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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3 Godfathers

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There’s something very charming about an outlaw who shows us his good side. Sure, he breaks laws; but in a pinch, his instinct to do the truly right thing blazes in, just in the nick of time. He’s often the anti-hero with a tough, crusty exterior and vulnerable mush inside. The lovable cad.

In John Ford’s technicolor 3 GODFATHERS (1948), based on the 1918 novelette by Peter B Kyne, Ford introduces us to three outlaws who take us on a western journey of survival with a biblical Three Magi theme. And yes, these three outlaws give us their good sides, plenty.

In this film, Ford does what Ford does best. Gathers some of his entourage of actors, finds a breathtaking filming location for a backdrop, develops unforgettable characters with sprinkles of humor, then he masters the western storytelling like no one else. 3 GODFATHERS is a indeed western. But it’s also a heist film, a race for survival film, a spin on the standard hero film, a buddy film, and a romanticized telling of The Three Wise Men/ Christmas story.

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Ford made films from the silents to the 1960s, within a variety of genres including many masterpieces, but it is the western we most associate with his signature work. When you see a Ford western, you know it, and this one is unmistakably Ford. For a demanding director who was infamous for his gruff manner and harsh treatment of his cast, he had a heart-warming sentimental side that shines through in his films.

In 3 GODFATHERS, the sentiment starts even as the opening credits roll. Both Ford and his frequent lead, John Wayne, were very good friends with actor Harry Carey who just passed the year prior. Carey starred in Ford’s silent version of this film from 1916 with the same title. In the opening credits, Ford dedicates the film to him with a silhouette of a cowboy figure resembling Carey with the quote, “bright star of the early western sky.” But make no mistake in thinking this film is a soft, wordy piece. The man was a ‘doer’ of few words. Likewise, 3 GODFATHERS is a visual story telling of action across stunning landscapes, often with horses, mules, and an abundance of thirst.

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Our three outlaws are John Wayne as Robert Marmaduke Hightower (named by Ford for his favorite stuntman Slim Hightower), Pedro Armendariz as Pedro, and Harry Carey, Jr. as William Kearney aka “The Abilene Kid.” Despite choosing opposing sides of the law, marshal Perley ‘Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond) and Hightower connect instantly with report, respect, and humor, even before the 3 outlaws rob the local bank. As Perley and a posse take chase across the desert, Hightower strategically does his best to outwit their pursuit efforts. Perley isn’t daunted, his admiration for Robert only grows stronger.

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In their quest for water and escape, the trio come across a dire scenario. A woman has been abandoned by a derelict husband who has left after forever destroying a water well in his ignorantly “tenderfoot” ways. Worst yet, she is about as pregnant as anyone could be. No means for water, the threesome make do with cactus juice and meager newborn provisions from the wagon where the woman gives birth, thanks to Pedro. There is an especially poignant and gentle scene portrayed by Mildred Natwick as the pregnant woman (supposedly 28 or 30 years old, but she was actually 43 years old at filming) who gives birth to a baby boy, whom she names Robert William Pedro, after his three godfathers.

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In Scott Eyman’s novel, “Print The Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford,” he quotes Natwick’s recall of her experience in working with Ford in this particular scene:

“I’ve never forgotten,” remembered Natwick, “that Ford seemed pleased with the scene and pleased that I done it. I guess because I knew my lines and got through it in [one] morning… I don’t know, you get things by osmosis from a wonderful director, I think. His feeling about what the woman was thinking and feeling.” 

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Natwick’s account was a stark contrast from Harry (“Dobe”) Carey, Jr.’s, for whom Jack Ford was also known as “Uncle Jack.” Despite the fond admiration betwixt his father and Jack, Dobe was not given any special treatment on the set. If anything, Ford was much tougher on him than most. Also according to Eyman’s book, this was Jack’s typical baptism onto his set via a form of fraternity hazing.

Clearly, Ford was a complicated man imbued with contradictions. Perhaps the salty layers of Robert Hightower with a firm moral code is how Jack chose to see himself.

I won’t reveal a full synopsis of this film to spoil it, but I’m confident that at the beating heart of 3 GODFATHERS is its humanity. Each of the three outlaw godfathers reveal their ultimate goodness, and individual strengths and weaknesses to us. Both small characters (like man-hungry, cackling Jane Darwell as Miss Florie) and larger characters alike are brilliantly developed and showcased. You don’t have to be a nativity believer to find appeal in this moral journey these three men face. Their struggle for survival and search for integrity at all costs, in complete devotion to the baby, tugs at the heart strings.

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I’m a sucker for the holidays. I embrace it with child-like wonder and magic. If this is a Christmas film you’ve never seen before, or if it’s been a long time, you owe it to yourself to screen it soon. You can get your chance via TCM in December 15th at 9:30pm ET, 2018. 


*This article is a submission to the Outlaws- The 2018 Fall CMBA Blogathon. I encourage you to read all the entries (click here for each day’s full list: https://clamba.blogspot.com/2018/10/outlaws-2018-fall-cmba-blogathon.html ) in this collective, of which I’m proud to be a part of. Outlaws Bannner - Jesse James

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