Happy Birthday, Dan Duryea!

Given his screen persona, Dan Duryea, born 109 years ago today in White Plains, New York, might not strike the average movie buff as an Ivy Leaguer, but he was, in fact, a member of Cornell University’s class of 1928. He majored in English, but was interested in theatre, too. In his senior year, he even succeeded Franchot Tone as president of the college drama society.

Duryea went on to work in advertising for a bit until the stress got to be too much. A mild heart attack in his twenties convinced him to pursue an acting career instead, a move that paid off nicely. He appeared on Broadway in Dead End and The Little Foxes, and it was the latter play that provided his ticket to Hollywood. Though Bette Davis was named to replace his Broadway co-star, Tallulah Bankhead, in the role of Regina Giddens when Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to produce the cinema adaptation of the hit play, Duryea was retained to play her nephew Leo Hubbard, his cinematic bad guy (or, at the very least, his first weasel).

Dan Duryea

In an early 1950s interview with Hedda Hopper, Duryea claimed that his focus on playing bad guys was intentional, even planned:

“I looked in the mirror and knew with my ‘puss’ and 155-pound weakling body, I couldn’t pass for a leading man, and I had to be different. And I sure had to be courageous, so I chose to be the meanest s.o.b. in the movies … strictly against my mild nature, as I’m an ordinary, peace-loving husband and father. Inasmuch, as I admired fine actors like Richard Widmark, Victor Mature, Robert Mitchum, and others who had made their early marks in the dark, sordid, and guilt-ridden world of film noir; here, indeed, was a market for my talents. I thought the meaner I presented myself, the tougher I was with women, slapping them around in well-produced films where evil and death seem to lurk in every nightmare alley and behind every venetian blind in every seedy apartment, I could find a market for my screen characters.”

We’re not necessarily convinced that Duryea entered the movie business with that much foresight and wisdom, but it sounded good after the fact, and in any case, it’s certainly true that he came to be closely identified with the film noir genre and known for his memorable portrayals of sketchy (at best) characters, in classics such as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945),Criss Cross (1949), and Too Late for Tears (1949).

For our money, Dan Duryea was a sort of poor man’s Widmark, but as we see it, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that.

A nice guy and dedicated family man in real life, Dan Duryea was married to his wife, Helen, for 35 years until her death and was an attentive parent, serving as a scout master and PTA papa to his two sons.

But on screen, he was the sniveling creep you hoped would get his. And while he usually did, he gave as good as he got.

Happy birthday, Mr. Duryea, wherever you may be—you heel, you.

Happy 101st Birthday, Richard Widmark!

It was a thrill indeed for us to be on hand in 2001 for a couple of in-person appearances by the great Richard Widmark, born 101 years ago today in Sunrise, Minnesota, during a Lincoln Center retrospective and celebration of his storied career. Widmark was one of the few giants left standing from the Golden Era of Hollywood at the time, and even at 87 and despite his low-key demeanor, he had command of the room.

The years hadn’t changed him much—you’d have definitely recognized him if you’d spotted him on the street—and it was great to hear his modest accounts of his experiences as an actor.

Widmark got his start in NYC in 1938, appearing in radio dramas, and soon moved to Broadway productions before heeding the call of Hollywood. Few actors have enjoy Richard Widmark’s longevity or demonstrated his range. He played really bad guys, really good guys, and everything in between, all with a simplicity and honesty that any actor might envy.

Here’s to you, Mr. Widmark, wherever you may be.

Richard Widmark

Happy Birthday, Claudette Colbert!

We’ve had the good fortune to meet a few stars from the Cladrite Era—Esther Williams, Gloria Stuart, Margaret Whiting, Cab Calloway, Kitty Carlisle—and we’ve enjoyed relatively close encounters (but not personal meetings) with others, among them Benny Goodman, Richard Widmark, Fay Wray, Dickie Moore, Jane Powell, Farley Granger and Francis Dee.

Our greatest regret in this area involves Claudette Colbert, who was born 112 years ago today. In 1985, we got see Ms. Colbert, costarring with Rex Harrison, in a Broadway revival of Frederick Lonsdale‘s 1923 drawing-room comedy Aren’t We All? It was an enjoyable production, and Ms. Colbert, whom we greatly admire, was delightful. So what was the issue?

For some reason, we didn’t wait by the stage door following the show to meet Ms. Colbert. As we said, we’re big fans, and we honestly don’t know what we were thinking in passing up that opportunity, but we’ve regretted it ever since, and ever more so as we became more and more immersed in the cinema of the 1930s and ’40s, when Ms. Colbert was in her glorious prime.

Perhaps in the next life, Ms. Williams or Ms. Carlisle will help us to rectify this misstep and introduce us to Ms. Colbert. But in the meantime, we’re thinking of Claudette Colbert on her birthday. Here’s hoping it’s a happy one, wherever she may be.

Claudette Colbert quote

A Brush with Film Noir

Stolen Identity movie posterFor our money, the world would be better off if every day had a touch of film noir to it. So when a skin screening at a new (to us) dermatologist’s office took a noir-ish twist, we couldn’t have been more pleased.

Allow us to explain.

The doctor in question is named Robert Buka. As we said, this was our first visit with him, so we knew little about him, but after being led to an examination room and changing into an open-front gown, we found ourselves with time to kill (45 minutes, to be precise) as we waited for Dr. Buka to appear.

After playing a couple of games of Yahtzee on our iPhone and checking in on Facebook, our eyes—and our attention—began to wander. And what should we come across on the exam room wall, but the very compelling movie poster pictured on the right.

Noticing an actor by the name of Donald Buka on the poster, we guessed that maybe a friend of the good doctor’s had noticed the name and gifted him with it. (If ever any of our friends came across an old movie poster with our last name in the credits, we hope they would do the same.)

But then we noticed a pair of framed black-and-white photos that didn’t look like typical snapshots—they might even be movie stills (we’re not sure of that), so we got to thinking it might be Donald Buka who was picture in those photos, which led us to wonder further: What if Donald Buka was a relative of Dr. Robert?

Picture of Donald Buka with unidentified gal   Picture of Donald Buka with unidentified gal

Turning again to our trusting iPhone, we looked up his name at IMDB.com, and sure enough, Donald had a nice long career, with extensive credits in 1950s and ’60s television. Donald appeared in at least three films noir: Stolen Identity (1953), The Street with No Name (1948), which also features such notables as Richard Widmark, Lloyd Nolan, Mark Stevens and Ed Begley, and Between Midnight and Dawn, with Stevens again, plus Edmond O’Brien and Gale Storm, among others. Though we’ve never seen Stolen Identity (we are now resolved to do so a.s.a.p.), we have seen The Street with No Name and Between Midnight and Dawn, and figured it might please Dr. Buka to know this if, in fact, Donald proved to be a relative.

The Street with No Name movie posterBetween Midnight and Dawn movie poster

When Dr. Buka made his entrance, the first thing we asked was about the poster and the photos, and sure enough, Donald was indeed his father. Dr. Buka seemed pleased that we asked and that we had seen a couple of his father’s movies.

Dr. Buka told us that his dad considered himself a serious actor and preferred the theater to movies or televsion, that he wasn’t all that proud of him accomplishments in those realms, but we beg to differ.

There’s no real point or big finish to this story; we just got a small kick out of the fact that our skin screening included a two-degree separation from a successful, if perhaps not quite famous, actor from the Cladrite Era. As we’ve admitted in this space before, it really takes so little to make us happy.