Category Archives: 1942

Chishu Ryu in There Was a Father (Best Actor of 1942)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Ronald Colman (Random Harvest), Gary Cooper (The Pride of the Yankees), Noel Coward (In Which We Serve), Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key), Errol Flynn (Gentleman Jim), Henry Fonda (The Male Animal), Jean Gabin (Moontide), Michael Redgrave (Thunder Rock), Sabu (The Jungle Book), George Sanders (The Moon and Sixpence), Monty Wooly (The Man Who Came to Dinner), Monty Wooly (The Pied Piper)

Chishu Ryu, a constant presence in Ozu films.

Many actors can thank a good director for enhancing a performance through insightful direction and creative editing, but few actors can trace the bulk of their good work and most of their career back to one director. Chishu Ryu, however, can. He wasn’t the best actor in Japan – both he and his long-time collaborator director Yoshujiro Ozu agreed on this – but his work in Ozu’s films verges on great. At first glance he appears to simply exist within Ozu’s intricately detailed compositions, but as we look closer we realize that his performances brim with subtle subterranean pathos. Over the years his characters moved and talked within those sparsely composed shots, but he also emerged as an essential part of them, no more or less important than a shot of closed umbrellas lined up along a wall or raindrops gently dripping off of a leaf. Ozu’s spare direction helped Ryu bring out emotional depths of his characters, emotions that Ryu admits he didn’t always understand or feel himself capable of until he was actually in the process of performing. Ozu would simply tell him to look at his hand and then look up and say his line. Or wait several seconds before turning. There was, it appears, little to no discussion of motivation or method and, under this system that would have terrified most actors, Chishu Ryu thrived.

His performance in There Was a Father, with an able assist from Ozu, is one of Ryu’s best, and it is certainly the best performance by a lead actor of 1942. I’ve already discussed the movie here, but I purposely avoided discussing Chishu Ryu because I knew I would be taking the time to talk about him here.

While there are other actors that pulled off extremely good performances (Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy come to mind), none affected me as completely as Ryu’s stoic father sacrificing his relationship with his beloved son to fulfill his duty to the boy. That he could have lived with his son at any time, that he could have taken a lesser paying job or had his son go to a less prestigious school is unthinkable to the man who can’t comprehend any other course, especially after a tragedy on a lake at the beginning of the film.

The film opens on Ryu’a Horikawa Shuhei working as a teacher. He is out with his class on a field trip to a quiet, idyllic country lake. As Shuhei sits with the other teachers inside, playing games and relaxing, one of his students drowns on the lake. Overwhelming guilt causes Shuhei to resign his post and concentrate his attentions on his son Ryohei, unwilling to let another failure of surveillance, another failure of probity to hurt his son. He accepts that he has to leave his son at a boarding school and take a better paying job in Tokyo because, well, that is what a father who wants better for his son does.

Ozu doesn’t give Ryu any showcase, emotional meltdown scenes, like Agnes Moorehead’s incredible moment at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons; that wouldn’t gel with the character or the tone of the film. But Ryu doesn’t need a scene like that to convey the emotional and mental core of his character. And while we see his commitment to duty, both to his son and, by extension his country, we always feel an overwhelming sense of loss, by what could have been and what could be now. He isn’t unfeeling, heartless, as his actions might suggest to Western observers. Even the scene when his now adult son suggests he leave his job and move closer to his father and Horikawa passionately lectures him for even thinking of shirking his responsibilities when his country needs him for something as frivolous as wanting to be closer to family is both rousing and heartbreaking.

Few actors could have managed to find the balance between their own talent (or lack thereof) and Ozu’s sparse, minimalistic designs. Many actors would rail against Ozu’s strict directions, eager to show off their range and ability. Perhaps Ozu chose Ryu because of his acting limitations, because he knew he would be able to mold Ryu’s characters in ways he wouldn’t with better and more accomplished actors. And maybe, when acknowledging Ryu as the best actor of 1942, it would also be appropriate to acknowledge Ozu as well because he had as much to do with the success of Ryu’s performance as Ryu himself.

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“Apparently you’re the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.” — Claude Rains — Best Supporting Actor of 1942

Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault

Best Supporting Actor Runners Up: Leslie Banks (Went the Day Well?), Joseph Calleia (The Glass Key), Laird Cregar (The Black Swan), Laird Cregar (Ten Gentlemen from West Point), Laird Cregar (This Gun for Hire), John Garfield (Tortilla Flat), Alan Hale (Gentleman Jim), Otto Kruger (Saboteur), Thomas Mitchell (Moontide), Frank Morgan (Tortilla Flat), Sig Ruman (To Be Or Not to Be), Suji Sano (There Was a Father), Rudy Vallee (The Palm Beach Story), Monty Wooly (The Man Who Came to Dinner)

I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say Casablanca wouldn’t be Casablanca without the contributions of Claude Rains. I suppose if someone else stepped into his role as the merrily corrupt Captain Louis Renault, the elements of the movie would have largely been the same, but it would have missed Rains’ jaunty insolence which allows him to expertly toe the line between villain and hero. Most actors, even the best supporting actors of the 1940s, would have struggled to make Renault credible, not to mention likeable, but Rains thrives as the corrupt, high spirited opportunist. He understands that Renault is neither good nor bad; Renault would consider these to be silly, moralistic considerations that are irrelevant to anyone who has to live in the real world. The only thing that matters to him to surviving and, hopefully, ending up ahead. That he ends up on the right side doesn’t say anything about him. He would just as soon have turned in Rick and handed over Laszlo and Ilsa if that would have made sense. Going along with Rick’s plan only saves him the hassle of loads of paperwork, not to mention stopping the added humiliation of being held at gunpoint and probably losing his position over it.

Renault is an opportunist, the kind of man who can thrive in perilous times and places. And Casablanca during the German occupation of France counts as a perilous time and place. Morocco’s murky status as a French colony while most of France was overrun with Germans invited instability and uncertainty. As the chief of police, Renault manages the city’s desperate refugees from the battlefields of Europe and its lecherous thieves looking to take advantage of them. Renault stands in the middle looking to keep a relative semblance of order, while still getting his cut. He is neither pro- nor anti-Nazi, pro- nor anti-France. When the Germans are in town, he plays the good collaborator. When they are kicked out, he will be the first to help track them down. At one point the German Major Strasser chides Renault for saying “Third Reich” as though he “expected there to be others.” Renault simply replies, “Well, personally Major, I will take what comes.” This line perfectly sums up Renault’s philosophy of life: to survive and prosper no matter what. He’s no idealist, like Laszlo; he won’t risk his neck for high minded principles.

Rains with Humphrey Bogart

On a philosophical level, Renault should be one of the greatest villains of the film. After all, collaborators are hardly celebrated after occupying forces are booted out. They are usually treated to tars, feathers, and other painful indignities. But Renault is a realist. He isn’t about to join the underground; they don’t pay and the immediate risks are greater than collaborating. He’ll worry about those risks later. In the meantime, he survives. Furthermore, he isn’t above using his position to line his pockets, accepting bribes and kickbacks. And if they don’t have the money, he doesn’t mind accepting the company of beautiful young women as compensation.

But Rains’ characterization lifts him above these base, not to mention criminal, activities, transforming a rogue into a lovable character. Even Hollywood’s stringent censorship board was fooled by Rains. Normally bad guys — or people who do bad things — had to be punished for their transgressions, no matter how they might redeem themselves. Rains plays Renault so expertly that the board didn’t even notice he was doing anything wrong and didn’t insist on some terrible retribution to even the mythical cosmic scoreboard of which they were normally hyper-aware. They allowed him to merrily walk away, to continue his illegal exploits, suggesting, as they usually insisted on not suggesting, often to absurd degrees, that crime can pay. It is only possible because Rains delivers an expert performance, cloaking his illegal exploits and collaboration with style and panache.

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Runners Up for Best Supporting Actress of 1942

Through gross oversight, I forgot to include my list of best supporting actress performance that I think deserve recognition behind Agnes Moorehead. Briefly, here they are:

Mary Astor (The Palm Beach Story), Billie Burke (In This Our Life), Gladys Cooper (Now, Voyager), Muriel George (Went the Day Well?), Hattie McDaniel (In This Our Life), Teresa Wright (Mrs. Miniver)

Does it seem like a short list? I agree, but I went through all the 1942 films I saw and this was all I came up with. I might be overlooking some, so if you think someone is blatantly absent, feel free to speak up.

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Fanny hasn’t got much in her life …. Really don’t know of anything much Fanny has got, except her feeling about Eugene.” — Agnes Moorehead (The Magnificent Ambersons) — Best Supporting Actress of 1942

Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny in The Magnificent Ambersons: better, pre-Endora days

It’s a shame that Agnes Moorehead is best remembered – or maybe only remembered by most – for her flamboyant portrayal of Endora on the hackneyed TV program Bewitched. It’s a testament to her talent that, somehow, she sparkled on that small screen debacle despite the wooden dialogue, groan-worthy and lusterless jokes, and paint-by-the-numbers sitcom plots. Kids who grew up watching Moorehead’s Endora in reruns (like myself) often don’t realize that she had a long and distinguished career as a supporting actor in movies, television, and radio.

Moorehead tried to make a break into Hollywood early in her career, but casting agents took one look at her unconventional, almost vulpine features and passed, opting to continue looking for the next Miriam Hopkins or Jean Harlow. It wasn’t until she hooked up with Orson Welles, whose greatest talent may have been identifying talent in unlikely places and knowing how to exploit that talent to fulfill his artistic vision, that she found her entrée into Hollywood. Following Welles from the Mercury Theater for Citizen Kane, she found a new success in film. Welles understood the depth of her talent and knew how to turn what others called physical disadvantages into advantages. She appeared in several of Welles’ early films and went on to become a fixture in Hollywood, appearing in dozens of features.

After her first role as Charles Foster Kane’s stoic mother, Welles cast her as Aunt Fanny in his ill-fated second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, a chronicle of a turn-of-the-century aristocratic family of the Midwest who struggle to adapt to an industrial modern world. Ambersons was another Hollywood horror story for Welles. Annoyed with the long run time and downbeat ending, RKO executives authorized an edit that clopped off close to an hour and added a re-shot ending. What we have left is a bare remnant of what was probably a masterful film, possibly the best American movie ever made.

Moorehead with Joseph Cotton

In the movie, Fanny is the spinster aunt of the Amberson family, at once content with her social position as a member of the family, yet bitter over her unmarried status. She is especially stung by the unreciprocated affections of local industrialist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), who has instead nursed a love for her married sister-in-law (Dolores Costello).

Moorehead exhibits remarkable emotional range, some of which are hauntingly unforgettable – from a giggly coquette to a scheming woman scorned to a broken woman resigned to a new life of poverty. Her hysterical breakdown at the end of the movie is her most famous scene of the movie and, since the Academy eats up stuff like this, probably got her an Oscar nomination. But pay attention to her work in more restrained scenes, like when she serves her spoiled nephew George an impromptu meal in the kitchen. While she tries to casually pump George for information about Eugene, her motherly instincts kick in and she gently chides him for gobbling down his food too fast. The way she delivers her lines feels remarkably natural, especially for the sometimes stiff, formal acting style popular in Hollywood at the time. In this particular scene we feel like we’re actually watching a meal that Welles secretly filmed.

It’s scenes like these, along with the emotionally crushing (and flashier) scenes, that make Agnes Moorehead my choice for the best supporting actress of 1942. And if you don’t believe me, check out Moorehead’s most famous scene here . Tragically, Welles apparently claimed that Moorehead’s best scene ended up on the cutting room floor during RKO’s mutilation of the movie. Damn you RKO…

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