“Who are those guys?” [Paul Newman speaking to Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)]
Do you ever remember that commercial ad jingle for Doublemint Gum? You know, the one where a pair of disgustingly sweet twins (probably escapees from Dr. Josef Mengele”s test lab) are sweetly singing…
Double your pleasure
Double your fun…
And then they go on to hawk Doublemint Gum to the masses of humanity for their consumption. Well besides it being a source of future income to the dental profession from the countless cavities it probably caused in children’s teeth, the jingle’s theme also bounced around in our brains more often than a 22 caliber bullet fired by a Mafia hitman into our skulls. The Entertainment Industry discovered very early on in its existence (probably when fire was first invented), that there was great value (in other words, “Make more Money”) if you had more than one performer entertaining the masses. Famous literary authors used the conception of a team [“The Three Musketeers”, “Kidnapped” (David Balfour and Alan Breck), Holmes and Watson, etc.] to attain financial success. The film industry also picked up on this factor almost immediately and soon you had actors teaming up in everything to help create a successful film. This development is what this month’s post will further discuss.
One of the easiest uses of two or more individuals was in comedy. In a previous post I discussed comedy teams for another subject. Groups like The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, for example, learned their trade first on the theater stage and later transferred their acts to the silver screen where they found even greater success. However, when it came to drama, that is when Hollywood teams really started to take off. Two mega-teams (there were others but I want to discuss these two) struck Hollywood “Gold” in the 1930s. One was with two males and the other was with a male and a female.
The male and female example was William Powell and Myrna Loy in the movie, “The Thin Man” (1934) which was based on the book by Dashiell Hammett. Powell and Loy were established stars already but their natural chemistry together really made their movie a huge hit. In retrospect, the movie does not hold up well at all but their playful bantering between each other is what still makes it worth a look. It’s success also resulted in a series of five additional films being made (sequels were also an important Hollywood cash cow). An even bigger successful team with two of the biggest male stars in all of Hollywood were Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy who were teamed up together in three hit movies (“San Francisco”, “Test Pilot”, and “Boom Town”). A lot of people thought that they were together in more than just 3 films since they had such a strong influence whenever they were together. Another team-up which had this same effect was when Paul Newman and Robert Redford were paired together.
Newman and Redford were only teamed up twice (“Butch Cassidy…” and “The Sting”) but, like Gable and Tracy, they were so natural together that it seemed like they were in more movies and for a far longer period of time. Other successful team-ups could also occur with the same actor. Spencer Tracy, once again, had one of the most famous of all when he was hooked up with actress (and ultimately, long term romantic partner) Katharine Hepburn in a total of 8 films together. They were able to both do either comedy or drama equally well which helped to cement their place as two of Hollywood’s all time greats.
A later version of a great team-up in which two actors teamed up not only in movies but also on TV and in the theater were Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Their partnership lasted from 1948 to 1986 during which time they did six movies together along with one TV movie, “Victory at Entebbe” (1978), and the stage play, “The Boys of Autumn” (1981) although it folded in its’ pre-Broadway try out. Maybe their best film together was “Seven Days in May” (1964) directed by John Frankenheimer. The movie, based on the hit novel by Fletcher Knebel, was a political thriller about an attempted military takeover of the U.S. government. Lancaster played a US Air Force General and leader of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who plotted the coup while Douglas played a USMC Colonel and the General’s assistant, who becomes his adversary when he uncovers possible evidence of the upcoming coup. The fine screenplay by Rod Serling along with taut direction by Frankenheimer made this movie a suspenseful nail-biter that still holds up after all these years. However, the movie is anchored by Lancaster and Douglas who both give powerhouse performances ably supported by fine veteran actors such as Edmond O’Brien (who was Supporting Oscar nominated) and Fredric March (who should have been Oscar nominated too). This was one of five movies in which Frankenheimer directed Lancaster and which also leads me into discussing another form of team-up: Actors with Directors!
There are a number of reasons why certain actors were repeatedly directed by certain directors. During the early decades of Hollywood, usually up into the nineteen sixties, most actors had almost no say at all over whether they could either work with a particular director, let alone, whether they could even pick their own director or studio for a particular film or even to choose a particular film to star in. Also, usually a director had limited say over what actors they wanted for a particular film. Usually, either the film’s producer or even the head of a studio were the ones who called the shots. With the slow end of the “studio” system brought about by such influences as television, and legal victories like (1) giving actors the right to better negotiate studio contracts that previously could be as long as seven years or more, and (2) studios losing the right to control or own motion picture theaters which could only show their own films exclusively, the power shifted to actors, screenplay writers, and other independent studios and investors. Now, you didn’t have to be James Cagney or Olivia de Havilland who went through mega-legal fights with studios in order to have greater freedom in handling their own careers.
However, I am not going to go into the reasons why certain directors choose and directed certain actors. I am going to just list some of the most famous director and actor team-ups and some of their films:
1. Humphrey Bogart and John Huston
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were a great acting team. Together they did four movies which were highly successful. However, a far better team was in the collaboration of director John Huston with Humphrey Bogart. Huston directed Bogart six times and in three of them, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” (1948) and “The African Queen” (1951) Bogart gave Oscar worthy performances (although he only was nominated for one which he won an Oscar for in “The African Queen”). Interestingly, as an aside, Huston only directed one of the Bogart and Bacall movies [“Key Largo” (1948)] and, while it was a good movie, there was no particular chemistry of note between Bogart and Bacall who had a lesser secondary role. However, when Huston years earlier directed him in “The Maltese Falcon” and “Across the Pacific” (1942) there definitely was major chemistry with his co-star, actress Mary Astor. There has never been any real mention of their chemistry together but if you ever get a chance, see both of these movies (especially “Pacific”). Astor could rival Bacall’s chemistry in Spades (and I don’t mean “Sam” either)!
2. John Wayne and John Ford
As I mentioned in a prior post, John Ford is my pick for the greatest director of all time. His brilliance in getting incredible performances out of actors (even less talented ones) is legendary. And that definitely applies to his long term collaboration with John Wayne. Ford directed Wayne in 14 films and Wayne became a mainstream star instantly after his first starring role for Ford in “Stagecoach” (1939). Wayne was always more of a star than an actor but Ford knew what roles Wayne could play really well which almost always consisted of Westerns and military roles. Whenever Wayne did something different for other Directors such as playing Genghis Khan (I’m not kidding…) in “The Conqueror” (1956) or as an old eye-patch wearing Roman centurion in the 1965 “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (“Truly this man was the Son of God…Yea-Ha-Ha-Ha…”) he was unintentionally and hysterically awful. Wayne’s performances in the Ford Westerns “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) and “The Searchers” (1956) both deserved Oscar nominations and are also on my Top Ten List of Greatest Westerns ever made. Wayne may have helped to make Ford’s pictures better, at times, but Ford was the one who made Wayne a mega-star!
3. (a) Bette Davis and William Wyler and (b) Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan
I’ve included both of these team-ups together because they are very similar. Both Davis and Brando were only directed by Wyler and Kazan three times (although Brando was also directed on stage by Kazan for “A Streetcar Named Desire” before he did the film version). Both actors received Best Actor Oscar nominations for all three films and both actors won an Oscar for one of their roles [Davis for “Jezebel” (1938) and Brando for “On the Waterfront” (1954)]. Both actors praised Wyler or Kazan for their direction and for their skill in eliciting and improving their acting performances. And both directors were able to deal with two extremely demanding and difficult to control actors who could easily be a problem to enable them to create almost magical performances for films that have stood the test of time:
- “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)
- “Viva Zapata” (1952)
- “On the Waterfront” (1954)
- “Jezebel” (1938)
- “The Letter” (1940)
- “The Little Foxes” (1941)
4. Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese
Bet you all thought I’d never list a more recent team-up! Well here is one of the most recent, and long term successful team-ups. Scorsese has directed De Niro in 9 films along with one short film, and they have even acted together in “Guilty by Suspicion” (1991) and provided their voices to the animated “Shark Tale” (2004). They have been doing films together since 1973 and under Scorsese, De Niro has been nominated for Best Actor 3 times for “Taxi Driver” (1974), “Raging Bull” (1980), and “Cape Fear” (1991) winning for “Raging Bull” [although he should have also won for “Taxi Driver” (and you don’t even have to be …”you talkin’ to me” to agree)]!
Well that’s it for now. I feel that the success of different types of team-ups, whether it was among actors or between a Director and an actor were primarily due to the individuals also either liking each other personally and/or having respect for each other’s talents. That is what made their collaborations work. Hmmm? Of course I wonder if I can amend the prior statement to exclude “The Expendables” has-been actor movie franchise?