My Five Favorite Actors

This is part of the Five Stars Blogathon:

Lew Ayres 2Lew Ayres is my favorite actor. Most remembered for playing Paul Baumer from All Quiet on the Western Fronin 1930 and Dr. Kildare in the movie series of the same name from 1938 to 1942, Mr. Ayres was a star in his own day who has been almost completely forgotten even by classic film lovers. After being discovered at nineteen in a Hollywood nightclub where he was playing the banjo in a band, Lew Ayres appeared as an extra in a few films before making his credited debut the same year in The Kiss, MGM’s last silent film. Although he was only twenty, he played opposite Greta Garbo with admirable talent and naturalness. Universal Studios saw him in this, gave him a screen test, signed him, and featured him in All Quiet on the Western Front, which was his big break. He was very busy and quite popular throughout the pre-Code and early Code era. In 1938 he appeared as Ned in Holiday at Columbia, and MGM took notice of him. This led to his being signed and cast as Dr. Kildare, which elevated him to a new level of stardom and popularity. Holiday was the first film in which I saw him. I had never watched this film until my family and I watched it last winter. I was struck by his performance in this film, and out of curiosity I did some research about him. I realized that one of the Dr. Kildare movies with him was available on Amazon Prime, and it wasn’t long before we had watched several of his films. Now we have seen twenty-four of his films, including his first film, three pre-Code films, and all but two of his MGM films, including all his Dr. Kildare films. I have not seen any of his films from after World War II, nor shall I ever. I like to see him in his young days of fame and glory. He is my favorite actor because I admire his brilliant acting, which is realistic, sensitive, romantic, and charming. I also appreciate the fact that he was one of the youngest actors in Hollywood who was not a child actor. He had an innate charm which he brought to every character, whether he was playing a pathetically sottish socialite like Ned Seton, a youthful gangster like Louie Ricarno in The Doorway to Hell from 1930, or a dedicated young physician like Dr. Kildare. My favorite films with him are Broadway Serenade from 1939, King of the Newsboys from 1938, Young Dr. Kildare from 1938, and Night World from 1932 or State Fair from 1933 for pre-Code films. In addition to being a sensational actor, he played the piano, guitar, and banjo very well. He plays all these instruments in Holiday and the piano in Broadway Serenade. He directed a few films in 1936, including Hearts in Bondage and The Leathernecks Have Landed; he appeared in the latter film.

James CagneyJames Cagney is tied with Nelson Eddy as my second favorite actor. Depending on my mood and whose film I have seen more recently, my preference changes. James Cagney is remembered as a “tough guy,” since he was a famous Warner Bros. gangster actor. He was an excellent dancer in Vaudeville and on Broadway before he made his first film, Sinner’s Holiday, in 1930. He made his first gangster film, The Doorway to Hell, the same year, but he was the assistant to the mob boss who was played by Lew Ayres, an actor who had made two more films than he but was ten years younger. The next year he played the lead gangster, or rather gunman, in The Public Enemy, which was his big break. Throughout the pre-Code and Code years, he remained an iconic gangster and criminal actor. He left Warner Bros. several times when they did not agree to his demands for better pay and artistic terms. He always got what he wanted; his stubbornness made Jack Warner call him the “professional againster.” They couldn’t really be surprised that he fought for his rights, though. What did they expect from a man whose career was based on his ability to play pugnacious, tough characters? I have watched him for many years as George Cohan in The Seven Little Foys, a film from 1955 in which he does a one-scene reprise of his famous role in Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942. I knew he was a good tap dancer, and I had heard my father imitate his famous way of speaking in the iconically misquoted “you dirty rat” sequence, but I did not really know who he was until I learned more about his career last year. I had learned more about him from watching Mister Roberts from 1955 and Yankee Doodle Dandy, but I really began to like him when I saw him in two movies from the 1930s, The Doorway to Hell and Great Guy from 1936. I realized that he was quite handsome when he was young, and I had then earned an appreciation and great love for 1930s films. No doubt James Cagney seems like a misfit on my list, since the other actors were almost always very nice characters in their youthful days, while he was famous as a villain. I like him best, though, in the few roles in which he actually plays a nice fellow, such as my three favorite films with him, Great GuySomething to Sing About from 1937, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he won his only Academy Award. I think that I like him because, despite the evilness of many of his iconic characters, I believe that he was actually a kind, decent man, and that shines through the bad characters. I think that is why he was so compelling in his famous gangster roles. He had a sweet quality which shone through the obvious evidence of the character’s rottenness and made you like a despicable character. This added to the sympathy angle of Warner Bros. gangster films, which made you like ruthless murderers. Only Lew Ayres, who appeared in just one but the first gangster film, could make you like and pity a gangster more. I don’t think James Cagney would have been as famous if he had not had that iconic voice and overly-imitated East New York accent, barely edged with an Irish brogue. James Cagney thought of himself as more of a song and dance man than an actor, although he didn’t sing or dance in most of his very popular films. You can see his amazingly fast tap dancing and limber jumps in Something to Sing About, Yankee Doodle Dandy,  The Seven Little Foys during one scene which is too short, and the first film in which he danced, Taxi from 1932, a pre-Code film which I myself have not seen.

Nelson Eddy 2Nelson Eddy is my other candidate for my second favorite actor. I am listing him third because James Cagney has seniority; I have only known about Nelson Eddy for a few months. He was an operatic baritone as well as an actor, and he is best known for making eight MGM musicals with Jeanette MacDonald. He was establishing an accomplished if not well-known opera career when he substituted for Lotte Lehman in a concert in Los Angeles in 1933. He was seen by talent scouts and offered movie contracts. He accepted MGM’s offer, since he thought it would help him gain publicity for his real work, concertizing and exposing the world to great classical music; the studio gave him three months a year for concertizing. He briefly sang in a very few films for his first couple of years at MGM, since the filmmakers did not really know what to do with him. In 1935, he was given the role of leading man opposite Jeanette MacDonald in Naughty Marietta, and the film was a surprisingly large success. It established his fame as well as the success of their partnership. This was the first film in which I saw Nelson Eddy. We had seen Jeanette MacDonald in a few other movies, so we bought two MacDonald and Eddy collections. I was impressed by his fine voice, and I thought he was a good actor, but it was not until Rose-Marie from 1936, the second film in the collection, that I really noticed what a fine leading man he was. He had a very natural charm which made him a fine actor. He sang with excellent operatic technique, but he was always a gentleman; he never tried to take the spotlight from Jeanette. I have only seen him in the eight films he made with Miss MacDonald, but these eight films alone show his diversity. He plays a scout in colonial New Orleans, a Canadian Mountie, an operatic baritone from Virginia, a bandit in California, a Broadway star, a disguised French count who has become a revolutionary, a Viennese composer, and a Hungarian count. He says his lines with a natural ease no matter what role he is playing. Aside from his beautiful voice, his best feature is his smile, which lights up his whole face. He widens his eyes and smiles brighter than any other actor I know because it looks so natural. My favorite films with him are Maytime and New Moon from 1940. He sang foreign languages well because of his operatic training. You can hear him and Jeanette MacDonald sing French in Maytime from 1937, and he sings Spanish in The Girl of the Golden West from 1938.

Jack Lemmon.jpgJack Lemmon is my fourth favorite actor. In 2015 he was my only favorite actor; he had no competition becuase he was the first and only actor for whom I had a special preference. He is the most remembered for Some Like It Hot from 1959, The Odd Couple from 1969, Grumpy Old Men, and its sequel. After being discovered by a Columbia Pictures talent scout in an unsuccessful Broadway play in 1953, Jack Lemmon made his credited film debut as the leading man in It Should Happen to You from 1954. The next year he played a supporting role in Mister Roberts, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This elevated his fame. For years, It Happened to Jane from 1959 was one of my family’s favorite films, but I was more aware of Doris Day’s performance than Jack Lemmon’s. I always thought he was very good as the self-doubting lawyer who helps Jane fight injustice, but I paid no special attention to him. Sometime in 2014 we watched The Great Race from 1965, and I was shocked to realize that he was the same actor. With his silly mustache and outlandish makeup, he looks very different in this film. On April 17, 2013, my family and I were spending the weekend in Tucson, Arizona. My mother had brought along two movies to watch, If a Man Answers from 1962 and The Wackiest Ship in the Army from 1960 with Jack Lemmon and Ricky Nelson. I wanted to watch The Wackiest Ship in the Army, which I hadn’t watched in years and barely remembered. I was immediately taken by Jack Lemmon’s portrayal of Rip Crandal, the unlucky but clever lieutenant who navigates “a Chinese junk masquerading as a Navy vessel” with nothing more than his intelligence and “a crew of cherry-pickers,” to quote Rip himself. When we got home, I researched his career and realized that we owned some of his films already. I quickly discovered My Sister Eileen from 1955. When he sang as the charming New York newspaper editor, I knew he was my favorite actor. We went on to watch all but two of the films in what I consider his early period, namely every film he made before Fortune Cookie in 1966. The Great Race is the latest film I will watch with him because I like to keep the image of him as a young man, and I don’t like many films which were made later than that. This leads me to the reason why he is now only my fourth favorite actor. When I took notice of Lew Ayres, it was largely because I had run out of early Jack Lemmon films to watch, so his movies were getting a little dull, or at least common. My interest in Lew Ayres spurred me to do more research about the 30s and the Code, about which I knew little. Through this research I developed my love for the 30s and the Code era. This made Jack Lemmon seem very modern. Jack Lemmon made some excellent films in his early career, but he made his debut the year Joseph Breen retired from the Production Code Administration. As a true daughter of the Code, my favorite actor could not be one who was just coming to Hollywood when Mr. Breen was leaving. That aside, I still enjoy many of his films. My favorites are It Should Happen to You, his only Breen era film, Mister RobertsYou Can’t Run Away From It from 1956, and The Wackiest Ship in the Army. Few people know that Jack Lemmon was also an accomplished musician. He sang, composed songs, and played the piano, guitar, ukulele, organ, string bass, and harmonica, not to mention the bongo drums. You can hear him sing in It Should Happen to You, Three for the Show from 1955, My Sister Eileen, the only film in which he had a formal solo, and You Can’t Run Away From It ; he sings informally in Mister Roberts, It Happened to JaneThe Apartment from 1960, and The Notorious Landlady from 1962. He plays the piano in It Should Happen to You, Three for the Show, and The Wackiest Ship in the Army.

James StewartJames Stewart is my fifth favorite actor because I have liked him for years; I didn’t have the exciting pleasure of discovering him myself. He made his debut in After the Thin Man in 1935. He began his career at MGM with small roles or leading roles in smaller films, but he rose to importance after making You Can’t Take It With You in 1938, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and The Philadelphia Story in 1940, for which he won Best Actor.  He was very successful during his pre-War years, but he rose to even greater fame after World War II. Some of his best remembered films, including It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946, Harvey from 1950, Rear Window from 1954, and Vertigo from 1957, were from these years. He is well-known for his nervous manner and his famous way of speaking, which was frequently imitated in his own day and is now by those who know old movies. In his later career he acted in many Westerns, but when he was young he played mostly boy next door sort of characters. Even though he was a year older than Lew Ayres, who debuted in 1929, James Stewart did not come to Hollywood too late. I don’t think he would have fit very well in pre-Code Hollywood. He had such an innocent, likable, and honest personality that he wouldn’t have done as well in the wild pre-Code films. Although he could play darker characters, like the murderous brother in Rose-Marie, he added his personal charm to every character, and he was simply viewed too much as an unsuspecting, bashful young man from a small town to play some of the pre-Code characters. Lew Ayres had a similar innocent charm, but he also had more of a swagger and self-confident air. Also, Lew Ayres looked younger for a longer time, since he had a higher voice, more youthful face, and a shorter stature. Pre-Code films frequently required actors to appear in bathing and dressing scenes. Lew Ayres frequently appeared in only a bath towel. James Stewart was very self-conscious about his extremely thin physique, since he considered himself to be quite gangly. He said that if he had appeared in a bathing suit in the pool scene in The Philadelphia Story, it would have ruined his career. I like him because of his gentle, honest characters, whom he portrays with such sincerity, and his highly emotional acting. My favorite movies with him are Born to Dance from 1936, Pot of Gold from 1941, You Can”t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life.  James Stewart had a largely unknown talent for singing. I first noticed that he had a decent voice and good pitch when I heard him comically sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Philadelphia Story, but I first heard him sing seriously in Born to Dance, a musical with Eleanor Powell in which he sings and dances. He also sings a little in Pot of Gold. 

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4 thoughts on “My Five Favorite Actors

  1. I enjoyed reading your rationales and think Jack Lemmon and James Stewart were especially good choices. Every time I watch each of them I realize just how charismatic they are! – Toto

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, James Stewart and Jack Lemmon would be on my five favorite, too. Both were equally adept in drama or comedy (sometimes at the same time, as with Lemmon’s brilliant performance in THE APARTMENT). I agree that Lew Ayres was charming and he might have had a longer screen career if not for the ill-placed backlash from being a conscientious objector.


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