Louis Mazzini: “As in an old Italian proverb: revenge is the dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold.” [Dennis Price, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949)]
For this month’s Blog Post I’m going to do something a little different. It will pertain to a term that we have all heard of, applied as a label to, and seen exhibited by, a select few in different ways. That term is “Genius.” As defined, it can mean:
- Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability, or…
- A person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.
When you think of the term do you immediately think of individuals like Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs, or artistic greats like Rembrandt, Beethoven, and Boxcar Willie… (No, I have not gone off the deep end! That last one was just to see if you were starting to fall asleep yet!). Since this Blog delves into film, television, etc. along with the various individuals involved both in front of and behind the camera, who would you categorize as being an artistic genius in the visual arts? Better yet, how about say, we limit it to just, actors! Maybe you might say, “Lawrence Olivier.” Maybe you might say, “Marlon Brando.” Or maybe you just might say, “Meryl Streep” too! The names and the opinions on this subject can go on and on. However, one thing that cannot go, on and on, is my not explicitly saying what this month’s post will be about. Hence, I will explain what it is in further detail.
This month I am going to talk about a specific actor who is well known to older Farts like myself, and maybe to younger ones too, specifically, for one immensely popular motion picture that he made when he was older. Unfortunately, this person has been dead for over twenty years now, but honestly, he was a truly great actor who could easily fit into the “Genius” discussion very well. However, it might not be so well known, even to my fellow contemporaries, that this individual was an incredibly gifted and great comic actor, one who I have always felt was a comic genius who did a series of remarkable comedy performances, one after the other during a select period of time in a number of motion pictures that, unfortunately, have been shown, too infrequently now, if at all. Why he has not been better remembered for his comedy performances might have been due more to his acclaimed dramatic performances during the middle, and the later portion of his career. That is what this month’s post will be all about! I will discuss his comedy films along with his performances in them during a brief eight-year period to make my case, and to hopefully see if you will concur.
Over the years it has been disputed that Oscar winning veteran character actor Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street”, actually said, while on his deathbed that, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard!” However, similar words to that effect have been said by other actors throughout the years. Also, many individuals in the acting profession have readily admitted that comic actors are usually better able to play serious dramatic roles simply because it was actually easier for them to do drama rather than to act in a comedy. Marlon Brando, for example, desperately wanted to do more comedy roles in his career, but for some of the ones that he actually did do such as, “The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956) and “Bedtime Story” (1964), his comic acting was seriously panned. However, as a quick aside, regarding “Bedtime Story,” repeat my mantra: “The Critics are full of Shit!” Brando gave a hysterical performance and “Story” was a very funny comedy. See it! And now, back to the Blog Post!
In any case, before you start screaming, “Who is the actor that I am referring to already?” I will finally tell you. It is…
Yep! Good old Obi-Wan Kenobi for all of you younger folks who watched way too many different versions of “Star Wars,” Alec Guinness! Guinness made a bunch of great comedies from the period of 1949 all the way up to 1957. Let’s start with his first really great comedy performance in 1949. Guinness, who was already a film actor of note due to his prior dramatic performances in two adaptions, both directed by David Lean, of the Charles Dickens Novels’ “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948) had the good fortune at age 34, to finally latch onto an acting role in a film that would make him a star. Ops! Did I say a role? That’s the singular! I should have used the plural and said, “roles” as in more than one. How many you ask? How about nine as in nine different characters both male and female. The film was the dark Victorian comedy classic, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) which was about Louis D’Ascovne Mazzini (Dennis Price), the son of a woman disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying out of her social class and who, after her death, vows to kill all of the family members (who were played by Guinness) ahead of himself in the line of succession to take the title of duke and the dukedom. Even though Guinness did not have the main role and was only originally supposed to play four roles, he thought that the screenplay was so funny he beseeched Ealing Studios to let him play all eight roles (he ultimately wound up playing nine in all). Although a number of the roles were brief or short, he still made every one unique and different while capturing the overall dark humor of their demise by the villainous Mazzini. He took to playing all the different roles very seriously, so much so that quickly transferring from one character to another but keeping in character and not mixing them up was a real challenge. However, he pulled it off, and the end result was comedy perfection.
His next great comic performance, but this one more of a drama highlighted with comedy and, ultimately, tragedy was the film, “Last Holiday” (1950). Here Guinness played George Bird, an older, plain, unassuming, lower-class salesman of agricultural implements who, after having a routine physical, is told that he has an incurable illness that will kill him in a matter of weeks. Being a long-time bachelor with no family or friends, George decides to take his meager savings and enjoy his remaining time at a high-end hotel populated with an affluent crowd. Sporting a phony refined upper-class accent and acquiring, by chance, two suitcases loaded with a high-end wardrobe from a used clothing store he settles into the hotel with everyone believing him to be a wealthy gentleman. From that point on, his life completely changes because his unassuming attitude of treating everyone he meets decently attracts everyone to him like a magnet. Now he has friends, is respected and even has possibilities at romance and business success just from his own decency and new willingness to live life to the fullest. Unfortunately, fate has other plans for George. This was Guinness’s first real lead role in a film and he is alternatively amusing and ultimately heartbreaking in the role. His reactions to the changes in his life are so believable that it’s like you honestly feel these changes right along with him. By the time the final ironic twist in the film occurs, I dare anyone to not be emotionally moved by Guinness’s touching and gentle performance.
In 1951, Guinness did two more great comedies for, once again, Ealing Studios and which brought him further international fame. The first one was the wildly comic “The Lavender Hill Mob.” In “Mob,” Guinness gave another chameleon-like performance as Henry Holland, a meek looking bespectacled and nerdish middle-aged London bank clerk in charge of gold bullion deliveries for over 20 years. Holland, who wants to retire in luxury, hatches a plan to steal a load of bullion and have his new friend, Alfred (Stanley Holloway), who owns a nearby foundry, melt the bullion down and make them into Eiffel Tower paperweights for smuggling into France. Of course, the plan first succeeds but when a few of the paperweights are accidently sold to some schoolchildren, the race is on for the two of them to get the paperweights back before the authorities find out. Here, Guinness is a pure comic delight wearing a bowler hat along with his meek face lighting up like a little delighted child as his manipulations unfold. His animated reactions are almost like seeing a cartoon character in human form. “Mob” earned Guinness his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and it did win writer T.E.B. Clarke the Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. However, for that year he wasn’t finished yet. Next came his second hit, the satirical science fiction film comedy (Yep, you heard that one right!), “The Man in the White Suit.”
For “Suit” he played Sidney Stratton, a brilliant, young (and even with a full head of hair, too) research chemist obsessed with inventing an everlasting cloth-like fiber. While working as just a mill worker, he accidentally becomes an unpaid researcher and ultimately succeeds in his goal of inventing an incredibly strong cloth-like material that repels dirt and never wears out. However, when a suit is quickly made from the material it turns out to be of a brilliant white color because the material cannot absorb dye along with it being slightly luminous because it contains some radioactive elements. Although Stratton states that it is not something that cannot be solved, he soon has an even bigger problem that may never be solved. Namely, once the average consumer purchases enough of the new fabric, the entire textile industry will be effectively put out of business. Now both labor and management team up to try and stop him even going so far as to temporarily kidnap him to force Sidney to sign away the rights to his new textile invention. Here Guinness’s character is a youthful mix of intelligence, ambition, and naivety with his obsessive enthusiasm making himself blind to the possible real-world effects of his new invention. Yet he is so down to earth and, at times, awkwardly likeable that you just can’t keep from rooting for him. His performance is especially helped by the fine Oscar nominated screenplay and by the ever-underrated actress Joan Greenwood who had maybe the smokiest, and sexiest sounding voice of any actress ever alive as Daphine, the Mill owner’s daughter who at first tries to entice Sidney into signing the rights away but, enchanted by his earnestness, becomes both his ally and romantic interest instead. They have great chemistry together, and their film scenes as a couple are maybe, the best thing in the whole movie. Here Guinness showed a romantic side that was never displayed before and it helped to make “The Man in the White Suit” a great film.
Three of the four Guinness films that I just profiled here (excluding “Last Holiday”) were under the auspices of Ealing Studios who made great British comedies. However, Guinness was such a fine actor that he could give great comedy performances even for films that were not made under Ealing. This was apparent for the next two films that I want to mention. The first one was for the 1952 film, “The Card” (AKA “The Promoter”). Guinness played the character of Denry Machin, the son of a poor washerwoman in turn of the century England who, despite what he lacked in wealth and social standing, he more than made up for in ambition, drive, and determination backed by an eternal optimism along with a little conniving guile. The movie charted his rise to wealth and success including ultimately finding love along the way. This was basically an old fashioned “feel good” cute movie where the humor was more restrained. However, it was also a film where you could still find yourself smiling right along with the perpetually smiling Denry. In Denry, Guinness played someone decidedly younger than his current age of 38 back then. However, despite that, he maybe, never had a more charming or romantic a role with such fine actresses as Valerie Hobson, Glynis Johns, and a young, enchanting Petula Clark playing the ladies beguiled by a man who was literally “A Card”, or namely, someone who was truly regarded as a character, but who was always amusing and never dull. An altogether lighter, yet subtler fine comedy performance by Guinness.
The second comedy film that Guinness made outside of Ealing Studios was “The Captain’s Paradise” (1953) which was made the following year. This one was a straight, satirical, ”sex farce” with Guinness as Captain Henry St. James, the owner and captain of a small passenger ship ferrying individuals to and from Gibraltar and the North African port of Kalique. Oh, and he is also a bigamist too with his domestic wife Maud (Celia Johnson) and their two children in Gibraltar, and his hot-blooded, passionate wife Nita (Yvonne De Carlo) in Kalique. Here his character is a far different type of romantic lead than the one he played in “The Card.” His St. James is someone a little older than Denry, but with a more rakish type of charm then the innocent Denry, and Guinness plays him as someone oozing with Devilish mischief behind the façade of a quiet, sober, early to bed family man with one wife, and as a wild, loud, nightlife loving hedonist with the other. This role also gave Guinness the opportunity to play someone with two completely different personas, and his over-the-top performance in both roles is a riot. Some of his facial expressions alone throughout the film are worth the price of admission. Although he was not usually known for his physical humor, Guinness had the ability to do it (in real life he was a yoga practitioner), and here, he demonstrated it in hilarious fashion in a wild late night dance number with De Carlo. In “The Captain’s Paradise”, Guinness is just plain, laugh out loud funny!
The last two Guinness comedy performances that I want to highlight are films with Guinness back, once again, under the umbrella of the Ealing Studios. The first film was the black comedy classic, “The Ladykillers” (1955). This one was another different sort of Guinness performance. “Ladykillers” was an ensemble comedy headlined by Guinness playing sinister Professor Marcus, a more than a little mentally cracked criminal semi-mastermind. Our professor has assembled a gang to execute a sophisticated bank van robbery at London King’s Cross railway station. The professor and the other members of the gang consisting of Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers (in his first major role), rent rooms pretending to be musicians needing a place to practice while actually coordinating their plan for the robbery. Their plan ultimately succeeds, but there’s just one little problem (I know you are saying…” Not that one little problem thing again!”), the little old landlady (Katie Johnson) later catches them with the van money and wants to tell the police. From that moment on, all comedy Hell starts to break out!
For this film, Guinness didn’t have to carry the comedy high jinks all by himself. Every member of his gang, along with Johnson, had their own comic moments to shine. Also, Guinness’s character of Professor Marcus was originally written for the great veteran comedy character actor Alastair Sim, but when Sim was not available, Guinness got the role. Hence, Guinness decided to play the Marcus character in the humorous but sinister style that Sim was well known for even having himself altered by makeup to have a marked resemblance to Sim. His appearance was of someone with disheveled white hair, oversized teeth, and an almost ghoulish bewildered look all the time. Despite Guinness being thinner than the hulking Sim, it was an almost perfect impression of the actor. Guinness is hysterical in the role playing the creepy Marcus with a horrible grin and a horrible laugh while doing little physical things like his manic tugging on the scarf around his neck after Johnson steps on it while it is hanging down on the floor showing his growing frustration with all of his carefully laid plans starting to fall apart due to the sweet, befuddled, Johnson. Guinness, who was always very insecure about his talent, originally thought that he was too old for the part, if you can believe it! He needn’t have worried. “The Ladykillers” is a classic!
The last great Guinness comedy performance during this period was for the Ealing Studios film, “Barnacle Bill” (AKA “All at Sea”) in 1957. He played Captain William Ambrose, a retired Royal Navy Captain coming from a long line of distinguished naval ancestors, but who, unfortunately, suffers from intense debilitating seasickness which keeps him on land during his naval service just testing different cures for his malady to no avail. Now, still missing being in charge of something approximating a naval command, he decides to purchase a dilapidated Victorian era amusement pier, fix it up, run its operation like a ship while installing a dance hall, a place to drink, and a sort of refuge for those who would like to be on something approaching a sea cruise but still have the safety of land. Of course, he soon runs into conflict from the local town council who want to see him fail so they can just condemn the pier and tear it down. This was a lightweight comedy that Guinness only did as a favor for the Director, and upon its completion, he thought that overall, it wasn’t very good. However, “Bill” still had many virtues. First, the screenplay was again written by T.E.B. Clarke, who previously wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for “The Lavender Hill Mob”. Second, the film gave Guinness the opportunity to play six of his various naval ancestors in a couple of hilarious sequences incorporating everything from being a caveman in a rudimentary sort of boat to his father’s semi-comic demise during the World War I Battle of Jutland. Third, he played Ambrose in a completely straight, serious manner which made him even funnier in how he constantly has to deal with all of the many problems that arise from being a naval commander of a pier. Fourth, he had the opportunity to do some great physical comedy, once again, when our strait-laced Captain breaks into some serious boogieing on the dance floor with a much younger babe while maintaining a wild silly grin on his face. Maybe Guinness didn’t like the film, but his wonderful comic performance still managed to keep the whole Darn thing afloat!
Well, now at this point, Dear Reader, I am concluding this Blog Post chronicling Alec Guinness’s great comedy film roles. The reason I’m choosing to do so is because, in 1957 after Guinness also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the great, Best Picture Oscar winner that year, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (and which is on my “Top Ten” Movie List of all time), things seemed to change. Ealing Studios was bought by the BBC in 1955, and although films under their name like “Bill” were still being made up to 1957, the great comedy writers, directors, and actors like Guinness, moved on to doing different things. Although Guinness still continued to give other great comedy performances for a few years after in films such as “The Horse’s Mouth” (1958) and “Our Man in Havana” (1959), he increasingly did far more drama than comedy. It also didn’t help that, in his later years his comedy films were not very good, and his performances in them were nowhere near as memorable. Maybe his film performances in those films didn’t ignite the same fire and artistic comic creativity he had when he was younger. Maybe other great comic actors, like Peter Sellers (who idolized Guinness), and could also play multiple characters in films now got the prime comic roles instead of him in the nineteen sixties and the seventies. Who knows? All I do know is that, for a brief eight-year period, never has anyone done so many varied and fine comedy performances as Alec Guinness did, and all the while still being a great dramatic actor too!
Whether you want to agree with me or not that Alec Guinness was a “comic genius”, I hope that you will at least agree with me that he was a great actor, period!