Song of the Thin Man: The Son of Nick and Nora Charles

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Song of the Thin Man is on TCM tonight, so I thought I’d unearth one of my many (many) posts about Dean Stockwell.

Song of the Thin Man is yet another movie where Dean Stockwell’s main job is to be adorable and sweet. He was photogenic, his face expressive, and your heart just goes out to him, because he’s a little kid, and when little kids are upset or happy or scared, your heart naturally goes out to them. (Not all child actors have this, obviously. Many of them seem like precocious little show-biz brats who have spent their Saturdays in acting classes since they were in diapers. Stockwell never seems like one of THOSE kids. It’s part of his major appeal.) His job also is to be a weak spot in Nick and Nora Charles, so that he can be used against them by their enemies.

One of the things that is amazing to watch, in these childhood performances of his, is that he is always thinking between the lines. Now this is very rare, even in adult actors, and nobody could tell him to do that. It’s one of those things that CAN’T be taught. And it has to do with knowing how to listen (which was what started my Dean Stockwell obsession in the first place.) Knowing how to listen is even more important than knowing how to talk and memorize lines and say them correctly. Anyone can do that. But to seem like you’re really listening when you already know what the other person is going to say to you because it’s in the script? That’s acting. The little kids who can do that have a gift. It’s just a gift, it’s not a “craft”.

Here’s an example from Song of the Thin Man where Stockwell does that naturally.

Myrna Loy, his glorious mother, tells him that he can’t go play baseball because he has to practice the piano. He has one line in the exchange: “But Mom, I’m supposed to pitch today!” She cuts him off and says something about how there will be no baseball today, he must practice the piano because he has a recital coming up. As she speaks, Stockwell starts to say something, you can see the shift in his face: at first he has been dismayed, but then he thinks perhaps he knows a way out of his predicament, so a new hope and a new idea dawns on his face – and he opens his mouth but then realizes: Nope. She’s not gonna give on this one. And so he deflates a bit. He has NO lines to support this … none of this is in the script, it’s just a logical commonsense choice of what happens to people in between dialogue. Instead of behaving like an actor, he behaves like a real person.

Stockwell has been quite open about how unhappy he was as a child. He had no childhood. He was a working man by the age of 8, and he supported the family with his movies. He felt the pressure, he didn’t enjoy acting at all, it just happened to be something he was very good at. He was known back then as “One Take Stockwell”. He always wanted to get everything in one take, to basically get it over with as quickly as possible. And he was talented enough that he often “got” things in one take. His education was very spotty. He has said he had to go back, as an adult, and teach himself how to read. He didn’t go to a normal school until he was 15, 16. He dropped out for a while, after his contract ended. He changed his name, moved around the country, had girlfriends who didn’t know who he was (remember, he had been a major star as a kid, with no experience of anonymity), and finally came back to the business in his 20s, because he realized he had no skills for anything else. But he had a skill with acting. He could do it. He always knew he could do it. It was a blessing and a curse, to be so good at something he didn’t really enjoy. He has said he didn’t really enjoy acting until he was in his 40s. He wanted to be a normal kid and play football and not have to do those stupid crying scenes in movies. He was a worried person, from very early on.

I guess one of the things I admire so much about this whole trajectory is his self-knowledge, about his gift, and his knowledge that eventually it was up to HIM what to do with it. He could totally have done other things. He was not ambitious like other actors. He did some key roles in his 20s – Compulsion, Long Day’s Journey … he got married … divorced … and then dropped out altogether to be a hippie biker dude in San Francisco, living with 5 women at the same time. Go, Dean. His 30s was his actual childhood. A decade passed.

And when he decided to go back to acting, when he was ready to re-enter the industry, the doors were now closed. He couldn’t get arrested, let alone get a part. 15 years of struggle commenced. He did dinner theatre. He did monster movies. He did television. He got his real estate license and moved to Taos. He has said that most of those years he didn’t make more than $10,000. “It was a long, lean time.”

He was in his 40s, doing some B-movie in Mexico – and David Lynch was filming nearby and Stockwell heard that he was doing Dune. Stockwell was a huge fan of the book, and he basically approached Lynch one day to introduce himself. They both tell the story of that meeting – Lynch saw Stockwell walking towards him, and got this blanched look on his face. He said he almost panicked. Stockwell held out his hand, introduced himself, and Lynch said, “I thought Dean Stockwell was dead.” So THAT’S how far out of the consciousness of Hollywood Stockwell, once a huge star, had become. Stockwell said he’d love to be in the movie, he didn’t even care which part. Lynch said it was already cast, and so Stockwell went back to his Mexican B-movie set.

Months later, Lynch called, saying that John Hurt had backed out of the project and would Stockwell like the part?

This was the beginning of the big comeback.

Dean Stockwell is an actor whose real pay-offs did not start until he was in his 50s.

He has said he has no craft beyond intuition and instinct. This is apparent in everything he does, even as a kid. His intuition led him to know (just KNOW) that while Myrna Loy was telling him to go play the piano, he should START to protest, but then stop, and be defeated, all without a word. He KNEW this because he never thinks like an actor, he always thinks like a person. And that is what you would do in that situation.

His acting still has that breath of originality and reality to it, even in some of the cheesy horror movies he made during the ‘long lean time’. He didn’t sell himself out. Ever. And so now – as a man in his 70s – the rewards are even sweeter, more potent.

He’s always been on my radar. I’ve always been happy when he would “show up” on a Law & Order, or JAG, or in movies like Air Force One.

But I will always feel lucky to have re-encountered his work in a new and intense way.

Some moments from Song of the Thin Man below, including the “in between the lines” moment with Myrna Loy where he goes to say something, then stops himself.

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6 Responses to Song of the Thin Man: The Son of Nick and Nora Charles

  1. Lisa in Fort Worth says:

    I had no idea this was Dean Stockwell…I have lived under a rock! Then it dawned on me he was in Secret Garden…googled and you had already covered it in 2007. You learn something everday. Now if I can just retain that information. Ugh. Although my friends are still amazed at the plethora of useless information I have retained over the years that springs forth when least expected…..Hee Hee….

  2. sheila says:

    Lisa – yes!! He was a huge child star! LOVED him in Secret Garden. I also love Kim (with Errol Flynn) and The Boy With Green Hair (don’t let the silly title fool you!!)

    I am all about useless information. I can pontificate on the vagaries of Dean Stockwell’s career without even looking at my notes, and that’s insane!! :)

  3. sophronia says:

    TCM had a Dean Stockwell Day a few months ago. It was fun getting to see him in The Secret Garden (that scene with him and Margaret O’Brien screeching at each other had me dying — imagine sitting through that in a theater! Worse than Alvin and the Chipmunks!) The Boy With Green Hair was indeed an unusual and interesting film, and I especially liked Stars in My Crown, a great non-smarmy family film about real moral issues rather than the phony sitcom issues of today’s family films. Now I just need to catch up with more of Stockwell’s adult work!

    BTW, hi, I’ve been lurking for a while and reading your archives. I found my way here via your post about Dogfight, a movie I have adored for years, but I’ve never come across a single other person who has seen it. I love how passionately you write about movies, and I’ve watched several other films you have championed since, and they did not disappoint. So thanks a lot!

  4. sheila says:

    sophronia – Ugh, I just got TCM so I missed the Dean Stockwell day! What else did they play? There’s a movie I haven’t been able to get my hands on (well, a couple) – one about troubled adolescent romance called The Careless Years and the other is Down to the Sea in Ships – which, considering the pedigree of the production, you might think it would be easier to find. I haven’t seen Stars in my Crown.

    And thanks for the nice words about my site and for de-lurking! That Dogfight piece was such a joy – I want to do another one with MZS. It was really fun.

  5. Steve Levine says:

    Sheila:

    Just a coincidental Dean Stockwell note. I had bought some old Gold Medal Books a while ago and never read them. I finally read one of them, Johnny Staccato, earlier this week. This was based on a 1959 – 1960 TV series that starred John Cassavetes as a jazz musician / detective. I found that some of the episodes are on YouTube. The first one I looked at had Stockwell as the guest star (with the fine character actors Eduardo Cianelli, Vladimir Sokoloff, and J. Pat O’Malley). Stockwell is very good as a disturbed young man contemplating suicide. If you are interested, the episode is titled Nature of the Night.

  6. sheila says:

    Steve – Cassavetes and Dean Stockwell??? I’m so excited – thanks, I will look it up!

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