The screen persona of Eddie Albert (1906-2005) in a flickering mosaic of screen images. He was surely one of the most prolific of Hollywood players; and his career encompassed, until late in his career, a fair proportion of supporting roles – now and then, a minor role (like that of the photographer in The Roots of Heaven ) might have qualified, prestige-wise, as a cameo. Yet, Albert’s diversity is impressive in itself: for, as a featured movie actor, he left behind a corporate image of eccentric, peripheral actuality, akin to the images delivered to us not only by character actors like Gene Lockhart, or George Bancroft, or Donald MacBride; but also, the all but phantasmal bits and walk-ons by the likes of Percy Helton, or Clarence Williams, or (before she became Grandma Walton) Ellen Corby.
Not only Albert’s image, but his performances – one might say, his corporate performance – riveted the eye with an apologetic complexity. He presented the aspect of an affable Minotaur, especially when young: a broad, anvil-shaped skull, with a shock of brass-blonde hair, a smallish but strongly aquiline nose, and fitfully mobile mouth; set upon a broad and sturdy but strikingly lithe body. He had come to Hollywood in 1938, to reprise his stage role in Fred L. Finklehoffe and John Monks Jr’s comedy of an American military academy: Brother Rat (a veritable offspring of a naively facetious period in America’s existence, one perceives: with Calder Willingham’s 1947 novel End as a Man, later filmed as The Strange One , now under our belts). Albert, a native of Illinois, must have personified Midwestern Middle America: eager, callow, yet so fully armed with wiseacre sass and amusing, slangy ripostes.
In subsequent movies of the ‘30s and early ‘40s, he would build on the callow-yet-competent image; also, deepening its complexity and emotional resonances. His image, unmistakeable and virtually unforgettable, became, in retrospect, more and more interpolated with supplementary highlights of wiliness, egotism; an observable ruthlessness; or, at very least, a smiling amorality. The earlier roles, in On Your Toes (1939) – from Rogers and Hart’s musical, co-starring him with the ballet star Vera Zorina – and An Angel from Texas (1940), were refurbishings of the prototypical Butter and Egg Man, whom Joe E. Brown (among others) had essayed. By 1952, however, with his role in Actors and Sin (1952), Albert was the case-hardened opportunist.
One notes the evolution, throughout his performances, of a grassroots cunning that recalls the ancient Yankee peddler, Sam Slick. An Angel from Texas featured Albert as a cowhand who outcons the unprincipled theatre producer (Ronald Reagan) into a stage role for Albert’s sweetheart. There follows a gradual increasing divergence from the idealistic, Capra-nurtured heroes – Smith, Deeds, John Doe – epitomised by James Stewart and Gary Cooper. (In You Gotta Stay Happy , one notes the contrast between Albert as a jivey, finger-snapping pilot and Stewart’s low-key affability.)
Albert’s performance in ‘Woman of Sin’ – trivial and derivative though the film – was a landmark of sorts in the evolution of his composite screen image. The story appears second in a duplex film, Actor’s and Sin (1952), adapted and directed (with Lee Garmes) by Ben Hecht from two of his short stories, both written decades before. The earlier tale, ‘Actor’s Blood’ – a murder melodrama, flavoured with lachrymose nostalgia – featured Edward G. Robinson as a florid trouper and (as his wistful daughter) Marsha Hunt, in possibly her last performance before the descent of the HUAC blacklist guillotine. That part of the movie was dawdlingly anecdotal and tepid.
‘Woman of Sin’, however is also the title of a copious, and toweringly trashy, erotic novel, written by a nine-year-old girl: one Daisy Marcher (Jenny Hecht). The name may recall for some antiquarians that of Daisy Ashford: the reputed eight-year-old author, during Queen Victoria’s reign, of a high society novel titled The Young Visiters (sic: misspellings and other quaint misdemeanours were retained in the printing). Sir James M. Barrie, appropriately enough, sponsored the work’s circulation. ‘Woman of Sin’, however, is taken in hand by top Hollywood agent Orlando Higgens (Albert, in a role allegedly based on Hecht’s good friend, agent Leland Hayward). The film is a mosaic of clichés: the portly, stentorian studio exec; the plump, candy-munching matron (Daisy’s mother); the tranquil, capable blonde secretary (appealingly personified by Tracey Roberts).
Hecht, in an introductory voice-over, attempted to parry the lampoon’s familiarity by referring it to a bygone Hollywood (possibly that of the ‘30s – about when the story was written). The truly effective restorative charge, however, comes from the visceral elation that Albert brings the role: a sort of headlong eagerness, not quite manic, that repeatedly hovers over – and once or twice plummets into – raging despair. Manny Farber, in his review for The Nation of another 1952 film – William Wyler’s rather pedestrian Carrie, adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie – compares Albert’s vocal performance to ‘a loud musical instrument’; here, the musicianly reference applies especially to the interplay between Albert’s hectic saxophone, and the imperial bassoon – now unctuous, now ominous – of Alan Reed. Reed, a recent crossover from radio (he appeared as a blackmailing legal flunky in The Postman Always Rings Twice ) may have been best known as the sacerdotal voice (‘I have written – a poem!’) of poetaster Falstaff Openshaw on Fred Allen’s Sunday night comedy show. Here, as the Louis B. Mayer-like Jerome B. Cobb, his monolithic pomp provided a supreme foil to Albert’s downright staccato pragmatism.
Farber’s musicianly simile applies equally to a fundamental of Albert’s performance: a guiding discipline of rhythm and form, which helps ground and direct his acting in this, and – a safe guess, I’d say – a majority his other performances. Although the roles are very similar, there is a qualitative difference between what I would call Albert’s lurking stability, and the frenetic effusion – though itself disciplined – of Cary Grant as another Hecht protagonist, Walter Burns, in His Girl Friday (1940). One becomes aware, in Albert’s acting, of a centre of gravity, which becomes more apparent in his later works.
Florid or frenzied as he may occasionally be seen, his energy seems always guided by a recognition of boundaries: never giving way to the narcissistic frivolities of camp, such as even Maestro Grant permitted himself, or was dragooned into, in Capra’s generally deplorable adaptation of the Broadway hit Arsenic and Old Lace (1944): popping his eyes, dropping his jaw, and skedaddling like a whiteface simulation of Willie Best. I personally regard this episode as a regrettable but momentary lapse; nor do I designate comparative ranks in some critical hierarchy for two men I regard as equal in excellence. I might add, moreover, that I have never watched Albert (co-starred with Eva Gabor) in their long running television series, Green Acres.
What I am considering here, however, is an issue not merely of style, but of what might be called a dimension of the actor’s awareness; of form, as that pertains to his sense of the total (filmic) context in which he appears, and his relationship to its existing proportions; likewise, his aptitude for registering the concrete, immediate aspects of reality.
Such awareness can, I believe, be seen maturing throughout Albert’s film career; and it is equally notable in his television career – or, so I am persuaded (having seen only meagre examples of his TV work, excepting the short-lived series Switch in which, from 1975 to 1978, he co-starred with Robert Wagner).
In addition to the Higgens role, he played numerous men entrusted with the protection/maintenance of imagery; eg., the photographer sidekick of journalist Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953). As Irving Radovich, Albert adopted black hair and a neat beard, and an air of breezy/purposeful suppleness. Likewise, as Abe Fields in The Roots of Heaven, he brought a brisk, effectual, delightfully near-surreal aplomb in setting up a mid-jungle Trevor Howard and an embattled party of elephant protectors, amid a last ditch struggle with the local government. ‘Professor, over here? – That’s wonderful!’ A cameo gem, late-come in a career of featured roles; Albert’s performance, with never a whiff of camp, has the bewitching actuality (displaced) of Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949).
The breadth and momentum of Eddie Albert’s multitudinous work on both large and television screens may be seen to have realised a none too familiar democracy among the hierarchies of Hollywood casting: breaching the boundaries between major and minor, lead and character roles; indeed, a loose-jointed iconoclasm. All the while, there resurfaces his peculiar definition of the Middle American character: busy, jocosely serviceable; yet, open to behind-hand tactics and double dealing as resources. It is recalled that in 1974 he played Ben Franklin on a mini-series. Franklin’s sly pragmatism, leavening his staunch idealism, and his abiding touch of raunch, would seem to render him a banner figure for Albert. And, recall: in 1955, he had bounded yet another apparent casting fence, by his purringly erotic depiction of the Armenian peddler Ali Hakim in Fred Zinnemann’s film of Oklahoma!. Any possibility of mere camp was precluded by Albert’s earthy constancy.
Over the years, that very constancy would seem to coalesce into an iron composure: his resource in his occasional portraits of troubled, yet steadfast, men of substance. I particularly remember a 1962 episode in the long-running Western series The Virginian. In the segment, entitled ‘Impasse’, Albert played Pa Kroeger, a rancher embroiled in a range war. The Virginian (James Drury), whose own ranch is affected, remonstrates with Kroeger. In the scene, though I can no longer remember a single line of dialogue, I recall how Albert, silently mounted on his horse, dominated, like a human cliff. In a 1963 episode of The Naked City (‘Robin Hood and Clarence Darrow, They Went Out with Bow and Arrow’) written by Sterling Silliphant and directed by Stuart Rosenberg (later of Cool Hand Luke  fame), Albert as Earl Johannis, a small shop owner, registered a taciturn, afflicted fortitude: grieved and fearful, both at the apparent growing cynicism of his son, and the encroachment of hold-up attacks on his small neighbourhood. Despite a fatuous coda, the story, with Albert’s presence and performance to support it, was reasonably suspenseful, and moving.
Elaine May’s presentation (from Neil Simon’s screenplay) of The Heartbreak Kid (1972): Albert’s performance, though it covers perhaps a third of the screen time, amounts to a landmark display of (frequently tacit) force. The Simon script, in his usual vein, treats the bizarre potentialities of American domestic relations. In this instance, a young newlywed Jewish entrepreneur, Lenny (Charles Grodin), ditches his new bride, Lila (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter) for the Junoesque Irish-American blonde, Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), he has encountered by chance at a Florida beach resort.
May was bound by Simon’s contract to letter-faithful retention of the screenplay. However, she has garnished, has lathered Simon’s sardonic linearity with her own retained, unrestrained visual élan, aerating the wry tale with her own brand of humorous eroticism: a cascade of buoyantly edited close-ups register tumultuous intimacy; the jostling, stomping hora in the early, Jewish wedding sequence. Physicality a razor-line short of grossness (close-ups of Lila’s mouth masticating a sandwich) convert Simon’s faintly rancid scepticism into carnal hilarity, which peaks in the whizzing, billowing views of Florida billboards, candy-coloured bungalows, bluer-than-life seascapes – a sexual Fantasia, accompanied by the tenderly lubricious music of Cy Coleman and Burt Bacharach.
But, as May shows herself presently to be well aware, there is reality to be acknowledged and honoured: reality capped, embodied in Eddie Albert. As Dwayne Corcoran, father of the honeymoon-shattering Kelly, Albert’s presence (during his first several appearances, it is little more than presence; but very amply so) suggests the monument that might occupy centre stage of an ancient Japanese Noh play. His first two entrances break into the conversion of the as yet only prospective lovers Lenny and Kelly: importunate and unapologetic as a prison guard.
Albert brings to this role a full measure of that singular strength – that authority (a word so often and carelessly used of actors, that we must pause over it) – that might be observed emerging, more and more articulately, throughout his career. In the early, taciturn appearances, May’s camera captures both Corcoran’s watchfulness of Lenny, and his gathering animosity – through not much more than Albert’s delicate exercise of facial muscles. In one glimpse – Lenny and Corcoran, with the latter’s wife and daughter, watch a nightclub entertainer – a chillingly ambiguous token smile flicks across the father’s huge countenance: he seems almost to be confiding his observation as he glances at the young man. And in the climactic scene, when the father unloads his scornful mistrust of Lenny, there is not a moment’s decibel-brandishing. With his manifestly impeccable sense of form, Albert hews to the realities of his character’s fierce dignity, and granite sensibility.
I would propose as a counterpart (albeit a much earlier one) to this signal illustration of Albert’s skill – especially in honouring the arts of both theatrical and screen acting – his appearance as Captain Erskine Cooney in Robert Aldrich’s Attack (1956). The film was the fourth in a succession of bracingly audacious Aldrich works that might be gathered under the heading: Gothic Political Opera. High pitched, adroitly paced; fiercely (but judiciously) hyperbolic; commonly concerned with conspiracy, and accompanying murderous shenanigans, among the High and Mighty, whether in the US government (Apache , Kiss Me Deadly ), Hollywood executives (The Big Knife, 1955) or the military, as in Attack. The disastrously craven and inept Cooney causes the unwarranted deaths of several subordinates, and enlists the enraged vendetta of Lt Costa (Jack Palance) as well as the chill attention of Lt Colonel Bartlett (Lee Marvin), his frozen hose face set with meditative displeasure.
Albert’s Cooney is a virtuoso deployment of modulated control in portraying the virtually one-note character of a borderline hysteric and poseur. He manages, with a histrionic heroism of his own, to register the frenzied impulsiveness of mounting panic, on behalf not of his men’s lives or, indeed, even of his own honour, but of his painfully maintained professional façade. The sub-theme – Cooney’s obsession with the approval of his military father – is largely redeemed from the cliché that it had already become, in that Hollywood era of marketable psychojabber, by Albert’s steadfast intensity, which includes one appalling cadenza (Albert recalling, then becoming, his father). Albert triumphs through the twin powers: Authority, and its brother, Definition – precise articulation of his formed perception. His style accords perfectly with Aldrich’s distinctive union of high-gear melodrama and trenchant discernment of the drama’s realistic bone structure, enabling him to govern the ham potential of Palance, draw upon the intelligence of Marvin, and even curb the snorty Wallace Beeryisms of Robert Strauss (excellent in a minor role).
I perceive Eddie Albert’s realisation of Middle America in a three-person pantheon: flanked by Lee Tracy and Jack Carson. Maverick artists, who mingled comic realism and authentic, variegated drama; carrying on in their respective routes the character explorations of Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis and William March. And, for Albert, another work occurs to me.
In 1940, the Australian writer Christina Stead produced a novel called The Man Who Loved Children. The hero, Sam Pollitt, is an American politico. The distinctive tragicomic tone emerges from the self-image of Pollitt, a family man, as a benign paterfamilias. In fact, he is a domestic Machiavelli: playing his several children against each other, and all against their mother; now syrup endearments, now abrasive tantrums. A dysfunctional family – not ‘in the making’ but achieved; and emotional destruction underway.
I can recall Sam’s first entrance: spying on his oldest daughter through the window. I can hear, in that throaty tenor, those syrupy endearments (‘LooLoo Dirl!’) and the brutal hilarity of: ‘Go put your fat head under the shower!’ It might even have earned Eddie Albert his long-deserved place among PBS’ American Masters.
© Donald Phelps and Rouge 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.