Alan Hale: The Consummate Character Actor

by Paul Batters

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The nature of an audience is to focus on their favourite stars on the screen. Each studio was fully aware of this during the Golden Years Of Hollywood and they were careful to assure their star performers would be at the centre of that focus. Stars were paired together because they had a special chemistry on the silver screen (even if it didn’t exist off screen!) Directors had their favourites as well and the entire production was geared towards a final product, which aimed to be a hit for audiences.

There is a key aspect of the film making process that is often forgotten or not given a great deal of attention. That is the work of the supporting cast and in particular the character actor. They have faces we have seen many times but sometimes cannot put a name to – and in some cases are often type-cast, as the sidekick in the Western, the ‘heavy’ in the crime, film noir or gangster film or the cruel mother-in-law. But the quality of their performances offer a greater depth to the story being depicted and allow the stars to shine even more so. Many of these actors and actresses have had long and fruitful careers because of the worth they bring to the screen and their ability to give a film balance.

In the world of classic film, perhaps one of the most prolific performers and certainly a loved actor with a very recognisable face is the man born as Rufus Edward Mackahan. He would become better known as Alan Hale Snr.

What made Hale such a remarkable and noticeable face was his uncanny ability to provide balance to any performance. It is debatable whether he worked to upstage, over-shadow or play off the screen any of the stars that he worked with, despite coming damn near close on many occasions. If he did, it doesn’t seem to be out of malice. Indeed, the good-natured Hale was a welcome supporting actor on many films, pushing the main stars to work harder and provide performances, which offered something more. He tempered his performance and understood what his job was; yet it is also important to note that Hale was neither overwhelmed nor intimidated by the stars he was working with. And Hale worked with an incredible array of legendary actors and actresses including Douglas Fairbanks Snr, Lon Chaney, Wallace Beery, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. Hale would even direct some films for Cecil B DeMille during the 1920s, indicating the wide-ranging talent of the man.

Starting his screen career in the early days of silent cinema, his physical presence saw him often cast as the ‘heavy’ or villain. His opera trained voice would ironically be unheard. Yet his voice with his rich depth and warmth would be as recognizable as his face. Whilst not called upon to sing, Hale’s early vocal training would give him a solid understanding of how to use his voice, which would have been quite the asset during the early days of the talkie. Combined with his solid, tall frame and highly expressive face, Hale had a special and lasting presence on the screen which makes it more than understandable why he was such a sought after character and supporting actor.

 

Whilst he worked at a number of the major studios, Hale is perhaps best remembered for his work at Warner Bros; particularly his work with Errol Flynn. Despite a number of descriptions identifying Hale as a ‘sidekick’ to Flynn, it is erroneous to see Alan Hale in such a light. Flynn and Hale were close and the chemistry shared by the two on screen certainly lifted the scenes they shared into memorable occasions. Some reports suggest that Flynn was a huge fan of Hale because he wasn’t intimidated and enjoyed the fact that Hale was such a success at stealing scenes from the main star. The two would be good friends off the screen as well and Overall, the two would work together in 13 films, including historical dramas such as The Prince And The Pauper (1937), westerns such as Dodge City (1939) biopics such as Gentleman Jim (1942) and swashbuckler such as The Sea Hawk (1940).

 

Yet his most famous role is as Little John opposite Flynn in The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938). Hale’s boisterous sense of fun and adventure bounces off the screen and helps to shape one of the most enjoyable and exciting films that Errol Flynn ever made. Interestingly enough, it is a role he would play three times – once during the silent era alongside Fairbanks Snr and in his final film role in Rogues Of Sherwood Forest (1950).

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Hale had a knack in making even a cameo role memorable and there are many occasions where he was able to seize the moment, injecting some humour with perfect timing and weighting. In It Happened One Night (1934), Hale makes an appearance as Danker, a conman who tries to steal Gable’s and Colbert’s luggage while offering them a lift. He’s on the screen only for a few moments but his singing proves hilarious, and his facial expressions likewise.

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Likewise, Hale’s turn as Ed Carlsen in They Drive By Night (1940) is warm, natural and unpretentious to a fault as the owner of a trucking company and is married to Lana (Ida Lupino), who is as cold and mean as he is sympathetic and friendly. His kindness to Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and the sensitive way he dismisses Joe’s promise to repay him, again shows how effective Hale could be with a simple gesture or facial response. The audience’s sympathies lie directly with Ed and this heightens what will follow, nicely played by Lupino as the cruel counterpart to Hale’s ex-trucker.

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Some reviewers have often described Alan Hale as being simply comedy relief. One of the strongest pieces of evidence to refute this is his role in Stella Dallas (1937) as ‘Uncle’ Ed Munn, where he displays a complexity of vulgarity and pathos in his portrayal. Likewise, in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934). Hale plays Cook, one of the soldiers facing terrible adversity in the desert during World War One, a role as far from comedy as one can imagine, which he carries with depth and sensitivity.

 

Hollywood has been blessed with a pantheon of incredible character and supporting actors. Without their presence and professionalism, the films produced would be lesser films. Alan Hale provided something special, understanding his craft and using it to full effect. As a result, the films Hale appeared in are far richer, enjoyable and memorable because of what he brought to the silver screen.

A special thanks to Aurora from Citizen Screen, Kellee from Outspoken& Freckled, and Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club, who joined together to host the seventh What A Character! blogathon. Make sure you visit to read other great entries.

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.

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Donald Crisp: One Of Hollywood’s Great Character Actors

by Paul Batters

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.