Ray Harryhausen Film Notes: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

 

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The following are my notes as I presented to my Film Study course, Ray Harryhausen. In this week’s class we discussed the big ape that continues to capture our hearts, sixteen years after the famous Pre-Code ape that started it all. Mighty Joe Young.

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Ray Harryhausen with one of his “Joe” models.

For this week, we will explore Ray Harryhausen’s first feature, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). While not his first solo feature, he served as lead special effects tech under the guidance of his mentor, Willis H O’Brien. (Note the full list of special effects team as mentioned below.) As discussed before, O’Brien’s work in stop-motion animation in KING KONG (1933) is what inspired Harryhausen his life’s work. This is where it all began for both O’Brien and Harryhausen.

THE APE THAT STARTED IT ALL…

The sequel to KING KONG (1933) was released less than 8 months later with SON OF KONG (1933). Robert Armstrong, who portrays Carl Denham the film director/ promoter in the original Kong, reprises his role in the sequel. We then see this same actor play essentially the same type of role with a new name, Max O’Hara. Instead of Denham traveling to Skull Island via the Indian ocean as in KING KONG and SON OF KONG, O’Hara travels to Africa to collect lions for his big night club act. This is where he meets a large and unusual gorilla.

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While most scenes were shot on set at the RKO lot (Paramount), the baby gorilla images were not taken at a zoo, but rather a film crew was sent to Africa.

Jill Young (Terry Moore) has raised this gorilla since “Joe” was an orphaned baby. Jill traded her toys for Joe and nursed him with love. When O’Hara and his safari pal Gregg (Ben Johnson in his first on-screen role) bring Jill and Joe to Hollywood to star as main attractions at O’Hara’s African-themed club. Over time, it becomes clear that Joe and Jill are unhappy and the race to escape from authorities and back home to Africa begins.

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Producer Merian C Cooper with KING KONG (1933)

LOOKS FAMILIAR?

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is in essence a sister story to KING KONG. This film was also distributed by RKO and produced by the same creative team with a very similar plot. The differences however, are more family-friendly than in the Pre-Code KING KONG. Both films present an odd love triangle of a young woman, a young man, and a large gorilla. Both stories travel deep into the safari jungle, then discover more painful exploitation in their rags to riches adventure in the bright lights of the big city.

KONG vs JOE:

On a size scale, Joe is quite large (supposedly 12 feet tall and 2,000 lbs.) but dwarfs in comparison to Kong. In contrast, Kong was much taller. Creator Merian C Cooper originally envisioned Kong as being 40 to 50 feet tall. However, animator O’Brien built the sets and models scaling Kong to be only 18 feet tall on Skull Island then rescaled him to be 24 feet in New York. Someone had a big growth spurt in the Big Apple!

Unlike many of the mega creatures and characters Harryhausen would work later on, there are no atomic age threats, nor Greek gods at cause for these gorillas of freakishly gigantic growth patterns. What caused both Kong and Joe to reach such bizarre heights is not really explored in either film. Although in the case of Skull Island, including dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures running amuck, the implication is that of a protected bubble out of step from the rest of the world’s evolutionary pace.

There are other striking differences between these two apes that go beyond size. You could say that Kong came from a dysfunctional upbringing in the mean, Darwinian jungles of a dark, violent world yet despite his tough exterior, there’s a softer side that only weakens around blond actresses. Joe, on the other hand, was raised in a loving and nurturing environment. Even Joe’s jungles appear friendly, happy and always with an undercurrent of light whimsy.

Kong is prone to rage, expressing violence and pain frequently. He only becomes gentle upon his rare interactions with his delicate beauty. He protects her at all costs like an obsessive lover. His tragic ending is almost a relief to an otherwise painful and doomed life.

Joe was lovingly raised by his beauty. Their relationship is vastly different from Kong and Ann Darrow’s. Joe is more akin to Jill’s well-trained dog. He is expressive, curious and intelligent but also protective. His life is a charmed one until his trip to Tinsel Town. There, he faces humiliation and disrespect despite his talents and kind demeanor. He always shows loyalty and gentleness with Jill. When the time becomes obvious for Jill to escape the big city to retreat back to their African homestead, we are hopeful they will make it.

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HEART and HUMOR:

Instead of a focus on action, tragedy and pain as in Kong’s doomed fate, Joe’s tale is sprinkled with light moments which are both heartfelt and funny. Examples…

While our introduction to ‘grown Joe’ is mostly action, including impressive scenes mixing live action of lions and men on horses, there are also sweet touches with Joe being scolded by Jill. This also includes Jill being picked up by Joe from above by hand. This is where we see Ray Harryhausen’s brilliance at work. The skills are superior in not only in blending the live action with the Joe model, plus also foregrounds and backgrounds seamlessly as possible. Additionally, note Joe’s facial expressions. Joe listens to Jill, but reluctantly. He picks her up gently. She trusts him implicitly. But like a child walking away with his mother after being scolded in front of others after a fight, Joe turns back to give a few threatening gestures behind her back to let the men know he could’ve won the fight if mom hadn’t come along to save their day. It’s a much lighter human touch than we see in Kong’s treatment.

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Joe was not the only stop-motion animated creature. Lions got into the act, too. 

Another example that is both humorous and heartwarming occurs after Jill and Joe premiere in Hollywood. The dialogue from The Golden Safari club attendees as they give feedback on the club’s ambiance and the lions behind the bar are terrific. Note the familiar faces of many character actors such as Charles Lane. The tug-of-war scene is especially funny- from the intros of strong men with women cat-calling from the audience to the competition itself as Joe toys with them. Again, notice how Joe initiates with kindness and only becomes frustrated if provoked. Ray often brings humanity to his creatures.

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Terry Moore takes a break with the strong men from the humorous tug-of-war scene. 

By the 17th week, Joe is literally being treated like a trained monkey. In an organ grinder routine, both Joe and Jill are humiliated and abused as targets on stage. When a few mean drunks sneak backstage and pour alcohol into Joe, the real mayhem begins when one of the jerks hurts Joe. Even in these small scenes, watch the detailed expressions and movements of Joe. Both expressive and realistically reflective of what we would imagine an ape might do in that drunk-meets-rage unfolding. Just as impressive are the sets being destroyed in stop-motion animation while humans and lions running about.

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The orphanage scene is an especially tense and heart-wrenching climax. There are many technical aspects to the scene that make it both challenging and unforgettable. The use of color tone, fire, set design, and special effects within live action added more layers to the suspense. You can see live action, animation, technical assets of set design, backdrop paintings, and stop-motion animation all beautifully orchestrated in this rescue scene.

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The color tinting adds to this nail-biting climax. 

Ray Harryhausen is said to be responsible for 80 – 90% of the stop-motion animation in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, with the focus on the Joe model. As his first feature, we can already witness the mastery of his skills and yet this was only the beginning.

Trivia:

-Baby gorilla scenes were not shot in a zoo, they sent a camera crew to Africa.

-Most scenes were shot in Culver City on the Selznick lot (RKO).

-The early scene of lions in cages were shot at the lion farm in Tarzana.

-Ruth Rose’s inspiration for the Max O’Hara character was largely based on the director, Ernest “Monty” Schoedsack, who at 6.6 tall was a larger than life character in real life and was nearly blind (directed by sound and his asst. director). Ruth Rose was his wife.

-Of the 4 large Mighty Joe Young models, one was owned by Schoedsack and promised to Terry Moore upon his death but a maid stole it, another is Moving Image museum. An armature (not fully covered) is owned by Bob Burns.

-Ben Johnson was a real cowboy who wrangled horses in the Howard Hughes film THE OUTLAW (1943) before switching to acting in front of the camera. John Ford discovered him.

-The actual model for Joe was about 13 inches tall (smaller than Kong’s model.)

-Notable character actors: Ellen Corby (known best from The Waltons), William Schallert as the gas station attendant, Jack Pennick (familiar John Ford extra) as truckdriver of the stolen truck, and Irene Ryan (Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies).

– When Joe smashes through set at the night club, the first scream you hear is that of Fay Wray, stock audio from the original KING KONG (1933).

– All of the special effects sequences alone took 14 months to complete.

-The night club set was based on The Cocoanut Grove,” an LA club at the famed Ambassador Hotel.

-The early cowboys scene in Africa used footage originally shot to be used in a planned but not completed follow-up to KING KONG, (“The Valley of Gwangi”). In 1969, that film was eventually completed however by Ray Harryhausen.

-A sequel to MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was planned, “JOE MEETS TARZAN” to star Lex Barker [who starred as Tarzan in TARZAN AND THE SLAVE GIRL (1950)], but was canceled.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

Produced by: Merian C Cooper and John Ford

Director: Ernest B Schoedsack

Original Story: Merian C Cooper

Screenplay: Ruth Rose

Cast (main players):

Terry Moore … Jill Young

Ben Johnson … Gregg

Robert Armstrong … Max O’Hara

Mr. Joseph Young … himself

Frank McHugh … Windy

Douglas Fowley … Jones

Denis Green … Crawford

Paul Guilfoyle … Smith

Nestor Palva … Brown

Regis Toomey … John Young

Lora Lee Michel … Jill Young as a young girl

James Flavin … Schultz

Musical score: Roy Webb

Dir of Photography: J Roy Hunt

Special Effects:

Marcel Delgado … technical staff

Fitch Fulton … technical staff

Ray Harryhausen … first technician

George Lofgren … technical staff

Willis H O’Brien … technical creator

Pete Peterson … second technician

Visual Effects:

Linwood G Dunn … optical photography

Harold E Stine … photographic effects

Bert Willis … photographic effects

Harry Cunningham … model armature construction

Ray Harryhausen … technician

Jack Shaw … matte artist

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*See you next week as we take a journey with 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH!

The Ray Harryhausen Film Study

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For a couple of years now, I’ve been teaching a series of classic film courses. Film Noir, Screwball Comedy, and Hitchcock are some of the topics we’ve tackled. Starting this week, we’re kicking off with a new adventure into a fantasy world of mythical creatures and monsters. A cinematic dream world created by Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen was so enthralled by the wonder of a stop-motion animated ape, created by Willis H O’Brien in KING KONG (1933) as a 13 year-old boy, it changed his life forever. Over the decades that followed, he obsessively and masterfully perfected the art of stop-motion animation, including a process he called “DynaMation.”

Most of the films where he served as the Special Effects creator and director, were more known for his work than the lead actors or director. This remains true to this day of his films. And yet how many Special Effects people can you name, and know so readily by their work like his?

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His craft often required months of long hours and solitary commitments for what would result in a few minutes on screen. His work ethic was exhausting to even consider. For this reason and the sheer brilliance of his artistry, and the timing of what is now a lost art, he stands alone in his legacy. Ray worked with greats like Ray Bradbury and Ted Geisel (Dr. Suess), and his work then inspired legendary filmmakers such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Peter Jackson, and countless others.

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In our class, I will present Ray Harryhausen’s background history, the influences and influencers, but mostly we will discuss his filmography together. We’ll explore his Mother Goose Fairy Tales (1946), his contributions to MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), his other monster and alien creations in SciFi classics such as IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), EARTH vs THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957). Then we’ll transition to the fantasy, mythical, and sometimes prehistoric worlds found in his Sinbad films, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), and finally CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981).

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I look forward to enjoying these films through this deeper exploration in a shared experience. If you live in the Lawrence, Kansas area, please join us!

31 Days of Oscar 2019 – Day 3

And now for Day Three in our #31DaysOfOscar Blogathon, hosted by the amazing and lovely co-host Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club…

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While this year’s Academy Awards ceremony is officially host-less, the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon has three! Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and I, here at Paula’s Cinema Club have been celebrating the Oscars themselves and TCM”s tribute to same for the past seven years!

It’s almost a wrap on the third and final day, as I continue to collect the knowledge and opinions of our astute bloggers:

First up, Amanda at Old Hollywood Films focuses on Five Times the Academy Got It Right. Her picks include one of my favorites, George Sanders’ win for All About Eve; click for the rest.

Linda at Backstory: New Looks at Classic Films examines the life and career of “strikingly successful art director” Ward Ihnen.

Pale Writer analyzes Nat King Cole’s Best Song win for “Mona Lisa.”

at Crítica Retrô

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Day Two: #31DaysOfOscar Blogathon

I passed the baton for DAY TWO of the #31DaysOfOscar Blogathon to fellow and phenomenal co-host Aurora of Once Upon A Screen…

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I’m happy to say that we approach the halfway mark of this year’s 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon without incident or controversy. As is the case with my co-hosts, I will not be hosting any posts during commercials today, my day to host this year’s event. To put you at ease here is a 1957 Oldsmobile commercial, which aired during the Academy Awards ceremony that year. I will watch it with you thereby pausing my hosting duties.

Welcome back. Before we get to today’s list of entries, you might want to visit the Announcement post, which includes the entire participant roster. Also, be sure to visit Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled and the Day One submissions. Terrific stuff there. Otherwise, I’m getting to the main course of this entry, the tributes to the movies and the people who have had relationships with Oscar…or should have had. Enjoy!

  • We begin…

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Day One: The #31DaysOfOscar Blogathon!

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We have finally arrived to our exciting annual event, The 31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON. In tribute and in namesake of the Turner Classic Movies network month-long programming, we honor all things Oscar related by inviting bloggers to contribute. Today, for the first day in our 3-day event, I will be your host and here are your entries… Enjoy!

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1) Our own co-host Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon A Screen interviews Kimberly Truhler (@GlamAmor) of GlamAmor.com. Fashion and Film historian Kimberly was recently featured in the CNN docu-series American Style and discussed “FASHION HISTORY, HOLLYWOOD, and the OSCARS” with Aurora…

Interview: Kimberly Truhler on Fashion History, Hollywood, and the Oscars

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2) Paddy (@CaftanWoman) of Caftan Woman presents her entry with the extremely talented and highly influential man of Hollywood, “IRVING BERLIN at the OSCARS.” 

https://www.caftanwoman.com/2019/02/31-days-of-oscar-blogathon-irving.html

3) Sharleen of Clara’s Closet offers up her thoughts on some of Oscar Snubs in “GONE WITH THE WIN.”

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4) The Gal Herself of One’s Gal’s Musings breaks down the impressive stats and Oscar noms of a legend who spent a lifetime on screen, “NATALIE WOOD: Nominated Three Times by Age 25.”  

https://onegalsmusings.blogspot.com/2019/02/31-days-of-oscar-blogathon-tha-actors.html

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5) RealWeegieMidget Reviews (@realweegiemidge) chimes in with “5 OSCAR SUPPORTING NOMINATED ACTORS SINGING UP A STORM.”  

https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/music/best-singing-supporting-actors/

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6) Daniel (@dsl89 ) of Movie Mania Madness takes a look at the winner of the Best Original Song Score Oscar of the 43rd Academy Awards with the Beatles’ “LET IT BE: IT DON’T COME EASY.”

https://moviemaniamadness.wordpress.com/2019/02/22/31-days-of-oscar-blogathon-let-it-be-the-beatles/


Thank you for reading these wonderful entries in our first day of #31DaysOfOscar Blogathon! But wait… there’s more to come! We have a full weekend yet to come. My co-hosts, Aurora and Paula will take over the hosting for more fascinating Oscar worthy topics…

DAY 2, Saturday 2/23: Host-> Aurora @CitizenScreen/ ONCE UPON A SCREEN

DAY 3, Sunday 2/24: Host -> and Paula/ @Paula_Guthat/ PAULA’S CINEMA CLUB

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Announcement: 31 Days Of Oscar Blogathon 2019

Announcement: 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2019

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From the time Douglas Fairbanks, then President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hosted the first Awards dinner party for about 250 people on May 16, 1929, to this year’s host-free Oscars ceremony ninety years later, this iconic celebration honoring Hollywood’s finest continues to be just as spectacular and riddled with excellence and contentions as the films and filmmakers they honor.

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If you take a look back at the many Oscar moments in these past 90 years of Oscars ceremonies, you’ll find numerous surprises, disappointments and controversies, which continue to spark debate to this day. That’s where we come in. For the seventh consecutive year, I am joining forces with Aurora of Once Upon A Screen aka @CitizenScreen and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club aka @Paula_Guthat to bring you the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon. We hope you’ll consider joining us to make this the best and brightest Oscar blogging event yet.

Not surprising, this blogging event is inspired by Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar marathon, which begins its 24th installment on February 1 and ends March 3rd. This year the network presents the film schedule in a mixed topics potpourri surrounding the historic film industry. Topics range from “Grittiest Streets of New York” to “Favorite Singing Cowboys” to “Favorite Epic Soap Opera.” As the Oscars themselves, there’s something for everyone. See the full schedule here: http://prod-images.tcm.com/Microsites/31Days/31Days2019-Schedule.pdf

Since both TCM and the Oscars bring to mind our beloved host and favorite historian, Robert Osborne, we thought we would kick off our Blogathon with his words about the 31 Days of Oscar marathon…

“One thing seems to stir the souls of our Turner Classic Movie loyalists like no other: the 31 Days of Oscar salute.” 

Blogathon Details

This year, we will host all the contributing entries the weekend of the Oscars. That is from Friday, February 22nd through Sunday, February 24th, wrapping up just in the nick of time to watch the Oscars ceremony. We’re also combining all topics this year and simply presenting them over the three days. Any Oscar-related topic is fair game. We are not limiting this event to classic film fare as we’d like to see entries covering the entire span of 9 decades history of Oscar, including this year’s nominees. To help get you motivated, here are categories we have used in the past…

  • The Actors
  • The Directors
  • The Motion Pictures
  • Oscar Snubs
  • The Crafts (music, costumes, etc.)
  • New Idea – Oscar Controversies

Most of you know the drill, but as a reminder, adhering to the following is necessary:

  • Let us know what your desired topic is by leaving a comment on any of the host blogs
  • Include the title and link to your blog in the comments area
  • Advise if you have a date preference – Friday 2/22, Saturday 2/23 or Sunday 2/24
  • Include the event banner on your blog and in the entry post to help us promote the event

Restrictions – just two:

  • Please do not submit previously published posts
  • No duplicates will be accepted to ensure we cover as much of Oscar history as possible

We look forward to hearing from you and to reading your entries. As many entries as you want, actually, so get to it!

Until then here’s to Oscar, to TCM and to YOU! Happy Blogging!

Participating Blogs and Topics:

Caftan Woman… Irving Berlin at the Oscars

Once Upon A Screen… Interview with Kimberly Truhler- Fashion and Oscar

The Stop Button… Eleanor Parker: Oscar Nominee

Movie Night’s Group… Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year

The Old Hollywood Garden… Best Supporting Actress of 1952 (1953 Oscars ceremony)

Outspoken & Freckled… Bizarre and Beautiful at the Biltmore: the 7th Academy Awards

 

Merry Christmas from the Pratts

This Christmas, we celebrate our 10th year as a married couple, as a blended family. My husband Gary, in his own creative way, has created some festive holiday cards over the past decade that express our love of our family, friends and classic film.

This year, we decided to go a slightly different direction to celebrate a decade of joy. So here is our twist on the song “My Favorite Things” (with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein), a la classic film. EnJOY!

(Sing to the tune of “My Favorite Things”)

Hitchcock and Spielberg, Welles, Capra and Wilder

Ford, Hawks and Huston; Lang, Kubrick and Wyler

Director geniuses, talents do sing

These are a few of my favorite things

 

Russell and Cary, Dunne, Stanwyck and Hepburn

Harlow and Hayworth, Jean Arthur and Coburn

Fast-talking through their mis-un-der-stand-ings

These are a few of my favorite things

 

Keaton and Davies, Lloyd, Harold and Astor

Pickford and Fairbanks. Gish, Brooks, Bow and Dressler

Silver screen antics and soundless acting

These are a few of my favorite things

 

When my mood sinks

When my job stinks

When our cable lags

I simply remember my favorite things

And then I don’t feel so bad

 

Dietrich and Henreid and Laughton and Gable

Cagney and Greenstreet, they’re actors well-abled

Dark smoky talent that gives my heart wings

These are a few of my favorite things

 

Tierney and George Raft, Dan Duryea and Bogie

Bacall and Ned Sparks and Bella Lugosi

Finely schooled actors with whose voices do ring

These are a few of my favorite things

 

John Wayne and Tom Mix and Carey (and Jr.)

Bond, Hunter, Cooper and Mitchum and Stewart

Rode tall in the saddle, our favorite gun slings

These are a few of my favorite things

 

When my mood sinks

When my job stinks

When our cable lags

I simply remember my favorite things

And then I don’t feel so bad

 

Caron and Gene Kelly, Astaire and Miss Rogers

Powell and Deb Reynolds plus Nicolas Brothers

Hoofing their way cross the stage and big screen

These are a few of my favorite things

 

I will have missed some, so sorry they’re lacking

Christmas is nigh and my presents need packing

Too many talented film queens and kings

These are a few of my favorite things

 

One final mention of TCM talent

Ben Mank and team, they’re really quite gallant

Passionate sherpas of classic film-rings

These are a few of my favorite things

 

When my mood sinks

When my job stinks

When our cable lags

I simply remember my favorite things

And then I don’t feel so bad

We hope you enjoyed our little song created to lift your spirits this holiday season, especially for our fellow classic film devotees. From our family to you and yours, we wish a very merry and bright! Here are some of the cards we made over the years…

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HoHoHo!

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Day 3 of the 2018 What A Character! Blogathon

Co-host Paula of the 7th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON wraps up the 3rd and final day. Read on for all the terrific entries…

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‘Tis the season to recognize the names below the title, as our yearly recognition of those supporting players whose faces you know (but names you might not) concludes today.

Check out Day 1 by Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled and Day 2 at Aurora‘s blog Once Upon a Screen. All the nitty-gritty blogathon details are in the Announcement post. Thanks to my partners in cinematic tribute for making this such a fun project and to Turner Classic Movies for the blogathon title and inspiration. And now on with the show…


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WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon – Day Two

For Day Two of the WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON co-host Aurora of Once Upon A Screen brings in even more amazing entries to read!

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BREAKING: People are turning off the negativity and putting holiday preparations aside this weekend to make way for the characters! It’s thrilling news as sidekicks parade across the blogosphere. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else.

I’m thrilled to be hosting Day Two of the 2018 What A Character! Blogathon. This is the seventh consecutive year that I co-host this tribute to character actors and the excitement has multiplied. As you probably know my co-hosts are Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled who kicked things off with the Day one posts and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club who hosts the third and final day tomorrow. We have lots of fun and informative posts to share so sit back and enjoy.

If you want a refresher on the back story for the What a Character! Blogathon take a look at the Announcement post, which includes the entire list of participants and chosen character…

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Elisha Cook Jr

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A crazy-eyed neurotic. A nervous noir thug. A sell-out weasel. These are not exactly the most flattering depictions of a character. But these are just a few of the characters Elisha Cook Jr. was best known. “Cookie” was a true working actor with over 200 credits across stage, film, and television for a career that lasted nearly sixty years.

Starting as young as 14 years old, Elisha began in vaudeville and doing stage work. By the 1930s, Elisha kicked off his film career in Pre-Codes. Here’s a lip-sticked Elisha, along with Frances Underwood, from his first on-screen role in HER UNBORN CHILD (1930). The promotional marketing pitched, “A vividly dramatic all-talker of the Broadway stage hit which rocked the nation with its frankness.” I’m hooked.

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Soon, he transitioned from his squeaky clean, youthful roles into a much darker presence. With a petite stature of 5 foot 5″ he became known as Hollywood’s lightest heavy. He could gain the audience’s sympathy as the timid man with equal vigor as he portrayed the cowardly villains. It can be argued that he was the first emotionally-conflicted gangster heavy.

One of his most notable roles came in 1941 as “Wilmer the gunsel” in John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON. He is a vivid stand-out even though surrounded by a stellar cast. Even more impressibly, most of his scenes include very little dialogue. As Sydney Greenstreet’s gun for hire, he is frequently and frustratedly humiliated as sport by Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Unforgettable use of restraint and characterization by Cook’s performance makes him an iconic figure.

A year prior to THE MALTESE FALCON, Cook appeared in STRANGERS ON THE THRD FLOOR, considered by many film scholars as the original Film Noir. Elisha thrived in this style of film, finding a steady stream of work for his ‘type.’ According to a New York Times piece (written upon the occasion of his death 1995), Cook described this era in career…

“I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists,” he once said, recalling that as a character actor generally assigned to subsidiary roles, he had to take what was offered. “I didn’t have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, ‘You’re going to work tomorrow.”  (“Elisha Cook Jr., Villain in Many Films, Dies at 91” by Robert MCG Thomas Jr/ New York Times/ May 21, 1995)

And he kept working. One of the most memorable Elisha Cook Jr performances is his frenzied, drum solo from the noir classic PHANTOM LADY (1944). After exchanging flirtations with Ella Raines as Carol “Kansas” Richman on the hunt for evidence, Cook as drummer Cliff Milburn with the key to evidence, takes her to his jazz jamming session. There he works up a substance-infused, climatic drumming crescendo that can only be described as orgasmic. The censors must have sweat a few drumsticks of their own. Take a peek for yourself : http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/1324863/Phantom-Lady-Movie-Clip-You-Sure-Know-How-To-Beat-It-Out.html  

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Beyond his work on film noirs and with legendary co-stars and filmmakers, Cook branched out into other genres. One of my favorite classic horrors is a William Castle classic, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) starring Vincent Price. But as in all of his work, Elisha Cook Jr.’s small role leaves a strong impression. Here’s our spooky introduction to his role as Watson Pritchard:

 

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“The ghosts are moving tonight, restless… hungry. May I introduce myself? I’m Watson Pritchard. In just a moment I’ll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people, including my brother, have been murdered in it. Since then, I’ve owned the house. I only spent one night then and when they found me in the morning, I… I was almost dead.” Memorable, eh?

As many actors did, Cook garnered more gigs by moving to television in the 1950s, starting with the popular westerns (“Wagon Train,” “Rawhide,” “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza”). One of his career highlights includes his bit role as Stonewall Torrey in SHANE (1953). Watch him being gunned down in the muddy streets by Jack Palance:

For the most part, TV is where Cook filled his resume for the decades that followed. From looking at his acting credits in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, I’m not sure if there was a TV show that didn’t include him somewhere. His last acting job was for 13 episodes of “Magnum PI” as ‘Ice Pick’ (1981 – 1988).

Because he worked nearly constantly, I cannot possibly list them all. But here are some fun favorites, in no particular order:

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“The Duo Defy” episode from BATMAN, aired March 30, 1967. Eli Wallach as Mr. Freeze, Leslie Parrish in fur, and Elisha Cook Jr. as Professor Isaacson.

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Ketty Lester sinks her teeth into Elisha Cook Jr. in BLACULA (1972).

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Cook as a hood Frank Lucas, opposite Laurel and Hardy, in A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942).

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Elisha Cook Jr with William Shatner in the “Court Martial” episode of “STAR TREK” (1967).

Born Elisha Van Slyck Cook Jr. in San Francisco on December 26th, 1903, his 115th birthday is approaching soon. The other personal detail that seems very interesting of this reliable, working actor is his love life. Married twice, he married his first wife Mary Lou at the age of 25 and they divorced 13 years later. Mary Lou Cook was an actress as well and died just 3 years after they divorced. Two years after his divorce from Mary Lou, he married his 2nd wife, Elvira Ann “Peggy” McKenna in 1943. Peggy was a huge fan of Carole Landis and her fandom led to a close friendship. Elisha and Peggy divorced in 1968 and divorced. Oddly, they remarried just two tears later and remained married until her death in 1990. It was during the same year of her death that Elisha suffered a stroke that took away his ability to speak. Five years later, he died on May 18, 1995 in Big Pine, CA. Even in real life, he seemed to be pillar of hard work ethic, always sticking to it, no matter what.

Although thought of mostly as the bug-eyed psychotic or as the last surviving member of the MALTESE FALCON cast, Elisha Cook Jr. proved he may come in a small package and take on small roles, but he left a big impact in a variety of lasting work. I found this video tribute to Elisha Cook Jr. Hope you enjoy it, too..

My tribute piece to Elisha Cook Jr. is part of the 7th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, December 14, 15, 16th, 2018, hosted by Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. Please enjoy all the fabulous entries from this fun weekend!

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