Saturday, 19 May 2012

Giving Credit Where It's Due: A Rumination on the Life of A Character Actor, Credited and Uncredited

Note Cary Grant's name on cast list 
One of the pleasures of a movie collection is gaining an appreciation of the performers who play the parts that are not the leading roles in many of  our favourite films. In old Hollywood studio movies the leads and supports seem reasonably well demarcated. With the exception of a few like Humphrey Bogart who made it big time after being cast in a string of supporting parts in mediocre films, the best looking actors usually got the lead roles in big budget prestige movies. Cary Grant was more conventionally handsome than Bogart, say, but he also did not become a star overnight, but managed an uncertain career  through years of dogged  persistence, and the emergence of a talent that may have taken an unsuspecting audience unawares, considering his looks.

 Other performers, who were  not so dependent upon their, -- shall we say 'presentation', were given the smaller parts which hopefully contributed to the narrative and a significant amount of audience attention. Character actors such as Thelma Ritter, Peter Lorre, Anthony Quinn and Claude Rains became performers of renown in their own right with a body of work that impresses us today, maybe more than ever before. It could be argued that  character actors are the ones the audience want to actually know and remember for later, after  the names of the  performers in the leading parts have long escaped us. Which is maybe as it should be.

Bogart's name way down the list
I have my own list of favourite supporting players, and I am sure others do as well. The list of their credits may seem endless if like me, you enjoy using the IMDB  to research the work of your favourite supporting players  that may have escaped from under your personal radar. And because many golden age films only listed the minimum number of credits, I can say that  the IMDB has insinuated itself into my psyche,  for the purpose of identifying performers who have either not received a credit at all,  or an acknowledgement of the part that they played at the film's conclusion. Most if not all old movies have performer credit listings before the movie begins. Some studios did not always feel the need to have them after the movie was over.  'The End' card  was displayed  and that meant literally the end of the movie. By the time you were thinking to yourself  "that was good but I wonder who played so-and-so", the movie was finished and you were meant to get back to your life and forget about it.

But the reality is that not all of the films our favourite supporting actors made in the past are actually  available for us to view today. Take Claude Rains for instance. Naturally, I am well  aware of Rains' best known films such as "Casablanca", "Notorious" and "The Invisible Man", the first two at least made when Rains was at the peak of his career. However, I am also aware that "Lady With Red Hair" (1940); "White Tower" (1950); and the  remake of "The Lost World" (1960) would be for Claude Rains completists only. To me, they're only listings on the IMDB which I am doubtful of ever seeing.

Now, who doesn't know for example, that Thelma Ritter plays the maid in "All About Eve", even if you're like me who. with some shame has to admit hasn't  even seen the movie? The movie, and Thelma Ritter's presence in it, are that iconic. Then again, who has ever heard of "I'll Get By" (1950); "The Second Time Around" (1961); or "The Proud and the Profane" (1956), except for those hard core Thelma Ritter fans  who are champing at the bit to see the complete output she made throughout her illustrious career no matter how good or bad it may be?
Robert Osterloh plays a convict in White heat

 After a period of adjustment to that fact, I have found myself seeking out the identities of some character actors (two in particular), who never received a credit in the movies I first saw them in. Their bodies of work seem like an open book, compared to the iconic status of many supporting players from the classic era who are well known today, but  whose best known work is probably the only opportunity we may ever have of seeing them. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I would like to point out that there are other performers just as deserving of our praise. We finally have the opportunity to discover who they might have been, the other work they did, and why we should give them, finally some attention.

One of my favourite unknown supporting players: Lawrence Dobkin
Two supporting actors have captured my attention over a number of years until I was so upset at not knowing who they were, I just had to look up the IMDB to make sure I wasn't hallucinating their presence(s). One is an actor by the name of Robert Osterloh (1918-2001), and the other is Lawrence Dobkin (1919-2002).

 I first came across Robert Osterloh in "White Heat". This is one of James Cagney's best known films, an iconic Warners gangster film packed with a lot of action as well as a good helping of weird Freudian goings-on. Osterloh's name is not listed with the other performers at the beginning of the film, and there are no credits at the end. Osterloh plays Tommy Ryley, a small-time hood and Cagney's right-hand man when he admits to a relatively minor offence and has to do some time in prison. It's a great part that Osterloh has. It has a reasonable amount of screen time and he and Cagney make a great team.

At the end of the film I was keen to know who played the part of 'Tommy Ryley', and why he wasn't given any credit for it was a mystery to me. Since I didn't know what his name was, I had to remember his face in case he popped up again in some of my other favourite titles. And he did. But I still didn't know his name! That came later. The clip I'm including below from White Heat is pertinent. Osterloh is sitting on Cagney's right-hand side as Cagney is about to do something pretty spectacular. Osterloh has to communicate to Cagney some bad news, and just watch what Cagney does when he finds out.

After some time, I also noticed Robert Osterloh in two more of my favourite . films, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". They are only small roles, and both of these are also uncredited. If you think I'm only making this up you can check out his IMDB page here, where you can see that Robert Osterloh has a list of performances, both credited and uncredited, as long as your arm. These include, but are not limited to Rosemary's Baby  (uncr); Inherit the Wind (uncr); Violent Saturday (uncr); The Wild One (credited); Pinky and Criss Cross (uncr); and Gun Crazy directed by Joseph Lewis (credited.) He also had an extensive presence on television, appearing in such successful shows as Perry Mason; Laramie; Wagon Train; and Ironside, all classic television shows that are still remembered today.So, if I wanted to be a Robert Osterloh completist, I would certainly have a long haul ahead of me. But I'll never forget him in 'White Heat', and my journey to find out his identity, for the simple reason I thought it wasn't fair that he should receive no credit.

The case of Lawrence Dobkin (aka Larry Dobkin), is not dissimilar. Lawrence Dobkin first came to my attention in 'Sweet Smell of Success', a classic 50s film about the doings of a famous columnist played by Burt Lancaster and his weasel of press agent played by Tony Curtis.  Dobkin plays a rival press agent of Curtis' named Leo Bartha. Bartha gets embroiled in a scheme to separate Lancaster's sister (Susan Harrison) from her boyfriend (Martin Milner). Lawrence Dobkin is not credited at the beginning of the film with the other players, nor at the end, and it struck me as strange. It's a good part with its fair share of screen time; it is also well written so we don't know what to actually think of Bartha. The clip I'm including from 'Sweet Smell of Success' has a scene where Bartha is exposed to his wife as a heel, rather than a man of principle after years of kow-towing to others in order to keep on their good side.  I think it's his best scene in the film and starts at 1:57.

I also discovered Lawrence Dobkin's participation in a few other films that I was acquainted with, most notably The Defiant Ones (credited); Them (uncr.) and North by Northwest (uncr).  Other titles he appeared in include 'The Ten Commandments (credited); Twelve O'Clock High; Deadline USA; and Whirlpool (all uncr.). You can check out Lawrence Dobkins' IMDB page here to see his full list of credited and uncredited appearances. As well as working in front of the camera, Dobkin has 72 credits as a director of television series and these include but are not limited to Gilligan's Island; The Munsters; and 77 Sunset Strip. So if you just watched that clip from Sweet Smell of Success, you'll see what a talented actor Dobkin really was, and how, judging from his credits, we will probabaly never get to see everthing he ever did in front of, as well as behind the camera. I should also note that he may be best known in the United States as the narrator of the television series Naked City. He has a distinctive voice like most good actors, but since he wasn't seen, his actual appearances in front of the camera were not nearly as well known as they might have been.

Anyway, I should go back now and resume making my tenuous connections, and modest proposals for an extension of the canonical names in supporting history. Let's hope some performers become better known, as their work deserves to be credited as part of the history of film.

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