary producer Hal Wallis with a fantastic cast – Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, a young Kirk Douglas, and last but not least, Barbara Stanwyck. Wallis wasn’t missing with many of his films during this time period, and he certainly didn’t miss with this one. It’s a mature, psychological, noiresque drama that draws one in with its well developed characters, who are portrayed skillfully by the film’s starring quartet. I would definitely recommend the film. I’m actually writing here, however, because the film reminded me of a question that’s been bothering me lately: Why haven’t they released a Barbara Stanwyck DVD box set?

By no means am I a frequenter of box sets. I tend to be too cheap. The appeal of these sets, however, certainly does not escape me, and a Stanwyck set would be one of those where I’d be tempted to actually purchase it. There’s something cool about getting a nicely-packaged, themed mini-library of movies with a single purchase. Classic film lovers, in particular, seem to enjoy them, and classics bulletin boards and blogs across the Web are littered with threads discussing the confirmed releases, rumored releases, wished-for releases, etc., of these box sets. Having perused some of these discussions before, I know that I am not the only one wondering why Stanwyck hasn’t gotten her own set yet. In fact, you’ll occasionally see people discussing a “rumored” or “promised” Stanwyck box set. In particular, there have been reports connecting Warner Brothers and its nice “signature collection” line of box sets with Stanwyck, but as of yet, nothing has materialized.

Well, I imagined this might have something to do with distribution rights, and this interesting review on the Cineaste website of the Warner box sets states as much. stanwyck.jpgStanwyck was famously independent in a period where studio heads were still calling the shots. As a result, the rights to her films eventually became scattered across multiple distributors. Thus, despite the appeal of such a box set, the associated legal and financial difficulties have probably scared away many a potential suitor.

I decided to look a little closer at the matter. To help figure this out, I recruited the help of the DVDFile website’s article on DVD distributors. Then, I looked at Stanwyck’s filmography – more particularly, at the list of her films currently available in DVD. Using Warner’s signature collection box sets as a model, I tried arranging a box set that would use 1 or 2 films considered outright classics, 1 or 2 solid but sometimes overlooked classics, and 1 or 2 lesser-known films (while these are sometimes just filler, they more frequently seem to be good films that just don’t seem to stand out on their own for whatever reason). I also tried, as the signature collections usually do, to show a range of genres and representative films. Doing so, I came up with the following list as a sample box set:

  • Double Indemnity
  • Christmas in Connecticut
  • Stella Dallas
  • Clash by Night
  • Forty Guns
  • Crime of Passion

Such a set has several solid films, represents Stanwyck in a variety of genres, and includes some of her most classic roles. Further, it leaves some of her other classic films (such as The Lady Eve) to highlight future box sets, since an actress like Stanwyck could certainly fill more than one quality set. So here’s the problem.  I selected these films based solely on what I believed would likely compose a good box set. Looking at the companies that appears to hold these rights, however, proves that such a set would be impossible. Looking at the different distributors for this set – Double Indemnity (Universal Studios), Christmas in Connecticut (Warner Home Video), Stella Dallas (MGM), Clash by Night (Warner), Forty Guns (20th Century Fox), and Crime of Passion (MGM) – shows how scattered these rights are. There are other studios too – Paramount, for example, distributes both The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Sorry, Wrong Number.

The upshot of all this is that a Stanwyck box set is not impossible; it’s just a challenge. Warners has filled multiple well-balanced Bogart collections because it has almost all of his films. That’s not the case with Barbara Stanwyck. Her best films are scattered across the major studios. The good news is that Stanwyck did so many good films that this should not stop a set from eventually coming out. Reportedly, Warners has said that it has enough to films to fill multiple Stanwyck box sets, and I feel relatively certain that at least one will come out within the next couple years. The bad news is that the “dream” box set that some fans like to speculate on simply will never happen.

As I announced in a post a few weeks ago, I am beginning a series of posts to explore the life and career of one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest character actors, Elisha Cook Jr. There is not an abundant amount of information out there on such character actors and finding information on their early life can prove particularly difficult, as I found as I started doing some research. Almost all the sources on Cook say essentially the same thing. Even going to some promising-looking print sources – such as The Illustrated Directory of Character Actors – was of limited use. And yet, with some persistance and creative researching, I eventually discovered some information on his early life and career. Thus, in this first post, I wanted to basically look at his life before he really got started as a noir actor, which he did around 1940.

Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. was born into a theatrical family in San Francisco, California, on December 26, 1903 (occasionally, one finds a source saying 1906, but this appears to be incorrect). Not much is ever said about his parents. Although Wikipedia says Elisha Sr. was a pharmacist, most sources describe him more as one of those vaudevillian jack-of-all-trades – acting, directing, and producing. His mother, Helen Henry, was an actress and seemed to be a rather talented one at that, as she would eventually land the lead role in the acclaimed Broadway play Mother in 1935, around the time her son’s own stage career was peaking. Soon after Elisha Jr. was born, the family moved to Chicago, where he grew up in the stage environment, beginning at a young age to do odd jobs around the theatre. At the age of 14, he premiered in the vaudeville act Lightnin’.

Cook was not yet 23 when he made his Broadway debut in 1926. While many biographical sketches claim he made this debut in Henry-Behave, according to Cook’s IBDB page (Internet Broadway Database – who knew they had such a thing?), it appears it may have actually been several months earlier in Hello, Lola. Regardless, it appears that from this point forward, Cook had fairly steady work as a Broadway actor and began to appear rather regularly in the drama pages of the New York Times and other publications. I perused the reviews of Cook’s plays using the local university library’s online database. (If you haven’t done this before, it’s a pretty fun and interesting thing to do. The theatre back in the day was still big news and so the reviews have an All About Eve aura and seriousness about them. Plus, the stage was still prime source material for Hollywood, so many of the plays and actors and actresses found in the drama pages are recognizeable to classic film lovers.)

Cook seemed to have somewhat meatier roles towards the beginning of his Broadway career, actually playing the leads in a couple of plays. In fact, he recreated his male lead role from the play Her Unborn Child for a Hollywood adaptation in 1930. He allegedly did one other film that same year before returning to the stage. It’s possible, however, that the brevity of his first stint in Hollywood had more to do with the quality of the source material than it did with Cook’s acting. As a Time magazine reviewer of the play version of Her Unborn Child wrote: “Elisha Cooke [sic] Jr., in the comedy role, was better than his lines.”

Over the next few years, Cook continued to make a name for himself on the stage. He began to stand out in the increasingly frequent supporting roles, which would become more or less the norm for him from this point forward in his acting career. Though the roles were typically small, he made the most of them, and the reviews, though short, were positive.

His big break came in 1933, when he played the role of Richard Miller in Eugene O’Neill’s long-running and critically acclaimed comedy Ah, Wilderness! As was often the case due to Cook’s youthful appearance, the role was that of a young man. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times critic, wrote “As Richard, Elisha Cook Jr. has strength as well as pathos. Mr. Cook can draw more out of mute adolescence than any other young actor on our stage.” Such reviews were not atypical, as they commonly noted Cook’s skillful use of facial expressions to convey emotion – it was an early indication of a strength that would stay with him throughout his career and would help him make his limited roles all the more powerful and memorable. Hollywood took notice of Cook’s performance in Ah, Wilderness!, and Paramount contracted him to work when the season was over. Interestingly, the drama pages initially report that he was contracted to appear in the 1934 film Ready for Love. However, even though the paper reports his leaving for Hollywood in June and his subsequent return in August, all his filmographies do not list Cook as appearing in the film. Thus, it’s unclear whether he just had a small overlooked role in a forgotten film or if the contract actually fell through for some reason. At any rate, upon his return to New York, Cook resumed his role in Ah, Wilderness! as the show went on the road. He went on to do at least two more Broadway plays over the next two years, before more or less settling permanently in Hollywood in mid to late 1936.

Cook’s talent as an actor combined with the incredible rate of production during the studio era meant that he was soon doing several films a year (8 films with him were released in 1937, his first full year in Hollywood). While he was in some crime dramas and mysteries at this point, he was not as frequently typecast in such genres as he would be in the noir explosion in the 40s. In fact, he did just as many romantic comedies as anything else, still often cast as a juvenile. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to find these films, particularly on DVD. Some of them appear to be rather forgettable, but in many others, Cook was working with big name stars and directors (to name just a couple of examples – he was in Submarine Patrol in 1938, directed by John Ford, and was in Love Crazy in early 1941, one of the William Powell/Myrna Loy collaborations). Many of these films from early in Cook’s career will likely be released in the coming years.

The only 1930s film I could find with Cook was the recently released Pigskin Parade, a musical comedy about a small college football team starring Jack Haley and Patsy Kelly. It didn’t at all sound like the typical film I enjoy watching, but in the name of research, I decided to Netflix it. It turned out to be a surprisingly passable film with some real funny parts. Cook was cast, predictably, as a college boy. He plays a revolutionary sort who ends up getting framed by some of his classmates in order that they may use his name and credentials for an academically ineligible football prospect (one is tempted to say this is an early indication of the tendency later in Cook’s career to cast him as the fall guy, but believe me, it’s entirely different). Cook’s role is limited, but he does a good job with it. He even sings (well, talks in rhythm) a little. He might not have the screen presence he’ll eventually have in some of his later roles, but one can definitely see his natural talent as an actor.

One final note on Pigskin Parade. Not only was it one of Cook’s first films, but it was also the first feature-length film of Judy Garland. I found this interesting because, later in Cook’s career, a legend grew up about him that his mere presence in a film would presage future stardom for some of his younger co-workers. Well, if there’s any truth to this myth, it looks like Dorothy herself owed a debt of gratitude to Mr. Cook, who certainly got her started on her way.

The on-screen chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell is well documented – a cinematic partnership that resulted in 14 films, including their famous recurring roles as the husband-and-wife detective team Nick and Nora in The Thin Man series. Something I have not seen discussed as much is the role director W. S. Van Dyke played in the couple’s success. Of the 14 films, Van Dyke directed six of them – Manhattan Melodrama, I Love You Again, and the first four installments of The Thin Man series (he very well might have done the final two installments as well, had it not been for his early death in 1943). These films are certainly among Myrna Loy and William Powell’s most notable collaborations.

While the wife and I are enthusiastic fans of Loy and Powell both separately and together, it was not until recently that we had the chance to view I Love You Again for the first time. This screwball comedy might not be as polished and entertaining as The Thin Man films, but it nonetheless is an enjoyable and comedic film. It’s plot (which has sizable and obvious holes that really annoyed the Mrs.) begins with the boring miser Larry Wilson (Powell) loym30.jpgon a cruise annoying the other guests with his insistence on clean living and sobriety. The thing is – Wilson isn’t Wilson. He’s actually George Carey, a crafty con-man and Wilson’s complete opposite, but a bout of amnesia several years ago wiped the slate clean and allowed this new persona to develop. When Wilson falls overboard and receives a blow to the head, Carey resurfaces. Carey’s discovery that in the nine intervening years since he was last conscious Wilson has seemingly amassed a great deal of wealth and also landed a beautiful wife (Loy) causes him to decide to continue the charade long enough to cash in. (If it seems confusing and nonsensical, that’s because it is.)

In lesser hands, this plot could have easily fallen flat on its face. But with Van Dyke, Powell, and Loy, it turns out to be quite a bit of fun. Unlike The Thin Man films, this film relies more heavily upon Powell’s individual talents rather than Powell and Loy’s chemistry. One obviously can’t go wrong with William Powell, so this isn’t a bad thing, but fans looking for more Nick-and-Nora magic might be disappointed. You don’t really hear a lot about this film (in fact, you can only find a DVD of the film in a 4-disc Myrna Loy/William Powell box set), and it’s by no means perfect. Yet this relatively quiet reputation only helps to make it one of those pleasant little surprise discoveries that all classic film fans are only too happy to make.