April 3, 2012 at 2:42 PM

Axel Nissen Pays Tribute to Some Grand Old Dames

“Hey, isn’t that good-ol’-what’s-her-name?”

By Craig Smith

Critical Faculties

Craig Smith answered an ad for singers for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s first season way back when – OK, 1983 – and has been here happily ever since. He is a writer, editor, journalist, arts critic, general wordsmith, and wannabe polymath.

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There’s an old theatrical saying that, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” For some lousy thespians, that’s a safe-house cop-out. For ensemble actors of true talent, it’s a trumpet-call acknowledgement of respect and triumph.

True, comprimario, cameo, character, or bit-part actors – the term depends on whether you’re talking opera, theater, dance or film - get little stage time compared to stars, or at least, much less obvious notice. But they are always vital to the story.

They can advance the plot, focus the action, embody a conceptual theme, or provide tragic or farcical relief, often with just a raised eyebrow or sudden turn of the body, a cackled laugh or growled remark. They’re the small but vital embellishment to any artistic temple.

Axel Nissen, a professor of American literature at the University of Oslo, pays respectful tribute to one school of those doughty professionals in the excellent "Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids: Twenty-Five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood." Just published by McFarland, it’s a follow-up to his "2006 Actresses of a Certain Character: Forty Familiar Hollywood Faces from the Thirties to the Fifties."

(Yes, the courtly Nissen prefers the term actress to the more contemporary, gender-neutral actor. I’m all for it: these ladies of the silver screen definitely deserve the -ess ending, whether as good fairies or bad witches, dramatically speaking.)

In "Actresses," Nissen used a chatty, somewhat journalistic approach that worked well for each featured woman. Besides biographical and social data, he offered a career-wide survey of each actress’ work and a discussion of their histrionic strengths and liabilities. That last included homeliness or beauty, as well as any weird vocal or movement or expression (yes, NOT expressive) skills that made them so employable.

In "Mothers," besides the same sort of interesting life information and a sympathetic yet probing general career glance, Nissen bores down into the one iconic role through which, he maintains, the actress can best be considered to have made her mark. Sometimes he elects a part far from the most recognizable role – Clara Blandick is praised for her role in the 1932 Shopworn rather than the genial Auntie Em in the 1939 "The Wizard of Oz," for example.

Nissen has chosen his subjects well here – they all seem to grow naturally out of the direction established in "Actresses" – though in some cases one woman had a huge film career, in others, a much less showy one. So pieces range from “Thoroughly Modern Mammy: Ethel Waters in The Member of the Wedding” and “Asylums and Old Lace: Josephine Hull in Harvey” to “Dowager Deluxe: Helen Westley in Splendor” and “The Dilapidated Diva: Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight.”

(BTW, Dressler gets MY vote for the Big Mamma I’d most fear to be wrecked on a desert island with. No, that would be Hope Emerson … no, Evelyn Varden or Louise Closser Hale … Forget it, I’ll just go down with the ship.)

Nissen’s evaluations are made with quiet authority and supported by plenty of research footnotes – and Nissen’s own happily fanatic love of grand cinema. Consider this excerpt from “Madame Noir: Esther Howard in Born to Kill:”

“By the early 1940s, Howard was in her early fifties and showing signs of wear that only made the ‘local color’ element she could lend any film all the more effective. What had once been a brassy, blonde, in-your-face kind of prettiness was now an asymmetrical, sagging, goggle-eyed and sunken-chinned visage with every drink, cigarette and tear engraved on its surface. But Howard was still feisty and full of hell, qualities her characters also often manifested.”

Where "Actresses" had a foreword by Olivia de Havilland, "Mothers" has one by Siân Phillips. McFarland’s typesetting and printing are good quality, and the photo reproductions are also very good. This is just the thing for your movie pals – or yourself. Read it happily, chortle at its memories or sigh at its revelations, then go on Jeopardy and take “Old-School Actresses for $500, Alex.” You’ll be glad you did.

2012, paper, 242 pp, $45.

For more information or to order:
www.mcfarlandpub.com
http://www.hf.uio.no/ilos/english/people/aca/nilsni/index.html

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