Saturday, March 3, 2012

Top 10 Male Performances of the 1940s

Since everything about movie reviews is stupid, I have decided to go ahead and make more lists -- because the world needs more lists, evidently. So here is my top 10 countdown of the best (and my personal favorite) male acting performances of the 1940s.

Now normally I would just post a list like this in direct order with no frills and you wouldn't have to scroll past meaningless lines of text to see it. But I'm not letting you off that easy this time. No, no, no, this time I'm going to actually write about why I have chosen these performances, so you'll have to do even more scrolling to actually see the list. Why am I doing this? Because I'm evil and I hate you, that's why. So, without any further meaningless lines of rambling text, I present my list... along with some more meaningless lines of rambling text.

#10 - Claude Rains in Casablanca

My first entry, one of the finest performances by one of the greatest supporting actors in cinematic history: Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca. As much as I love Bogart's iconic performance as the cynical Rick Blaine, it's Claude Rains who I feel really deserves most of the praise. In his difficult role, he manages to take what could have easily been a stereotypical antagonistic role and makes him into the most entertaining character in the movie. Balancing the perfect level of villainy and humor, Rains garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for this performance, thought he wasn't able to grab the win. Pity.

#9 - Lionel Barrymore in It's A Wonderful Life

Coming in at number 9, Lionel Barrymore's performance as the villainous Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's holiday classic It's A Wonderful Life. Not only is he one of the most iconic villains in film history, but he's also a perfect representative of Frank Capra's antagonistic archetype -- an old man whose entire goal in life is to make as much money as possible, despite the ill effects it may have on everyone else. But unlike other Capra villains (and the eerily similar Ebenezer Scrooge), Mr. Potter has no redeeming qualities; no change of character that reveals the good-natured, kind old man at his core. Greed personified, Barrymore's performance is delightfully wicked and one of the most memorable movie villains ever.

#8 - Cary Grant in His Girl Friday

Cary Grant, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history (don't believe me? He hit #2 on AFI's countdown of the greatest male stars in movie history) in his most hilarious role as the fast-talking news editor Walter Burns in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday. As cornball as this movie may be, I simply love it. The dialogue being the main draw for me, and most of said dialogue is delivered by Grant, with the excellent help of his co-star Rosalind Russell (who also generates quite a few laughs). With brilliant comedic timing and an arsenal of one-liners, this would have to go down as one of my all-time favorite comedic performances. Charming as usual, Grant's banter with the almost-equivalent Russell is almost too much fun to watch. It's hard to believe that between this and The Philadelphia Story Grant didn't receive any kind of awards recognition back in 1940, but that doesn't change the fact that this performance is absolutely hilarious. And now on to something far more serious.

#7 - Laurence Olivier in Rebecca

At number 7, Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. The only reason I don't have this performance ranked higher is because of Olivier's performance in the 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, where he plays a similarly afflicted character. No, they're not interchangeable characters, but they're similar enough for me to draw the imaginary comparison, so this one suffers for it due to being made one year later. Nonetheless, Olivier's performance here as an emotionally detached widower is one of the finest of his career, even surpassing his career-defining performance in Hamlet -- the performance that won him an Oscar for Best Actor in 1948. This movie is also notable for being Alfred Hitchcock's one and only Best Picture-winning film, and I believe that is largely due to Olivier's magnificent performance. Few actors at this point in time could portray the intense pain and inner turmoil that Olivier was capable of, and his performance here is a perfect representative of his skill in that department.

#6 - Broderick Crawford in All The King's Men

Just missing out on the top 5, Broderick Crawford's Oscar-winning portrayal of fictional politician Willie Stark in the 1949 drama All The King's Men. Remade in 2006 with Sean Penn in the lead role, it's hard to believe a movie this great could be remade. This remake didn't do too well, both critically and commercially (SURPRISE!!!), and I feel it is largely due to the lack of a central performance as compelling as the one provided by Broderick Crawford; Not to mention the fact that this basic plot has been done a million times already, and the only reason this one worked is because it was done early and done well. Crawford perfectly encapsulates the crooked nature of a politician and his eventual corruption. Seeing him transform from a "good ole boy" to a power-hungry tyrant is perfectly-paced, never failing at any point to be both compelling and believable. I'm personally not a huge fan of political movies, but when they feature a performance as hypnotizing as Broderick Crawford's was in this film, I would be more than happy to give them a shot.

#5 - Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

The strongest performance of his career (and strangely enough, one he didn't earn an Oscar nomination for), my number 5 slot goes to Humphrey Bogart for his performance as Fred C. Dobbs in John Huston's classic western The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Before I watched this film, I had the notion that Humphrey Bogart was one of those actors who was all presence and no range. Having only seen Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon at this point, I was amazed at what I saw here. In a remarkably gritty role for a star of his profile (you must remember this was in the 1940s), I was completely floored by this daring performance. Being quite possibly the biggest movie star in history (at least that's what AFI says), I feel it was his performance in this movie that was the major turning point for movie stars, opening up the possibility for much less conventional roles for leading men of his stature. Gritty, powerful, and influential, Humphrey Bogart's descent into greed-fueled madness makes for one of the most interesting characters in film history, and certainly one of the strongest performances.

#4 - Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

Aren't you happy I didn't put this #1? Though that would have probably been the biggest cop-out in history, it would be one I'd find very hard to argue with. Here at number 4, Orson Welles' acting debut as news tycoon Charles Foster Kane in what is often considered the greatest movie ever made: Citizen Kane. The fact alone that this was Welles' screen debut makes this all the more impressive; that paired with his brilliant transformations through time as the movie progresses is truly remarkable. To go into great detail why this performance is so great would be unoriginal and redundant on my part, so I'll spare you the agony and skip straight on through to my next entry.

#3 - Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend

Before, when I said that Bogart's performance was uncharacteristically gritty and powerful for its time, I forgot to mention Ray Milland's incredible, raw performance as alcoholic writer Don Birnam in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend. Seeing that this movie was made in 1945 still surprises me to this day. How something so dark and poignant could have been made at that point in time is incredible to me, and the lead performance by Milland is even more of a surprise. Ray Milland (who won a well-deserved Oscar for this and seemed to sink into obscurity shortly afterward) is indescribably good in this movie. Taking what could have easily come across as a preachy melodrama PSA warning us all about the dangers of alcohol abuse and virtually single-handedly turning it into one of the most powerful dramas of all-time is no small feat. This is not to demean Billy Wilder in any way, as his incredible script and direction kept him on track, but without Milland, this movie could have easily been a failure. His sympathetic portrait of the doomed alcoholic puts Nicolas Cage's Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas to shame. And now on to something far less serious.

#2 - Edmund Gwenn in Miracle On 34th Street

In second place comes what could quite possibly be the most lovable acting performance of all-time: Edmund Gwenn's portrayal of Kris Kringle in Miracle On 34th Street. Remade in 1994 with the guy who makes dinosaurs in Jurassic Park filling in as Santa, I would have to put that down as one of the worst re-castings in movie history. Not that Richard Attenborough is "bad", per se, but he completely falls flat in comparison. You see, everything about Gwenn is perfect in this movie. It doesn't even feel like you're watching a performance at all -- for 96 minutes you are watching Santa Claus starring in a movie about himself. Being able to personify one of the most beloved characters in the history of mankind earns you points in my book. In fact, as I think about it I'm not quite sure why he's only coming in at 2nd on this list, but I've made up my mind and that's that. Winning the Best Supporting Actor in 1947 (a more well-deserved Oscar is hard to find), Edmund Gwenn fully encapsulates everything there is to love about Santa in this wonderfully endearing performance. That being said, onto my #1...

#1 - James Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life

Coming in at number 1 on my list, James Stewart as George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life. Here is a character that is so good and pure, it's hard not to want to be just like him. And what better actor to portray someone so lovable than Jimmy Stewart? But this isn't just a happy-go-lucky performance, George Bailey is a fully fleshed-out character with real emotions and real flaws that come to the fore as the story progresses. Near the end as the pressures of his life begin to suffocate him and on the verge of suicide, we see him at his most vulnerable. His gradual progression is timed impeccably, and it can at times be hard to watch, seeing a man who is so truly good hit rock bottom. But that is what makes this performance so amazing. Not often do you feel this much for a character -- in fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no character in the history of film has, on average, left a greater emotional impression on viewers than George Bailey. Everything about this performance is perfect. No, he didn't always look the age of the character (particularly during the younger scenes), but his change in temperament and nature develops convincingly as the character ages, making him consistently believable at all times. Though he lost Best Actor to Fredric March in 1946 (It's A Wonderful Life also losing Best Picture to the same movie), Stewart and Frank Capra prove once again that awards don't really mean anything when it comes to defining classics. This is one of the most powerful, heartwarming movies ever made, and we owe it all to James Stewart and his wonderful, wonderful performance as George Bailey.

Thanks to anyone who made it all the way through this post without cheating. Even if you did have to cheat, I still thank you for at least clicking on this post and scrolling down. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think!


H.A.K. said...

I completely agree with a lot of these performances. they were just plain awesome. excellent list jeff.

HarleyQuinn said...

I haven't seen a single one of these movies, but I do agree that the world needs more lists, which is why I make so many as well. I did read the full blog without cheating, and I can safely say that I loved it. Most excellent!

Patrick said...

At the start of this list, I was guessing Bogey's #5 performance as the top one. I guess it wasn't THAT bad of a guess, though in retrospect I feel like I should have seen the top 2 coming.