by Paul Batters
Cinema is an art form, which, unlike most other art forms, is a team effort. The need for a range of skills and talents does contradict, with the upmost of respect, the belief of the great Frank Capra that a film should be the vision of one man – the director. The work behind and around the camera is tantamount to the success of the performances before it. The magic that we see on the screen is amplified by the work of others.
Audiences tend to focus on the performances of the stars in major roles, which is understandable. However, the purpose of this article is to look at the character actor – the actor or actress who allows for and creates the space for a major star to extend their performance. At times, their work is that good that it goes un-noticed or it can even steal a scene. For all the brilliance of Bogart in Casablanca (1942), it was certainly assisted by the likes of Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt and Sidney Greenstreet. As fantastic as Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are in Double Indemnity (1944), Edward G Robinson arguably steals the show when he is on the screen.
For my money, perhaps one of Hollywood’s most prolific and important supporting actors was the magnificent Donald Crisp.
The purpose of this article is not to provide a biography but offer a reflection on one of classic Hollywood’s most familiar faces.
British-born Donald Crisp’s career spanned an incredible 55 years, with an amazing array of roles on the screen and an equally amazing involvement and perhaps more important role behind the scenes (not only for his time as a director of approximately 25 films). His first role was in a short called The French Maid (1908) during the earliest years of the American film industry, with his final screen appearance in Spencer’s Mountain (1963) as Grandpa Zebulon Spencer. (The film incidentally would later be developed into the 1970s family drama The Waltons).
Let’s look at some of his important, ground-breaking roles.
The Birth Of A Nation (1915) – Ulysses S Grant
Crisp cut his teeth on an array of roles in silent shorts, including the ground-breaking gangster film The Musketeers Of Pig Alley (1912) but it was his fortuitous meeting with D.W Griffith that saw his career in film expand. He worked with Griffith in a number of productions with perhaps his first most notable role as General Ulysses S Grant. Whilst not a major role, Crisp was portraying a significant historical figure and even the publicity shot reveals a great actor’s calibre to stand in the role. Indeed, Melvyn Stokes points out in his book ‘D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of ‘The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time’ (2007) that Crisp as Grant seems to step out of the pages of history.
Broken Blossoms (1919) – ‘Battling’ Burrows
Another D.W Griffith classic, Broken Blossoms is a love story between Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) and Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) whose father is a brutal prizefighter. Set in London’s’ Limehouse district, the story of interracial love was certainly highly controversial for its’ day. Crisp brings a cruelty and sadism to the role, taking pleasure in beating his daughter. His identity and sense of self is limited to the physicality of his fists but there is more to Crisp’s portrayal than a one-dimensional character. As Ed Gonzalez illustrates in his 2003 review in Slant Magazine, ‘Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is a monster, but Griffith understands the man’s frustrated desire to lash out against something (here, his own daughter) in the face of economic and masculine defeat’. Needless to say, Crisp channels this interpretation quite well and elicits from the audience incredible depths of shock and horror at depths of viciousness of his character.
The Black Pirate (1926) – MacTavish
Perhaps one of Fairbanks’ greatest films, it was also one of the best produced and an early two-tone Technicolor classic which featured all the hallmarks of the swashbuckler adventure. As the one armed pirate, Crisp also brings some humor, again a staple element of the swashbuckler classic seen in countless such films to follow. The film holds up well and arguably far better than many of Fairbank’s other films, ably assisted by Donald Crisp as the pirate with a heart of gold. Watch the ending to see MacTavish’s response to the happy ending. Interestingly there is some dispute over Crisp’s apparent removal as director of The Black Pirate.
Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) – Burkitt
A powerful historical drama with outstanding performances from Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian. Its’ historical accuracy does and should come under heavy scrutiny but never should the work of the supporting cast. Donald Crisp plays Burkitt, a tough English sailor who develops a burning hatred for Bligh and is tempted to mutiny along with a handful of fellow mistreated comrades. The turning point for Christian’s final push into mutiny comes with his witnessing of Burkitt beaten and in shackles. Gable’s inability to maintain composure is made even more believable when coupled with Crisp’s channeling of the dehumanized sailor. As usual, Crisp gives everything to the small but important role in the development of the story.
How Green Was My Valley (1941) – Gwilym Morgan
Undoubtedly his most famous role and the one that most associate with Donald Crisp, Ford’s classic is a masterpiece and a superb example of storytelling on film. Crisp as the Morgan family patriarch is one that moves the heart and stirs the spirit. His performance of a stern yet kind and loving father is impossible to ignore and it would win for Crisp the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. To quote Peter J Patrick from Cinema Sight in 2016, ‘Long established as one of the screen’s most reliable character actors, his performance here transcends them all. The voiceover relating to his character can also be applied to the actor and his long held position as one of Hollywood’s greatest: “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.” Thanks to the magic of the movies, it’s evergreen’.
For a more detailed thematic review of How Green Was My Valley (1941), go to: https://silverscreenclassicsblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/john-fords-how-green-was-my-valley-a-thematic-review/
Lassie Come Home (1943) – Sam Carraclough
MGM capitalized on Crisp’s Oscar winning father role for their Technicolor hit starring Roddy McDowell, as well as reuniting the two again in the father/son relationship. Crisp’s performance, as the father dealing with difficult times, was called ‘four-square’ by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Lassie Comes Home could be easy given over to a saccharine overdose, if not for the fabulous cast and directorial efforts of Fred Wilcox. However, Crisp is not one to recycle former work but builds on familiar tropes with a seasoned turn as the father trying to raise his family out of poverty. He would play the role again in two sequels.
The Valley Of Decision (1945) – William Scott Snr
Crisp would again play the father role but one of a very different nature to what he had played in How Green Was My Valley, Lassie Come Home and National Velvet. As the steel baron whose powerful hold on his family becomes challenged, Crisp gave a commanding performance as the father who opposes the relationship between his son Paul (Gregory Peck) and the Irish house maid Mary Rafferty (Greer Garson), whose father had been crippled in the Scott mill. The complexities and social issues that arise concerning families, class and relationships, as well as the plight of workers in the 19th century. As Cliff Aliperti’s 2011 review for Immortal Ephemera points out, Crisp’s gift to the film comes with the ‘tender moment with Garson after discovering just how she feels about his son, and immediately thereafter, the uncomfortable moment where Duryea convinces him that they need to call upon the strikebreakers’. It is often those moments by a character actor that offer depth to the layers of a powerful film.
The Man From Laramie (1955) – Alec Waggoman
For a short period of time, Crisp retired from films but returned in 1954’s Prince Valiant. Thankfully he did so for his turn as the formidable and cunning landowner in opposition to Will Lockhart (Jimmy Stewart) is a winner. The Shakespearean overtures (think King Lear) become obvious but are well crafted into a classic Western. Crisp is hard-nosed as the cattle baron, who has survived and thrived because he has been ruthless with those who have crossed him. The film exhibits Crisp’s versatility, as well as the character’s ability to shape his way through the film around the work of his fellow cast-mates, while assisting them in shaping their roles for the screen.
Looking at only a handful of roles does not do justice to honor the incredible body of work in which Donald Crisp was engaged. Crisp proved the go-to actor for some of Hollywood’s A-films for the major studios, working with many legendary actors and actresses. Admittedly, and unbeknownst to many at the time, he was a Hollywood power broker who through his membership of the Bank Of America arranged financing for many films, including those he worked in. However, the focus here is not his financial pull but the work he gifted the films he appeared in.
If there are doubts regarding his genuine talent, attributing his appearances to his financing abilities, one only need see Crisp on the screen. His clear and expressive voice combined with a versatile physicality makes for a potent character actor. Crisp used his voice superbly, evoking a range of emotion and reaching audiences with a familiarity borne of experience and understanding. Crisp’s work is incredibly far-reaching and chances are audiences have seen him in many of their favourite films. Yes, there is truth in his being typecast – father roles abounded after How Green Was My Valley, right up to one of his final films for Disney’s Pollyanna (1960). His silent film days saw him play tough guys and villains and finally judges, police officers, doctors, sea captains, ministers, clergymen and military men, through the 1930s and early 1940s.
And therein lies the talent of Donald Crisp – his adaptability, his transformation into character and understanding of his own dimensions as an actor.
From the subtleties of small but important parts to key supporting roles, Donald Crisp is one of Hollywood’s memorable faces, who was both a pioneer and a long serving performer.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.