The other day the UK publication Empire came up with its “100 Most Memorable Movie Characters.” As with most such lists, I read it with a mixture of ennui and growing disbelief — much the same as happens whenever the AFI (American Film Institute) comes down from on high with their list of some arbitrary amount of “greatest” some kind of films or other. Being that they’re Brits, I was marginally willing to cut them some slack for the unthinkable choice of Christopher Lee’s Dracula as opposed to the Bela Lugosi one, but only barely. (Even as keen an Anglophile as myself has to draw the line somewhere.)
I am not, however, giving any credence of any kind to a list that considers Princess Leia of Star Wars as more memorable than Rick Blaine (Humprey Bogart in Casablanca). Hell, as a character, I find her less memorable than Princess Aura in the 1936 Flash Gordon serial — at least she was kinky, oversexed, had a much bigger chest and didn’t have that dumb hairdo. This pales in comparison to any list that rates Ace Ventura as a most memorable character — unless it’s “most memorable character I wish I could forget.”
Overall, the list suffered from a bad case of committee-itis. It felt like it had been put together by a focus group, and not by people who really felt these characters were memorable for any personal reasons. That’s fairly conclusively borne out by the strong leaning toward newer films. “Most of our readers don’t know what Casablanca is” seems to be the operative logic with choices made to reflect that. So lip-service is paid to a few of the inescapable “classics” with no depth whatever. I suppose it’s good for business. I’m less certain it’s good for anything else. If lists have any value — and besides being fun and infuriating, I’m not sure they do — it ought to lie in getting folks to look at things they haven’t seen before, to broaden their frames of reference, not merely to validate what they know.
Not surprisingly, I opted to make my own list. Well, at least in part. I’m not quite ambitious enough to go for the full 100, but 20 seemed workable. The results are certainly not geared to maximum recognition value. But they do reflect 20 movie characters — and the performances that brought them to life (you really don’t have one without the other) — I find indelibly imprinted on my cinematic psyche. There are others, yes, and I regret certain omissions, but I make no apologies for the favored 20, even though I am willing to discuss it.
Being that I am nothing if not loquacious, I find it necessary to split this into two groups of 10, so this week’s entry is only the bottom half of my top 20, but that doesn’t mean you should sell this first group short.
20. Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi). Scared to Death (1947). Yes, Dracula is the iconic Bela Lugosi role (and by that I mean the 1931 performance, not that Abbott and Costello thing from 1948 where he looks like one of those heavily powdered elderly women who sit around the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel waiting for equally made-up paid escorts). And, yes, his performance as Dr. Vitus Werdegast in The Black Cat (1934) is probably his best. Still—and quite apart from the…peculiar quality of the film that contains it—I’m going with his Professor Leonide. This may in part be because I first saw it at the age of seven while helping my mother type petitions. I became quite adept at typing the lines for people to sign. (Bela Lugosi, a political bent and typing at seven—is it any wonder how things turned out?) I’d no idea who Lugosi was at the time. And even less idea what was going on in the movie. I’m still kind of working on the latter.
Leonide is a probably insane (there are references to him having been confined to the house in which the action takes place when it was a sanitarium), broken down stage magician with a completely disreputable past. At one point reporter Douglas Fowley mentions that when he was a kid he saw Leonide’s act at a theater in Albany, adding, “That was the night the box office receipts disappeared as if by magic.” Leonide’s assurance that it was “part of the act” drips with insincerity. Decked out in a Dracula cape, a slouch hat and a Col. Sanders tie—not to mention squiring around an almost matching dwarf (Angelo Rossitto)—Lugosi cuts quite a figure as a down-at-the-heels con man putting on a brave face. He doesn’t have any illusions about himself, however. When the maid (Gladys Blake) insists on announcing him, he brushes her aside, saying, “My dear girl, if I allowed myself to be announced, I doubt I would be received anywhere.”
Part of the charm of the character lies in the fact that he’s really almost extraneous to the rest of the film. Even granting a connection to the identity of the “unknown madman who is terrorizing this house,” he’s scarcely even a red herring. He mostly wanders through the proceedings making wry comments and being unnecessarily mysterious. Little of it has the slightest connection to the plot, though some of it is pretty odd. At one point, it even smacks of being a little unsavory—when he carts off the comatose maid through a secret passage while the dwarf gleefully rubs his hands together in anticipation of God knows what (since there’s no payoff, neither do we). At the same time, it’s fascinating to watch Lugosi create the only character in the entire film with any dimension. And he does it from nothing, proving himself easily as adept at magic as his shady character.
19. Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou). Little Miss Marker (1934). As much as I personal deplore Adolph Menjou’s politics—especially his stint of red-baiting during the McCarthy era—I never tire of and have nothing but praise for his performance as Sorrowful Jones in the first (of four) film versions of Damon Runyon’s story about a little girl who’s left with a bookmaker (Sorrowful) as security for a bet. The story is the typical Runyon mixture of underworld characters with absurdly colorful names like Sorrowful, Bennie the Gouge, Regret, etc., low comedy and shameless sentimentality. Somehow it all works here—I don’t care how resistant you think you are to Shirley Temple, who plays the title role. It’s partly due to Alexander Hall’s direction and a sharp screenplay by William R. Lipman, Sam Hellman and Gladys Lehman. The beautiful and tragic Dorothy Dell (she was killed that same year in a car crash at the age of 19) as Bangles Carson and a strong supporting cast help. (Charles Bickford delivering what is perhaps the greatest final line in the history of film deserves special mention.) But it’s Menjou’s Sorrowful who carries the film.
There’s an irony to Menjou being in the role of “the cheapest skate on Broadway,” not in the least because his cheapness extends to his clothing. Menjou, on the other hand, was known—onscreen and off—for his sartorial fastidiousness and was often called “the best dressed man in Hollywood.” Until his character starts to thaw and he splurges on a new suit (“Can’t a citizen buy a new suit of clothes without everybody going batty?”) about 50 minutes into the movie, he’s a model of shabbiness. This isn’t the only thing that makes the role unusual for Menjou. Much hinges on the fact that Sorrowful Jones’ character is crafted so that the actor has to go through a series of changes throughout the film—going from a cynical chiseler who’ll double-cross anybody for a buck to an unwilling foster father to a caring human being. Any performance that can survive a crise de conscience scene that reduces a hardboiled cynic to prayer (“I got a lot of nerve coming to you now”) is one to remember. It even makes me forgive Menjou for having his headstone trip me (I’m sure it was deliberate) when I was wandering around Hollywood Memorial Cemetery years ago.
18. Joe (Paul Robeson). Show Boat (1936). Joe is a supporting character in the stage version of Show Boat—remembered almost entirely for singing “Ol’ Man River.” He remains a supporting character in James Whale’s 1936 film version of the show, but you’d never know it. The role has been slightly enlarged, but the real difference lies in the way Whale uses the character, making him the film’s conscience, the embodiment of the anti-racism theme that drives the first (and most interesting) section of the story. In the big scene where the white Steve Baker (Donald Cook) claims—correctly, since he’s just swallowed some—to have “Negro blood in me right now,” adding “That’s how white I am,” Whale cuts away to Joe, who looks down in sorrow as if he’s ashamed for the entire human race. It’s a powerful moment from a powerful portrayal of the character by Paul Robeson.
Robeson’s Joe is an amazing, indelible creation that Whale presents with both showmanship and respect. The degree of which we’re to expect something special from Joe is established in our first shot of him with Whale’s camera tracking into a close-up on the character—announcing his importance and the indomitable nature of his spirit. Almost immediately, this promise is delivered on with “Ol’ Man River.” Thrillingly shot—Whale’s camera is in love with Robeson’s face—the song would have been enough by itself, but Joe is then turned into a larger symbol by cutaways that illustrate the lyrics. But the film returns to and concludes on the image of Joe the man, and it’s the man that makes the character indelible.
17. Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins). Design for Living (1933). This was a hard call because there are two prime candidates for memorable characters played by Miriam Hopkins—this one and her Lily in Trouble in Paradise (1932). Both are wonderful characters brought to vivid life by Hopkins in wonderful films made by Ernst Lubitsch. I finally opted for this one because it’s more “her film” (she shares leading lady status with Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise). Gilda Farrell is an American girl working as a commercial artist in France, who becomes romantically involved with both a painter (Gary Cooper) and a playwright (Fredric March). Since she can decide on neither—and since neither really wants to be without the other—they set up a theoretically sexless menage a trois (called a “gentlemen’s agreement”) with Gilda taking charge of their respective careers. The sexless angle works about as well as might be imagined with Gilda herself confessing that the agreement doesn’t hold because “unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”
It’s a tricky role—especially for the time, since Gilda’s morals are obviously on the free-thinking side—but it works and is never less than charming and delightful. Whether dramatizing herself (an image undercut by the cloud of dust she raises when she collapses on a sofa in affected mental turmoil) or excusing not keeping her promise to keep a typewriter in working condition by nothing of the bell, “But it still rings,” she handles the role with just the right touch of humor, humanity and sexiness.
16. Rev. Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins). Crimes of Passion (1984). Conventional wisdown would have it that the most memorable character ever created by Anthony Perkins is Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) and its progeny. I won’t really argue with the choice for anyone who wants to make it, but for me the role of the ‘round the bend street preacher, Peter Shayne, in Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion slightly edges it out in its complexity—not to mention Perkins’ delivery of screenwriter Barry Sandler’s viciously witty and utterly profane dialogue (almost none of which can be quoted here).
The characterization is to some degree grounded in Perkins’ Norman Bates. Shayne is also both sexually-repressed and obsessed with sex. He even has a peephole set up—much like Bates—for voyeuristic purposes, except it’s one that he uses to further torment himself over the object of his obsession, a fashion designer named Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner), who masquerades by night as an exotic hooker called China Blue. Instead of the specter of a controlling mother, Shayne is eaten up by religious fanaticism that can’t be reconciled with his desires. The two sides are in perpetual conflict to such a degree that he alternates between them sometimes in the same sentence, leading him to conclude that both he and China Blue (in whom he sees himself) cannot exist simultaneously—“One of us has to die so the other can live.” It’s a complex performance of a complex character—at once terrifying, funny and heartbreaking—and unforgettable.
15. Benjamin Disraeli (George Arliss). Disraeli (1929). Hardly anyone remembers George Arliss today, yet in the early sound era he was Warner Bros.’ prestige star (often billed as “Mr. George Arliss) to such a degree that he had the kind of control over his films usually only given to the most powerful of directors. His is a case of the actor as auteur, and, in fact, his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli earned him an Oscar for Best Actor. But time and fashion are not always kind. Arliss was 61 when he made Disraeli. He had learned his stagecraft in the 19th century and represented a school of acting that was out of date even in 1929, relying as it did on stock dramatic gestures (and he uses each and every one of them). That he’d also played the role onstage countless times and made a silent version of the play in 1921 perhaps caused his signature performance here to come across more as a carefully honed bag of tricks. (His later performances in material written for the screen are considerably more naturalistic.) As a result, both he and his Disraeli have fallen out of favor.
Looked at without prejudice of dismissing the role and performance as old-fashioned, however, it’s hard to deny that it’s effective, it’s entertaining and it’s unforgettable. It’s by no means realistic, but then neither is the dialogue in a Shakespeare play and we honor that as brilliant and classic—recognizing that there is more than one path to achieving an inner truthfulness. Why should acting be any different? Well, really, it shouldn’t, and unless we’re prepared to look at it in that light, we’re denying ourselves the pleasure and the experience of an earlier era. Arliss’ Disraeli may be like a relic out of a time capsule, but what a magnificent relic it is.
14. Svengali (John Barrymore). Svengali (1931). John Barrymore is another actor—a more modern one than Arliss—whose sense of theatricality has often diminished his once unchallenged reputation as one of the greatest of all actors. His descent into alcoholism, bad behavior on the set and self-parody haven’t helped matters. He himself exaggerated his condition in his later films out of contempt and laziness. In the late 30s—when his dialogue “had” to be written on a chalkboard out of camera range—he once startled the crew by delivering the entire “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet, causing the director to ask him why he couldn’t remember his lines. His response? “My dear fellow, why should I fill my head with this shit today only to forget it tomorrow?”
His Svengali, however, is from a different era when he was still at the height of his powers—and it was a role he loved, not in the least because of its grotesquerie. Barrymore hated his matinee idol good looks and delighted whenever he could hide them behind a character make-up, which he got to do here as the unscrupulous, unorthodox and apparently unclean (he claims he hasn’t had a bath “since I tripped and fell in the sewer”) womanizing Polish voice teacher. The character is more or less the villain of the piece—keeping the heroine, Trilby (Marian Marsh), under his control by hypnosis—but in reality he’s a dedicated artist who has been thwarted in his love for the girl. In fact, he’s disgusted by his control over her, dismissing her claims of love as “only Svengali talking to himself.” Barrymore plays the role for all its worth—humor, pathos and, yes, menace. Only one person could top Barrymore here—and that was Barrymore himself three years later in his greatest performance.
13. Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley). The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). Recreating his stage role of the title character of The Man Who Came to Dinner, Monty Woolley found some of his richest material from the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play censored out of existence, including his classic entrance line, “I may vomit,” delivered as he surveys a roomful of socially ambitious residents of Mesalia, Ohio. This didn’t stop him from being able to justify having created one of the greatest comedy creations of all time. It’s been suggested that the perfect version of the play would have starred theatre critic, radio personality and lecturer Alexander Woolcott, on whom the character of Sheridan Whiteside was based. (The play is dedicated to Woolcott “for reasons that are nobody’s business.) That sounds like a better idea than a viewing of Woolcott’s performance in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Scoundrel (1935) suggests. For public purposes, Monty Woolley is Sheridan Whiteside.
The premise has Whiteside having injured himself slipping on the ice in front of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke) after coming there for dinner while on a lecture tour. Not only does he take over the house, but he’s in the process of driving everyone crazy, while planning to sue the homeowners for $150,000. He’s impossible, implacable and unbearably rude—even though he views himself as a great humanitarian. (His secretary [Bette Davis] even points out to him, “You have one great advantage over everyone else in the world—you’ve never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside.) He dismisses a gift of calves’ foot jelly from his hostess as “made from your own foot, I have no doubt.” Naturally, everyone thinks he’s charming—except his much beleagured host, about him he muses at one point, “Is it true that in China they drown middle-aged businessmen at birth?” Preposterous and outrageous—and as memorable a character as ever was. All this plus Christmas, an axe murderess, penguins and an octopus!
12. Justin Playfair (George C. Scott). They Might Be Giants (1971). It tanked upon its scant release in 1971, but They Might Be Giants—despite being once referred to by its star as “possibly the worst film I ever made”—has become a cult favorite over the years and proven to be one of George C. Scott’s most enduring films. In truth, it’s the sort of film I would normally look a little askance at, because it trades in the realm of romanticizing mental illness. In this instance, though the results are frankly irresistible. For a film that Scott dismissed, he certainly gave his performance as Justin Playfair—a delusional ex-jurist who has come to believe he’s Sherlock Holmes—everything he had.
They storyline of the film is a bit thin—Playfair’s brother is trying to get control of his estate by having Justin declared insane in order to pay off a blackmailer, so he attempts to have him certified. Unfortunately for him, the doctor the case is handed to happens to be named Dr. Watson—Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward). Naturally, Justin takes her to be the Dr. Watson, and as it turns out she finds herself drawn into his world, despite her own good sense and the fact that Justin’s abilities don’t quite match those of his model. (He can’t play the violin—“Jesus Christ! I absolutely cannot play the goddamn thing!”—but insists on trying because “Holmes fiddles while he thinks.”) What follows is a warm, convincing, whimsical—finally tragic—romance with a lot of keen observations on the world buried inside it. Scott gets one terrific speech near the end of the film that would alone make it unforgettable. “I think if God is dead, he laughed himself to death, because, you see, we live in Eden. Genesis has got it all wrong. We’ve never left the garden. Look about you. This is paradise. It’s hard to find, I grant you, but it is here. Under our feet, beneath the surface is everything we want. The earth is shining under the soot,” he informs a band of people whose lives he has touched, explaining it in simple good/bad terms of hero (Holmes) and villain (Prof. Moriarty). “We’re all fools,” he concludes, “Moriarty has made fools of all of us, but together—you and I tonight will bring him down.” It’s not only memorable, it’s worth remembering.
11. Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The choice of Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein could just as easily have been Horace Femm from The Old Dark House (1932). The characters are cut from the same cloth. They’re both played by that master of camp Ernest Thesiger (known to his intimates as “the stitchin’ bitch” in reference to his needlepoint and demeanor). And they’re both in James Whale horror pictures. Pretorius might almost be an outgrowth of Horace. In The Old Dark House he offers the stranded travelers a drink, apologizing for it being “only gin,” but noting, “I like gin.” By the time of Bride, this has become, “Do you like gin? It is my only weakness.” (Nevermind that later in the film cigars have become his “only weakness.”) All the same, Pretorius probably has a slight edge—and is certainly the more famous role (in part because it’s in the more famous film)—since the character, though still something of a “humbug” (as J.B. Priestley described Horace Femm in the source novel), is fully as menacing as he is funny. Pretorius—for all his camp value—is positively Satanic. He even compares himself to the tiny homunculus devil he “grew from seed.”
It’s the utter preposterousnes of the character that makes Pretorius so memorable. The mixture of charlatan, showman and showy queen with completely amoral, obsessive mad scientist is somehow just right. That “somehow” perhaps lies in the concept that even an evil genius can have his flaws and petty vanities. There’s no question, however, that he’d be just about anyone’s choice as a tour guide “to a new world of gods and monsters.” (For an imaginary look at Thesiger and the character check out Arthur Dignam’s potrayal of Thesiger on the set of Bride in Bill Condon’s 1998 film Gods and Monsters, where he takes one look at the “Bride” in full make-up and comments to the actor playing Colin Clive, “What a couple of old queens we are, Colin! We’ve not only dressed her, we’ve done her hair.”)
And there you have Part One of my very personal list of 20 most memorable characters. In Part Two next week, things could get (in the words of Dr. Pretorius himself) “really interesting.”