Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Debonairs: Gary Grant and William Powell

The art of film acting is a difficult skill. Unlike the direct and immediate impact of the live theater, a film actor pokes his way through small, disorderly pieces of a screenplay, and the quality of his performance is often more dependent upon lighting directors, photographers, and editors than his own thespian talents. At best, a film actor can develop a personality, a distinctive style which becomes his "character" through a series of films. In other words, he comes to represent a specific type of character to such an extent that to cast him in a film would, in part, determine the nature of the film. Such actors do not merely play at being a character in a film but instead play "themselves." That is, they play a consciously created character that becomes their screen personality.

Of this type of performer, perhaps two of the most distinctive yet under-rated have been Gary Grant and William Powell. Both Grant and Powell became identified with a certain type of role, that of the urbane, sophisticated leading man in romantic comedies. As masters of the debonair, Grant and Powell developed personalities which allowed them to move through a performance with a smoothness and an apparent lack of effort which made their acting look all too easy and natural to be considered acting. Because of this, recognition of their talent was not given until late in their careers. Yet their popularity with audiences remains strong and, in spite of numerous recent attempts, no contemporary performer has been capable of matching them for grace, wit, and charming self-assurance.

The transformation from Archibald Leach to Gary Grant was, in itself, a major performance. As a shy and introverted child from a middle-class family in Bristol, England, Grant was surprisingly determined when, at the age of thirteen, he left home to join the Bob Pender Troupe. It was with this group that Grant learned acrobatics, dancing, pantomime,and a variety of other skills, as well as a motto which he later adopted as his own: "Never stay on too long. Never let the audience get tired of you. Always leave them laughing and wanting more."

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Kansas City, William Horatio Powell seemed an even more unlikely candidate for the debonair school of acting. Powell originally entered law school at the University of Kansas before he decided to defy his father's wishes. Borrowing $700 from his aunt, Powell left the legal profession after two weeks of classes and enrolled in New York's American Academy of Dramatic Art. While the English music halls became Gary Grant's training ground, Powell studied his craft through the more conventional route of stock companies and the Broadway theater.

The films in this program have been selected to emphasize particular aspects of both Grant's and Powell's screen personalities. The two films starring Gary Grant represent his portrayal of a distinctly masculine male who undergoes a series of humiliations that become a test of both love and character. In The Awful Truth, he plays the role of a philandering husband who discovers his own enormous potential for jealousy in the first ten minutes of the film. The mutual attempts of Grant and Irene Dunne to sabotage each other's love affairs become not only the proof that they still love each other, but is also the force by which they achieve a new equality in their relationship. Their romantic rivals (Ralph Bellamy and Molly Lament) are not so much sexual contenders as they are pawns in the marital game. By the end of the film, Grant and Dunne have to be reconciled because no one else can put up with them.

I Was a Male War Bride goes even further with sexual humiliation. Beginning with an antagonistic relationship of equality (Ann Sheridan's WAC lieutenant behaves in almost as masculine a manner as Grant's captain) the film follows a progressively unequal path. The more romantically involved Grant and Sheridan become, the more humiliation Grant must suffer, whether in the form of an errant motorcycle or the rigid bureaucracy of the U.S. Army. Grant's impersonation of a woman officer during the final third of the film is not only a travesty of his own masculinity, but also a satire on the military mentality. Never has a man looked less like a woman (even Grant's wig is obviously a bobbed horse's tail), but the fact that he's dressed like a woman and has signed all the forms as Mrs. makes him a woman according to the rules and regulations of the army.

The William Powell films are representative of the type of comedies which made him famous during the thirties and forties. In both films he is teamed with Myrna Loy, his most popular leading lady. Double Wedding is an ideal sample of the type of romantic screwball comedy films which they made during the period; films in which logic took a highly circular route and the most improbable events came about in probable ways. The central plot in Double Wedding, Powell's conviction that the only way to win the woman he loves is by courting her sister, only makes sense within the uniquely whimsical confines of a Powell-Loy comedy. Like the other films of its type, Double Wedding does not convince the viewer with its narrative rationale, but instead succeeds in winning our suspension of disbelief.

Shadow of the Thin Man presents Powell in his most famous persona as private detective Nick Charles. The fourth of a series of six Thin Man films, Shadow of the Thin Man was the last film of the series to be directed by W.S. Van Dyke before his death. Van Dyke had directed the previous three films, which accounts for their consistent wit and style. The two films which came after this one (The Thin Man Goes Home and The Song of the Thin Man) are noticeably lacking the urbane polish of Van Dyke's productions which lead to the films' loss of popularity at the time. As murder mysteries go, the Thin Man films became increasingly marginal, but as witty comedy films they remained fresh and inventive and were the best showcase for the "perfectly married" teamwork of Powell and Loy.

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