Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The virtues of typecasting

One of the most pleasant aspects of watching older movies is taking notice of the stock actors who make up the background; sometimes a bit actor could ascend to greater things (ie, Boris Karloff & Humphrey Bogart), but many of them toiled on in similar parts from one film to another. My personal favourite company of stock actors are the Warner players of the 1930s; you can always count on Frank McHugh to be a loudmouthed, skirt-chasing comedic bumbler; Hugh Herbert will be a man of upper class pretensions constantly undone by his nervous habits and foibles; Alan Hale will be a big, brawny, jolly fellow; and Allen Jenkins will be a thick-headed subordinate.

Moreover, some actors weren't simply typecast in particular kinds of roles... but would become typecast by a certain role. Witness one Charles Middleton, a character actor who demonstrated a particular flair for portraying world leaders. Just as Bobby Watson would later play Adolf Hitler nine times, Charles Middleton found himself cast again and again as...

...Abraham Lincoln (left, from 1934's the Road is Open). Apparently just as you would imagine a casting director might say, "I need a comedic Irish maid - quick, get me Una O'Connor!" you might also hear, "This film needs Abraham Lincoln - get me Charles Middleton!"

And yet, for the 1940 feature film Virginia City, Middleton was to suffer a strange fate indeed; therein, he was cast in the part of...

...Jefferson Davis? Yes, the film business was one of cruel ironies. Middleton had won the larger role of Confederate President Davis, but at the price of his signature part, Abraham Lincoln, which instead went to actor Victor Kilian. If only the director had cast Middleton in both roles! Then the US Civil War would have truly been waged brother against brother (or self against self).

If I may be serious for a moment... there is still one other world leader Middleton portrayed who must be mentioned, for it was the largest role of Middleton's career - the part for which he is remembered to this day, a performance which would influence that of succeeding actors down through the decades. I speak, of course, of...

...Ming the Merciless in the 1936, 1938 & 1940 Flash Gordon film serials. Proving once again that just because you've spent a lot of time rendering performances of the most deified US President of them all is no reason not to portray the Lucifer of outer space!

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