Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia

Warner Brothers' Fat Men

From O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors. Edited by Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson, 1999.

"Imprisoned in every fat man," claimed Cyril Connolly, "a thin one is wildly signaling to be let out." Connolly, himself a literary mandarin of considerable girth, made this observation half a century ago in The Unquiet Grave (1945), but his dictum easily summarizes Hollywood's current philosophy on weight. A fat man is a failed thin one. Hollywood has taken the Duchess of Windsor's remark that "No woman can be too rich or too thin," and made it a royal decree that applies to both sexes. Our stars have never been richer or thinner.

May one lone fan raise an objection? I don't mind the eye-popping salaries. Only a cheapskate would resent eight-figure per-film fees to artists of such magnitude as Jim Carey or Julia Roberts. Where would Hollywood stars be without their mansions, ranches, and villas? What I miss are the full-figured actors of yesteryear. The few fat men still around seem visibly unhappy about their size. Their greatest performances mostly occur off-camera as they diet agonizingly in a vain effort to be slender. Tom Arnold does not look better thin—just older, more worn, and a little lumpy. We want our stars to radiate desire for sex, money, and adventure—not for dessert. Nowadays no one is safe. Even Godzilla had to lose his trademark beer-belly for the 1998 remake. How sad to watch movies where even the heavies are skinnies.

In the Hollywood I love best, fat men filled the Silver Screen, innocent and unabashed. Few of these oversize talents played leads, though some managed top-billing, but they all knew there were no small parts, only small actors. Tinseltown was sweeter in those Great Depression days. The rich didn't go hungry, and audiences got more actor for their money. A roly-poly man wasn't clinically obese but amiable, and a jowly butterball like S. Z. Sakall could affectionately be nicknamed "Cuddles."

I like to imagine these hefty heroes gathering in the afterlife. The feasting hall of their B-budget Valhalla is the original Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby secretly rescued by Valkeries from the wrecking-ball. As they file in (to the accompaniment of Miklos Rozsa's "Bread and Circus March" from Ben Hur) for porterhouse steaks and lobsters thermador, cherries jubilee and baked Alaska, I mentally note their names—Edward Arnold, Monty Woolley, Charles Coburn, Sidney Greenstreet, Eugene Pallette, W. C. Fields, Oliver Hardy, Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, Wallace Beery, William Bendix, Andy Devine, Robert Morley, Edmund Gwenn, S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, Burl Ives, Francis L. Sullivan, Sebastian Cabot, Robert Greig, and all five of the Three Stooges. With nary a pratfall, Roscoe Arbuckle serves the hors d'oeuvres, and Alfred Hitchcock makes a momentary cameo as the waiter serving their double martinis. Some were born fat. Others achieved fatness. Some had fatness sneak up on them. But in those pre-cinemascope days each strode the narrow screen like a colossus. We shall never see their like again. The movies, as Gloria Swanson might say, have grown too small for them.

The members of this stout company now sustain reputations of varying size—from genuine fame to almost total obscurity. Welles and Hardy remain cinematic icons (as does Hollywood's most famous walk-on extra, Mr. Hitchcock.) Fields, Laughton, Beery, and Arnold still enjoy eminence—roughly in that order—among the cognoscenti. There are many degrees of oblivion. Most of these actors, however, have faded in the collective memory. Although not all ships sail as swiftly Lethewards, their ultimate fate is that of Robert Greig. Film buffs may recognize the portly pompous butler, but only a few scholars or old-timers will remember his name. Sic transit gloria Hollywoodis.

I admire every actor at my celestial banquet. Each deserves the critical equivalent of a full-course testimonial dinner, but I want to single out two men for special attention—Sidney Greenstreet (1875-1954) and Eugene Pallette (1889-1954). To choose only one actor would seem abstemious in such hearty company. Neither actor was ever a headliner, nor have they received much attention in the now immense scholarship on American film. But both were genuine stars in the era when studios prized great character actors almost as much as matinee idols. Neither the most famous nor the most obscure men on my celestial guest list, Pallette and Greenstreet embody the qualities I most admire in character actors—personality, range, radiance, and collegiality.

Both Pallette and Greenstreet possessed a singular and striking personality. Pallette could anchor a scene just by walking downstairs. When he enters Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve (1941), trotting down to breakfast singing a merry ballad, he embodies all the small human hopes that screwball comedy exists to shatter. Greenstreet could be equally memorable just by leaning immensely forward in his chair. He could make the most offhand remark seem threatening or mysterious. Both actors also possessed that special radiance of the true star. In defining beauty Thomas Aquinas describes the radiant clarity that occurs when the inner identity of a thing shines forth in its true form. One never loses Greenstreet or Pallette in a crowded scene. Their personalities radiate forth. (How dimly, by comparison, most current character actors glimmer.) And yet both men were expert ensemble players. A great weakness in many character actors is that they cannot work their magic without stealing a scene. It is impossible to watch the complex ensemble scenes with Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon—where he completes a virtuoso quartet with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor—without admiring his collegial flexibility. And what a pleasure to follow Pallette through half a dozen complex scenes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) alongside his gifted colleagues Edward Arnold, Claude Rains, William Demarest and Guy Kibbee: he asserts himself brilliantly without ever upstaging his partners. Finally, these two actors had range. They could play fundamentally different roles without losing their quintessential individuality. The fate of most character actors is to play one particular role consummately—forever. (Consider the irresistible Franklin Pangborn flustered and flummoxed endlessly.) Pallette and Greenstreet, however, were fully developed actors equally adept at portraying scoundrels, clergymen, criminals, politicians, policemen, soldiers, and tycoons.

Although Greenstreet made considerably fewer films than Pallette, he looms larger today because he appeared in two of the most enduringly popular films Warner Brothers ever produced, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). Film is a collaborative art. An actor may rise above his material but never too far above the collective level of his colleagues. No single performance can redeem a film unless some of the other elements are working along. Greenstreet had the good fortune to make his screen debut under the guidance of another debutante, director John Huston. For his first feature, Huston had assembled a talented, quirky, and inexpensive cast to perform his screenplay of Dashiell Hammett's detective novel (which had already been filmed twice with no significant commercial success). Greenstreet was sixty-one, a veteran of the stage. Weighing in at 357 pounds, he caused consternation in the wardrobe department, and the head office worried that his inexperience would slow production. The studio never expected the B-budget remake to be a major success. Its box-office power launched Greenstreet's late-starting cinematic career. His performance as the urbane but insidious Kaspar Gutman was notably popular among both audiences and reviewers. (Note both puns in the name of Sam Spade's hefty nemesis.) At once mysterious, menacing, and amusing, his criminal adventurer still ranks as one of film's classic villains. His performance earned him his first and only Academy Award nomination.

Greenstreet lost his Oscar to Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley, but The Maltese Falcon earned him a considerable raise from the notoriously tight-fisted Jack Warner. Over the next ten years he went on to play a series of sophisticated villains, eloquent mystery men, and jovial bigwigs for Warners. In Casablanca he played Ferrari, the local underworld chief, who owned The Blue Parrot. ("Cuddles" Sakall, by the way, worked as head-waiter for the competition, Rick's Caf» American.) Anyone who doubts Greenstreet's power should listen carefully to the generic bad-guy lines he had to deliver when the Laszlos ask his aid in escaping Morocco. Greenstreet makes every secondhand phrase sound not merely credible but evocative. In They Died With Their Boots On (1941) he plays General Winfield Scott opposite Errol Flynn's George Custer. (They "meet cute" sharing a dish of creamed Bermuda onions.) He begins the role exuberantly but ends with understated pathos. Perhaps his oddest role was "the Inspector" in the allegorical film, Between Two Worlds (1944), in which dead souls sail in a spooky luxury liner toward the next world. Today this film is remembered mostly for two things—Greenstreet's harrowing performance and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's sumptuously romantic music (the composer's favorite among his eighteen Warner Brothers' scores). The young Rod Serling must have remembered Between Two Worlds, however, since Greenstreet's persona is recapitulated in several Twilight Zone episodes, though never so memorably as the original.

No actor ever carried his fat more magisterially than Greenstreet. Erect, urbane, and self-possessed, he presents corpulence not as a liability but an accomplishment. He is not obese but Olympian. The best interpretive artists—be they actors, singers, dancers, or musicians—are not always the most lavishly gifted. Fred Astaire could only sing an octave, and Billy Holiday had trouble keeping pitch. But the great interpreters understand that since their imperfections cannot be hidden, they must be used for expressive effect. When Lionel Barrymore became crippled by injury and arthritis, he turned his wheelchair-bound body into the powerful symbol of repressed anger, chronic pain, and frustrated ambition that animates his enduring performances in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Key Largo (1948). By contrast Marlon Brando wears his extra weight as an annoying encumbrance. His corpulence annoys us precisely because it remains extra, never fully assimilated into the performer's identity. Greenstreet never tried to act around his weight. He made it so intrinsic to his identity that it seemed not only stylish but handsome. Beauty, he understood, is not mere prettiness. It is the truth finding expression in its perfect form. Greenstreet's rich bass voice and perfect diction also drew its distinction from his enormous physique. No small man could have ever spoken with such supernal authority.

In our gentle-hearted and calorie-conscious age, the language of corpulence has become impoverished. We make do with a few mostly clinical terms—obese, overweight, heavy, chubby. If the adjectival form of fat has not yet reached the status of obscene, it has already crossed over into the grossly impolite. Once there must have been a word adequate to describe Eugene Pallette's amazing physique, but it will not be found in current low-fat American. Portly seems insufficient and tubby too tame. Pallette came as close to globular as a human being can and still walk upright. Yet there was nothing flabby about his conspicuous girth. Round he may have been, but Pallette remained feisty and determined. After all, he had started in Hollywood as an action-hero.

A trim, young Pallette enjoyed some success in silent films. He played Prosper Latour, the Huguenot cavalier, in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Aramis —to Douglas Fairbanks's D'Artagnan)—in The Three Musketeers (1921). His best performances, however, came much later in his career. It took the now overweight actor years to settle into his mature identity. He worked for every major studio and with scores of directors in mysteries, westerns, comedies, biopics, costume dramas, and musicals. His early talkies, like the four Philo Vance mysteries he made at Warners with William Powell, show a gifted but hardly unforgettable character actor. There are many ways of being fat, and only gradually Pallette learned that none of the conventional film types fit him very well.

Pallette eventually took the liabilities that had ruined his career as a leading man and shaped them into an unforgettable persona. His weight had been only part of the problem. By middle age Pallette had developed the voice of a human bullfrog. A matinee idol may sound pleasingly generic. (Could you imagine Rich Little doing a Harrison Ford or Robert Taylor imitation?) But a great character actor thrives on a distinctive voice. Pallette spoke half an octave below anyone else in the cast. No matter how many voices mixed in a scene, you never confuse him with another actor.

The mature Pallette character is a creature of provocative contradictions—tough-minded but indulgent, earthy but epicurean, relaxed but excitable. His grit and gravel voice sounds simultaneously tough and comic. Even his corpulence is two-sided. In his best films Pallette made his fatness seem like a sign of moderation and common sense. As Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) or Fray Felipe in The Mark of Zorro (1940), he shows that a fat priest is no heartless zealot but understands the sins of the flesh. Playing a tubby millionaire like the beer baron in The Lady Eve or Alexander Bullock in My Man Godfrey (1936), Pallette uses his girth to create a common touch. Stuffed into a tuxedo that seems perpetually near bursting, he seems more down-to-earth than the stylish high society types who surround him. Even Pallette's villains, like the corrupt and cynical politico Chick McCann in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, are immensely likeable. Pushed too far, Pallette confidently uses his weight for physical force. When Bullock finally evicts the free-loading Carlo (Mischa Auer) in My Man Godfrey, we are not so much surprised as reassured by Pallette's manly strength. In battle his sword-wielding Friar Tuck is a glory to behold. Pallette may have gained weight, but he never lost his underlying virility.

Pallette and Greenstreet both died in 1954. Each had retired a few years earlier due to age and ill health. Pallette made his last two films, Suspense and In Old Sacramento in 1946—the first for Monogram, and the second for Republic, two of the worst studios in Hollywood. Plagued by diabetes and Bright's disease, Greenstreet ended his brief cinematic career in 1949 with the marvelously awful Flamingo Road for Warners and the well-cast but forgettable Malaya for MGM. A year earlier the Supreme Court had ordered the major motion picture companies to divest themselves of their theater chains. Television had already started to drain away the audience and change the economics of the entertainment industry. The studio era of American film was over. Fat men might find a single comic character role to repeat weekly on television, but the system that allowed Greenstreet, Pallette, and others to explore a variety of challenging roles no longer existed. Fat men had to be funny or—except for Raymond Burr—find another career. We lost Charles Laughton and got Drew Carrey. Funny is okay, but what does it say about our culture that at a time when the average American has never been heavier the only part an overweight actor can play is a clown? John Goodman is the only serious actor who has escaped this stereotyping, and for all we know he is probably on a diet.

© 1999 Dana Gioia. First published in O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors (Pantheon Books 1999).