I’m sure there are movie critics who have their own takes on this question. I’ve never thought much about who the “real” movie stars were because what I was interested in was which were the good movies. But recently I’ve been watching some old movies that were not in the top 100 movies of all time. In fact, some of them were pretty bad. The plots were hackneyed and the scripts were poorly written and some of the actors and actresses were pretty awful.
You might ask why I would do this. It’s a combination of things. Firstly, they were on Turner Classic Movies and I get that channel on my cable television subscription. But the other reason is that I’ve just seen the good movies so often I need a break. Even a great movie can be worn out by too frequent viewing. So, I’ve been watching some stinkers.
I recorded a couple of movies with William Powell that I’d never heard of. One was called “Lawyer Man” that also starred Joan Blondell. It’s an early film from 1932 and the plot includes all kinds of stereotypical plot elements, dialog and characters that fairly scream “B” movie. I wouldn’t recommend this movie highly although it was amusing because of the leads.
But what was obvious to me was that William Powell was a movie star. And what that means is that regardless of the role or movie William Powell is in, he’s William Powell. Whether he’s a lawyer or a private detective or a doctor or a stockbroker or a down on his luck everyman, he’s, unmistakably, the same person. The persona that Powell had created is what the producers and directors wanted from him in all his films. In one film he might be a hobo, in another a rich nobleman but in both cases, these were just the vicissitudes of life and they didn’t change his character.
This differs from a real actor like Lawrence Olivier. When he plays Henry V, he’s a gallant hero. When he plays Richard III, he’s a heartless monster. And when he’s Hamlet he’s a lost soul. Olivier becomes what the part requires. But when we’re looking to spend an hour with a witty, pleasant, intelligent man we’d rather have William Powell. He’ll work his way through the plot and whenever he’s on the screen we’ll be pleased. The character William Powell plays is the man you’d wish was sitting next to you on a long train ride. He’ll have stories to tell and probably has a deck of cards in his coat pocket and when his wife or girlfriend shows up, she’ll be a smart cute funny dame. And if an armed robber shows up in the railway car Powell will manage to knock him out and tie him up with no apparent effort.
The movie stars I can think of were all of the sort that produced a character. Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant always played the same part with slight differences to align with the plot and character details. But they almost never were cast against type. Of course, these were the pictures they made once they had reached star status. As journeymen they had to take whatever roles they were given. You can see this transition in someone like Humphrey Bogart. When he started out, he had to play a lot of vicious gangsters and there was very little nuance in these roles. But once he had done the Maltese Falcon, he was allowed to find his “type.” He became the tough guy with a brain. And at that point audiences knew what to expect from Bogey.
As I said, I generally am looking for a movie with a good plot and decent acting. But there is something to be said for trying to match a movie to a mood. If I need to relax and enjoy a reuben sandwich and a cold drink I’ll probably want a Western with John Wayne or Gary Cooper. And If I need my spirits lifted, I’ll watch a Jimmy Stewart film or a W.C. Fields farce. But if I’m ever homesick for the New York City that used to exist, I’ll look for a William Powell movie. And maybe it never really existed but with William Powell to walk you through it will feel like home. At least to me.