Monday, February 10, 2014

Hume Cronyn One Life a Boatload of Characters

Hume Cronyn: A terrible liar but a great actor

Hume Cronyn was a talented actor born in 1911 in Ontario, Canada. His love
Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy
was performing on the on the stage, but he was also well known for his work on film and television. 

He was married for over 50 years to actress Jessica Tandy and the two of them worked together on several projects throughout their married life.

He was an amateur featherweight boxer and was nominated for Canada's 1932 Olympic Boxing team.

"As a child he was sent to private schools where he said he was miserable. 'I was the smallest boy and subject to chronic bullying,' he said. 'That's why I learned to box. It was not out of an aggressive nature but I had to defend myself.'" St. Petersburg Times - June 17, 2003  

Cronyn played some interesting characters, some odd characters and some downright nasty characters. In 1947's Brute Force he was a sadistic guard who beats a prisoner while the music of a Wagnerian opera plays. In Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) he is a conniving attorney. His range as an actor was well known. 

Cronyn was married to Jessica Tandy (1942–94; her death) and then Susan Cooper (1996–2003; his death). He was an Academy Award Nominee. I'm going to talk a bit about 6 of my favorite Hume Cronyn performances 1944-1985. I'll also mention a few other related things that were going on in the business.

A Terrible Liar: A Memoir is the name of Hume Cronyn's autobiography. It's a clever name for a book about an actor.

His first film was Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt in 1943. The character, Herbie Hawkins, a neighbor who is a crime fiction buff. He's not on screen that often but memorable as he discusses ideas for the perfect murder with Joseph Newton.

Cronyn appeared in a documentary Beyond Doubt, The Making of Hitchcock's Favorite Film in 2000. It was about the making of Shadow of a Doubt.

Cronyn's character in the film was described as "A milquetoast who is caught up in the search for the perfect way to commit a murder."  Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue: Eight Reflections on Cinema by Murray Pomerance 

In 1964, Cronyn won a Tony Award for his Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play as Polonius opposite Richard Burton's Hamlet. Thoiugh Burton was nominated for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, Cronyn's was the only Tony the play would win that year. It was also the year that Barbra Streisand's play Funny Girl was up for Tony Awards. In 1994, Cronyn and Tandy received a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement.

I knew how to act with my back and my tail
With an hour of rehearsal, I never could fail
I'd a voice that would soften the hardest of hearts
Whether I took the lead, or in character parts
"Gus: The Theatre Cat"  (from Cats)
By T. S. Eliot, Andrew Lloyd Webber

In 1990 he won an Emmy award, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for his role in the HBO movie Age Old Friends as John Cooper. Vincent Gardenia as Michael  Aylott also won an Emmy Outstanding Supporting Actor for the same program.

That year The 62nd Annual Academy Awards and The 43rd Annual Tony Awards were nominated for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special Emmys but Sammy Davis, Jr. 60th Anniversary Celebration won that award.

1) Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1944. The film received 3 Academy Award nominations.

A handful of people are adrift on a lifeboat. They struggle for survival after having escaped ship following an attack on a ship by a German U-Boat in WWII. Lifeboat is a popular Hitchcock film to this day. 

Cronyn played Stanley "Sparks" Garrett. His costars are Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Mary Anderson, John Hodiak, Henry Hull, Heather Angel, Canada Lee and and Walter Slezak.

Lifeboat is sometimes confused with the 1957 Tyrone Power film known by different titles Seven Waves Away, Abandon Ship! and Seven Days From Now. Starring with Power were Mai Zetterling, Lloyd Nolan and Finlay Currie. Director Richard Sale adapted the film from his 1938 short story.

Behind the scenes on Lifeboat had its share of sex and violence ..... well, in a manner of speaking.

Cronyn nearly drowned when a stunt went wrong. He was caught under a water-activator making waves for a storm scene and had to be rescued by a lifeguard. He suffered a number of broken ribs. Other actors on the set suffered various illnesses and injuries during the shoot.

Lifeboat Poster Print Hitchcock Classic Cast

Among the backstage stories is the famous nonwearing of knickers by star Tallulah Bankhead. Was this the original Underpants-Gate? From George Cukor:
"The dear girl never wore any panties. In fact she was way ahead of her time, ahead of Marilyn in not liking to wear any underwear. She was especially against panties. Well, she told me that she spent the entire film in the lifeboat. 

"Having the part involved a great deal of climbing in and out of the lifeboat. Every time she got into it, those already sitting there got a pretty good view of her at that rather unusual angle and it was quickly no secret that she didn't consider panties a part of her costume. 

"Someone complained but word got back to Hitch, who was told by the powers that be he was supposed to say something about it to her or delegate the  responsibility to someone. No one ever said a word to her and for the entire filming she never had to don panties."
-- It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography
by Charlotte Chandler 

"Leading lady Tallulah Bankhead created a stir in Hollywood by refusing to wear
Lifeboat Poster Insert
underwear, a fact that was readily apparent whenever she hiked her skirts to climb into the Lifeboat set. 

"When a female journalist visiting the set complained, Zanuck sent orders that somebody tell her to dress properly. The problem was, nobody wanted to tell the temperamental star to do so. When the unit manager asked Hitchcock for advice, he responded dryly.

"'I've always tried to be very careful of getting involved in departmental disputes. And in a case like this it's hard to decide where the responsibility lies. You might consider this a matter for the wardrobe department or perhaps for the makeup people or perhaps it's even for hairdressing!'"  In the end, Zanuck simply ordered the set closed.
-- Hitchcock, quoted in Hume Cronyn, A Terrible Liar: A Memoir, link above.

Cronyn was a personal friend of Hitchcock's. He would go on to become the only actor from Lifeboat to work on the series, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He and Jessica Tandy appeared in some terrific episodes of the director's television shows as did other actors from his films. 

Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee: "The first biography of the great black actor, activist, athlete--and tragic victim of the blacklist;" available now in digital format to download to your tablet or computer, for Ereaders such as the Kindle.

Personal favorites include Ms. Tandy in Toby and The Glass Eye on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I've not seen all of the episodes yet. The Glass Eye also features William Shatner and Billy Barty. Toby also features Robert H. Harris George Mathews, Mary Wickes and Ellen Corby. Jessica Tandy is memorable for playing Lydia Brenner in The Birds 1963. One reason Hitchcock cast Tandy was her ability to play the full range that character needed.
Having lived around lakes, I couldn't help but include a raft. This one looks like a favorite. Reminds me of the raft from The Dick Van Dyke Show. As a prank Rob mails it to his wife (Mary Tyler Moore). Laura mistakenly opens it and it automatically blows up to full size in their living room.  Intex Challenger 2 Boat Set

It was also in 1944 that Hume Cronyn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Seventh Cross. Mr. Cronyn did not win nor did the film Lifeboat win any awards.

One of the most clever Hitchcock cameos can be found in this film. As the director himself could not suddenly pop up in the lifeboat, his image is seen in a newspaper advertisement. It's in before and after pictures in an ad for Reduco Obesity Slayer. Hitchcock said in an interview that he was proud since he'd recently lost weight at that time.

There's also supposed to be a life-sized model of Hitchcock floating in the water. One of the poor fellows who didn't make it. Can you spot it?

2) The Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

The film along is made up of unrelated sequences along the lines of the Ziegfeld Follies Broadway shows. There are lavish musical numbers and comedy sketches. The movie was filmed between 1944 and 1946 and was quite successful.

Ziegfeld Follies also features stars including Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Esther Williams, Red Skelton. The DVD has special features. Hume Cronyn worked with stage and screen legend Fanny Brice.

"The film's best numbers (to our mind) are a couple of comedy skits, especially one done by Red Skelton as an announcer on a television show. .... Fanny Brice resurrects A Sweep-stake Ticket from the Follies of 1936 and plays a Bronx hausfrau quite as funnily with Hume Cronyn as she did with Bobby Clark."
-- New York Times, by Bosley Crowther  March 23, 1946

Hume Cronyn did a segment with Fanny Brice (the only member of the ensemble who was a star of the original Follies) and William Frawley. (Yes, before he would be Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy.) The scene centered around a winning lottery ticket.

1930: Fanny Brice with Robert Armstrong Cooking Breakfast For The One I Love.

On the Food Network chefs have to learn to cook and talk to the camera at the same time. Here's Fanny Brice, 'cooking' and singing in front of the camera in 1930.

Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl 

This was one of six movies that Fannie Brice made, including Be Yourself, 1930; The Great Ziegfeld, 1936; Everybody Sing, 1938 and Ziegfeld Follies, 1946. Some blamed antisemitism and her accent for her lack of success on the big screen.

"She looked and sounded too ethnic and by conventional standards seemed a little goofy. 

"One can imagine a less sophisticated crowd accustomed to demure females such as Lillian Gish and Janet Gaynor being quite amazed by Brice. 

"Brice appeared in only a handful of feature films including one more starring musical Be Yourself! She admitted that she never did get used to movies. 

"'You have to be able to forget about the camera,' she said. 'In the theater I was always at ease, but in pictures there was that camera following me around like a cop.' How many other performers accustomed to the intimacy of the proscenium stage must have had the same complaint!"
-- The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927 through 1932 by Edwin M. Bradley

This reminds me of how silent film star Clara Bow said she felt at the advent of talking pictures when the microphone first appeared on the sets.

The Great Ziegfeld boasts stars William Powell, Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer. It's the biopic winner of three Academy Awards including Best Picture. Fanny Brice also appeared in this film but Cronyn did not.

Barbra Streisand earned an Academy Award for playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. You can get a Funny Girl and Funny Lady set with Barbra Streisand stream the films. They're also on television with some regularity. Omar Sharif, James Caan, Walter Pidgeon.

Appx 1947, Alfred Hitchcock and Rope:

There was some discussion about all the writers and screenwriters involved with Rope in particular. There are also theories about how much is drawn from the  real-life case Leopold-Loeb kidnapping and thrill killing case of 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924. Once apprehended, Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb retained Clarence Darrow as counsel for their defense. 

The play had been retitled Rope's End on Broadway.

"Cronyn told me 'When Hitch asked me if I would like to work on Paul Hamilton's play Rope for the screen well I was very complimented, to say the least. But why would he choose a relatively inexperienced writer like me when he could get anyone he wanted? He had two reasons. 

"'First of all we got along smashingly. He may have felt more at ease with Canadians than with Americans. I think Hitch liked people intuitively the way a child does. When he liked you he really liked you. 

"'Second since he planned to do Rope exactly as it appeared on the stage with no editing in reel-long takes, he wanted someone who had a lot of stage experience as well as film knowledge. Then he brought in Aruthur Laurents, but Hitch and I got along well enough for him to ask me to do the same for his next film, Under Capricorn.'"
-- It's Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler

"After commissioning his actor friend Hume Cronyn to write a motion picture treatment (transplanting the action from a London house to a Manhattan apartment) and hiring a young playwright Aruthur Laurents to compose the screenplay."

-- Hitchcock at the Source: The Auteur as Adapter edited by R. Barton Palmer

3) People Will Talk (1951)

Another nasty character was his anatomy professor,
Dr.. Rodney Elwell, Cary Grant's adversarial colleague in Joseph Mankiewicz's People Will Talk. Director Joseph Mankiewicz was a friend of Cronyn's.

In 1987, Cronyn told the New York Post, "I don't mind playing absolute bastards -- some of the best parts I've had have been heavies. I just don't want to play the grouch."
People Will Talk French Poster 
Cary Grant Jeanne Crain Finlay Currie
Some in the medical community do point out that Cary Grant's doctor doesn't show the height of overall ethical behavior in the film as he marries one of his patients who is at the same time one of his students.

People Will Talk was a personal film for the director. 

Professor Rodney Elwell, played by Hume Cronyn plays the main opponent of Dr. Praetorius (Cary Grant). 

It's nice to see an actor playing a mean character when you see that the actor understands why the character is that way. 

Helpful is when the reason for the behavior isn't something sadly stereotypical and unrealistic such as a character who suddenly turns evil upon a disfiguring disease or accident. 

If there is humanity in the evil, it makes the character and the circumstance all the more frightening, all the more memorable than a random monster with a chainsaw for instance. Someone where the audience hesitates to say, "That could never happen to me." Also a situation where "that could happen to anyone; that could happen today." At least the discussions can be more lively.

"Elwell isn't really an evil man. Rather, he's just one of those dreary people possessing an underfed and insignificant soul who manage to rise to positions of authority and who devote themselves to belittling others.  

"In his world view there is no place for people such as Praetorius, and the bulk of the film finds him diligently working to discredit our hero.

"Usually remembered as more charming characters, Cronyn does a wonderful job with this role. If there had been a scene showing him coiled and sunning himself on a rock I, for one, would not have been surprised."
-- Charleston Movie Examiner, Michael Wolff

Read some more about Cary Grant, director Joseph Mankiewicz and People Will Talk

The film was based on a 1934 play by Curt Goetz. While the plot and characters are similar, Mankiewicz worked on them to fit the times and his version of the story.

More difficult to find in the US is a 1950 German film made from the original play and The film is called Frauenarzt Dr. Prätorius and it features the playwright, Curt Goetz. The play is also available in paper form. Again, you have to search for an English translation.
Part of the
31 Days Of Oscar Blogathon 2014

Dr. med. Hiob Pratorius: Facharzt fur Chirurgie und Frauenleiden: eine Geschichte ohne Politik, nach alten, aber guten Motiven neuerzahlt (Universal-Bibliothek)
translates into English, according to Google as:

Dr. Job Pratorius: specialist for surgery and gynecological disorders: a story without politics, according to the old, but good motives of new pay (Universal Library).

This is available as an 1986 German publication.

It may be interesting to compare and contrast the stories and see the differences in the play and the film.

4) Sunrise at Campobello (1960).  
This film received 4 Oscar nominations. 

Hume Cronyn as
Louis McHenry Howe
Photograph Master Print
His costars include Ralph Bellamy, Greer Garson and Jean Hagen. He played Louis Howe.

"The story of Franklin D Roosevelt before he was known as FDR it is not a political story but a human story of family life and family love of courage and triumph over disaster and best of all it is a true story that the whole family will enjoy."
-- St. Petersburg Times
- Nov 24, 1960

It's from a play for which Bellamy had won a Best Actor Tony. The characters are playing real people. They had the opportunity to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt.

When possible, the actors met with the characters they were to play. They studied video and audio recordings to get their voices and movements right. They talked to family members and coworkers. 

Ralph Bellamy, who played Roosevelt, worked with physical therapists. Books like American Politics in Hollywood Film examine a range of movies about politics and celebrities who've gone from Hollywood into politics.  


Only Ralph Bellamy and Ann Shoemaker who played FDR's mother were in the original Broadway stage production.

"I'll tell you one thing acting has given me and that's a passion for living. I sometimes tell students at the Academy of Dramatic Arts that an actor at work is a person the audience can identify wiht and believe in. An actor isn't just wearing the clothes and habits or a person- that's just razzle dazzle  he is the person."
-- The News and Courier - May 25, 1960, Hume Cronyn giving interviews promoting Sunrise at Campobello

He was Class of 1934 at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. There is a Hume Cronyn Scholarship in his honor. Other alumni include such notable actors and directors as Cecil B. De Mille, Spencer Tracy, Rosalind Russell and Garson Kanin.

Read more about Ralph Bellamy and his work on Sunrise at Campobello

Sometimes his real life read like a movie script. In 1969, although Cronyn was diagnosed with optic cancer and had his left eye removed, he insisted on completing his contract with Mankiewicz on There Was a Crooked Man. Later that year, he accepted two more films, The Arrangement and Gaily Gaily. 

In 1978 Cronyn, his secretary and a real estate agent were held at gunpoint and locked in the basement of his Pound Creek NY suburban home by a woman and man who ransacked the house. Police said the woman had cased the property by visiting earlier and posing as a prospective buyer. 

The men were handcuffed and the woman tied and locked in the basement. They managed to escape and call the police. The robbers who'd been gathering art and valuables abandoned the loot and escaped before the cops arrived. Jessica Tandy was in New York City appearing in The Gin Game a play from which Cronyn had recently withdrawn.
-- Ocala Star-Banner - Jul 14, 1978

5) The World According to Garp (1982)  
The film received 2 Academy Award nominations. 

His costars include Robin Williams, Mary Beth Hurt, Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Swoosie Kurtz and his wife Jessica Tandy. He and Tandy play the parents of Glenn Close's character, Jennie Fields. This was the first feature film for both Robin Williams and Glenn Close.

Overall the film and performances got positive reviews. While he and Jessica Tandy have relatively small parts they are well cast in this fun and touching dramatic comedy. What a great cast.

Jessica Tandy won an Oscar for her work in Driving Miss Daisy
Hume Cronyn and costar Morgan Freeman 1990

The film received 9 Academy Award nominations and won 4 Oscars

6) Cocoon 1985

Director Ron Howard. An early film to deal with a person battling Alzheimers Disease with the character Rose Lefkowitz played by Herta Ware.

Cocoon is a 1985 science fiction film directed by Ron Howard about a group of elderly people who become rejuvenated by the pods that aliens have left in the water.

Cocoon was a major coup for older actors, particularly for older actresses. There was a sequel in 1988, The Return. While the performances, including those of Cronyn and Tandy,
Joe and Alma Finley in both films, got good reviews the story did not.

A letter Hume Cronyn wrote to his youngest daughter, Tandy is featured in the book, Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children.  The letter is, as they say "straightforward, challenging, respectful and affectionate. With clarity and humanity," he speaks to his adolescent daughter, who is studying in Germany, about the Nazi atrocities and Germany in general. 

Letters in the book are from parents in all fields and many time periods, covering variety of subjects such as love, loss, aging, work and Rules to Live by.

Cocoon Jessica Tandy Hume Cronyn
On June 22, 2012, they announced that Ron Howard, who directed the original Cocoon in 1985, is scheduled to receive his second star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame 2013. 

This time it will be for film, particularly for directing. Mr. Howard has a star at 6838 Hollywood Blvd. for his work in television. At the time of this posting I don't know when his star ceremony will be. Recipients have 5 years to book ceremony.

Previous Entries in the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon

Great Early Best Original Song Oscar Winners Pre-1960, 2014 news, too

Bringing Up Cary Grant and the Oscars : Why didn't he ever win an Academy Award?

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  1. Really enjoyed your look at Hume Cronyn. Through his performances and his memoir, Cronyn proves to be a most fascinating individual.

  2. Thank you. I admire both him and Jessica Tandy and can see why they were so respected by the community. Interesting that he played such diverse characters.

  3. Great write up! Sunrise at Campobello was the first time I remember seeing Cronyn. I was just a kid and we saw the movie in school. Anyway, he made an indelible impression on me. His Louis Howe struck me as such a smart man, struggling to maintain his dignity surrounded by those patrician Roosevelts. I also loved him in Shadow of a Doubt, which he made earlier but I didn't discover until much later.

  4. Hume is great. I first noticed him in Shadow of a Doubt, and he did a very good job, stelaing all his scenes. Now I'm happy whenever I can spot him in a film, like in Th Phantom of the Opera from 1943 or People will Talk, another great part.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)


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