Thursday, June 25, 2009

For Your Consideration: Esther Howard

Esther Howard
April 4, 1908 - March 8, 1965

Let's look at another classic movie performance sadly overlooked at award time.

It's 1947, and former Broadway musical star turned Hollywood comedienne and staple of film noir, Esther Howard shines in a thrilling crime drama from director Robert Wise.

The film is Born to Kill, based on the novel by which it is sometimes known, Deadlier Than the Male by James Gunn. A story of murder and of loyalty. Loyalty of sister for sister, friend for friend, lover for lover, detective for client, justice for victim. Loyalties that are and that should be. The story begins with the murder of a divorcee (Isabel Jewell) by a violent boyfriend (Lawrence Tierney). Another divorcee (Claire Trevor) becomes obsessed with this new man who has come into her life despite her feeling that he may be involved in the murder. Life gets complicated when Tierney, while continuing the affair, marries Trevor's rich sister (Audrey Long). The best advice and concern of his hapless cohort (Elisha Cook Jr.) is misplaced in this emotional set-up.

While caught up in life in San Francisco, back in Reno the first murder has not been forgotten. Boarding house proprietor (Esther Howard) will not forget the murder of her friend and neighbour. She hires a private detective (Walter Slezak) to investigate. When this shady character starts holding out on his client, Mrs. Kraft takes matters into her own hands with thrilling consequences.

Mrs. Kraft contemplates justice (third row, far right)

At first a garrulous busy-body, then a good-hearted friend, Mrs. Kraft is a role that provides ample opportunity for Ms. Howard to shine. A determined and loyal friend who shows bravery in the face of terror and defeat in the face of overwhelming brutality. Nowadays, she'd be hitting the chat show circuit and posting clips on YouTube in a bid for a nomination. Born to Kill is a movie worth checking out and Mrs. Kraft is a memorable character. Awards help to attract notice to these outstanding movie moments, but in place of a plaque, take the word of an old-time movie buff.

Read more about Esther Howard.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

For Your Consideration: David Clarke

David Clarke
August 30, 1908 - April 18, 2004

Back when the Oscars were the only game in town performances of note were often overlooked at nominating time. Today we look at "the one" from David Clarke.

Chicago born Clarke was a modern day Vincent Crummles. I shouldn't be surprised if he often said of the theatre "I had a dog that lived and died in it from a puppy...". A performer, playwrite and stage manager. A fellow toiler beside the Lunts, Houseman, Welles and Hepburn.

Nora Dunfee
December 25, 1915 - December 23, 1994

Clarke married Nora Dunfee in 1946. His marriage to the revered actress and coach (Master Teacher of Speech New York University Tisch School of Arts) lasted 48 years. Their daughters found life in the Arts as well.

Katharine Dunfee Clarke known as K.C. Ligon
August 26, 1948 - March 25, 2009

K.C. Ligon performed on stage with her parents and in films. She followed in her mother's footsteps as a renowned dialect coach. She followed in her parents footsteps with a long (1976 - 2009) marriage to actor Tom Ligon. In 1975 Tom directed a production of David's play Never a Snug Harbor for the New Dramatists in NYC.
Susan Dunfee (Clarke), born November 18, 1956, now Susan Bennet, performed on stage and screen as a youngster and is the married mother of two.

I first became aware of Mr. Clarke through his role in the 70s television seriel Ryan's Hope. He played old school gangster Tiso Novotny. He played it well. Through the years I have seen him in such favourite movies as The Narrow Margin, Intruder in the Dust, The Boy With Green Hair and Edge of the City.


1949s The Set-Up directed by Robert Wise and based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March gave David Clarke the most memorable role of his screen career. (That's Clarke in the poster above with his arm around Robert Ryan.) The Set-Up is a story told in real time. One evening in the lives of boxers and gangsters, both scrambling for a living on the mean streets. The cast in this ensemble piece work together in theatrical and cinematic perfection. The role of a punchdrunk boxer could be such a cliche, yet in Clarke's capable hands, Gunboat Johnson seems revealed to us with his entire heartbreaking life story to view.

David Clarke had a life in the career of his choice and a family to be proud of and love. He didn't need an Oscar, but if that peer recognition were to come his way, it would surely have been for Gunboat.

The Set-Up is readily available on dvd for your pleasure. The year of its release it was nominated for a BAFTA (Best Film from any source/USA) and at the Cannes Film Festival Milton Krasner won for Best Cinematography and Robert Wise received the FIPRESCI Prize awarded by the International Federation of Film Critics. The film was not nominated for any Oscars.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

For Your Consideration: Sen Yung

Sen Yung
October 18, 1915 - November 9, 1980

Again in Caftan Woman's world we look at an actor and performance sadly overlooked by the Academy in the Classic Hollywood of Yore.

San Francisco born Sen Yung and his sister spent most of their early years in a children's shelter following the death of their mother from the influenza outbreak of 1919. His father left the children to return to China to reverse the family's fortunes and they were not reunited until sometime in the mid-1920s. Times remained hard and the youngster went to work as a houseboy at age 11. Determined and resourceful, Sen Yung worked his way through the University of California (Berkeley) majoring in Animal Husbandry and receiving a Degree in Economics.

While working as a salesman for a chemical company a stop at 20th Century Fox led to a visit to casting where the hunt was on for actors for the revamped Charlie Chan series following the death of Warner Oland and loss of Keye Luke. With only extra work in his background (Mr. Moto Takes a Chance and The Good Earth), Sen Yung was most happily cast with the new Chan, Sidney Toler. He proved adept at the comic enthusiasm which was Jimmy Chan's trademark and had a nice chemistry with star Toler. It is a pleasure watching him in the role today.


James Stephenson and Sen Yung
Worlds collide

The Academy should have been taking note of the 24 year old actor's work in William Wyler's adaption of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter in 1940. As Ong Chi Seng, the law clerk with an agenda, Sen Yung steals scenes and gives the audience something to think about. While the British go about pretending the world is theirs, the unctuous young man reminds them that there is another world around them, one they cannot control. There is not a trace of the ebullient would-be detective in this fine characterzation. It is a highlight in a film full of wonderful atmosphere and performances.

During WW2 Sen Yung was in the Air Force Motion Picture Unit and performed in Winged Victory. He received Officer's Training and became a Captain in Intelligence. It was around this time that he was often billed as Victor Sen Yung. His co-star and friend (Charlie Chan in Honolulu) Layne Tom, Jr. refers to him as "Vic" on a delightful interview included in the Fox Charlie Chan dvd set.

Fewer roles became available for this versatile, appealing performer that had the prestige of The Letter, Across the Pacific or Moontide. It saddens me to mark his appearance as uncredited waiters in films such as The Sniper in 1952 and The Blue Gardenia 1954. A strong appearance at this time was as a night club entertainer in 1950s Woman on the Run co-written and directed by Norman Foster (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, Charlie Chan in Panama and Charlie Chan in Reno).

In 1959 a television role would assure Sen Yung's place in popular culture as assuredly as the Chan features when he began the recurring (over 100 episodes) role of Hop Sing, the cook and "mother" to the Cartwrights on Bonanza. Fans recall with pleasure the episodes where Hop Sing is prominently featured such as San Francisco, The Fear Merchants or A Lonely Man.

The man of many interests was also an accomplished Cantonese chef and wrote a best selling cookbook in 1974 dedicated to his father, Sen Gam Yung. Sen Yung left behind a son and two grandchildren when he died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in 1980. The eulogy at his funeral service was given by his Bonanza co-star Pernell Roberts. He is remembered and discovered fondly by fans to this day, and the Chinese Alumni Association of the University of California have established a memorial scholarship in his name.