Making It Look Easy: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Morning Glory

Today is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s birthday. Here’s a re-post.

fairbanks1.jpg

Some actors seem to believe that unless they SHOW all the work they have done, their job is not worth doing. And if you don’t congratulate them on all the work up there on the screen, they will most definitely remind you of all that work. “I worked with a Latvian lute-player for 8 months, and I also gained 30 pounds which really helped me get into the character.”

More power to ya.

An interesting and frustrating aspect of this (if you let these things get to you) is that the actor who shows his work is more often appreciated and applauded than the dude who strolls around making it look easy.

Ease is something that has always been under-rated because it doesn’t make a show of itself, and it doesn’t look to be congratulated or noticed. The more splashy parts get the most attention because they DEMAND the attention. That’s all fine. Many great performances are of the “splashy” variety.

However, I really love the actors who stroll through their parts nonchalantly, charmingly, easily, making it look as natural as breathing.

Morning Glory gave Katharine Hepburn the first of her four Academy Awards. It is really a vehicle for her. I’ve seen the performance criticized, and I can understand the criticisms, although I think Hepburn is actually doing more subtle work than she is given credit for. This character is a broken woman. Although the film ends in triumph, the triumph is mitigated by the fact that Hepburn’s final monologue (she’s not afraid of “being a morning glory”) is said to a woman who is a washed-up actress now working as a wardrobe mistress, a woman who had once been an up-and-coming star like Hepbrun.

Fame is fleeting. I don’t believe that Eva Lovelace’s fame will be of the long-lasting variety that Hepburn herself enjoyed. Lovelace is too fragile, she is not destined to be the next Ellen Terry or the next Sarah Bernhardt. Those women had thick skins. Eva Lovelace very well might end up as a wardrobe mistress herself, a forgotten “morning glory.” The ending of the film feels more ominous than happy, despite the swelling positive music. Hepburn does not play the triumph. She plays the defiant, almost mad belief in ONLY the moment- lovely, sure, but on deeper examination it is what will be her downfall. Eva Lovelace is a showy part for Hepburn: it has a naive open-faced beginning, a cautious and sad middle, interspersed with a big drunk scene at a party where she does not one but TWO Shakespearean monologues, and then a sudden rise-to-the-top ending. The role capitalized on Hepburn’s strengths: her somewhat mannered way of speaking (much more marked early in her career), her blinkered ambition, her intelligence (she could not play dumb, and when she tried she was terrible), her self-centeredness, her theatricality and the vague sense of unreal-ness that Hepburn had back then, perfect for the playing of an actress-wannabe who lives primarily in a fantasy world. Hepburn was born to play such a part.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays a New York playwright named Joe Sheridan who takes a shine to Eva Lovelace. He senses talent in her, but he’s not sure if it can be used. He keeps bringing her up to his friend, the manager: “She’s got something, don’t you think?”

Nobody agrees with him, really. Everyone thinks she’s a bit cracked (when a young actress tells you in your first meeting that her goal in life is to eventually take her own life – onstage – you can be forgiven for thinking she’s batty.) But Joe Sheridan isn’t sure that there isn’t something else there, a difference, a beauty that could be transformed into genius on the stage. He keeps her in mind. He does not forget her after their first meeting.

Fairbanks, with ease and grace, plays multiple levels of this somewhat thankless role. He’s not just an earnest “artist” looking for a muse for his next play. Joe Sheridan is a nice man, a sweet intelligent man, who has his own uphill battles to fight in his artistic journey. He’s a success but he remembers what it was like to be a beginner, like Eva, and her hope and belief and enthusiasm touch him, touch him in a very deep place, that place where he remembers who he really is.

He knows, or he can sense, that life is going to be tough for someone like Eva. He senses it from the moment he meets her. That is why, months later, when they run into each other at a party, he says, “You know … I worry about you sometimes.” It’s quite an intimate thing to say to someone you barely know. He senses (unlike anyone else in the film, who either take advantage of her, or snicker at her theatrics) her fragility. He thinks she should be protected.

Fairbanks plays that type of man: a man who doesn’t sneer at weakness, but worries about it, for no reason other than he is a nice person.

It is a deceptively simple part: The “nice” guy who loves the girl, but she’s not interested in him except as a friend. You want to shake Eva and say, “PLEASE consider Joe Sheridan and put that horrible manager out of your mind!” But life isn’t like that. Love is messy and one often falls in love with horrible people who don’t treat you well, especially once sex is involved, as it is with Eva and her manager.

Fairbanks could have played the part as a milksop, a weak guy, a lapdog. He doesn’t. Niceness is one of the hardest things for an actor to portray, in the entire cornucopia of qualities. Insanity? Piece of cake compared to niceness. What is “niceness”? What does it mean? What does it look like? And if all you’re doing is playing “nice”, will your work even be discernible? Shouldn’t you make it at least a bit dark and twisty so you will be memorable? Fairbanks is above and beyond those ego-driven concerns, and manages to show the essential character of Joe Sheridan, his decency, his sense of honor, without seeming weak or ineffectual. This is no easy task. He emerges as a friend, really the only friend that Eva’s got in the shark-fest that is the world of the play.

Naturally, though, there is more. He is also in love with her.

To play a man in love, who is also interested in the quality of life of his beloved, and to be concerned over her welfare and how she is treated, is a delicate thing. It requires subtlety and attention to detail. He could have mooned and sighed and pouted. He does none of these things. He seems like a good and serious playwright who keeps his eye on the ball, in terms of his career, but he sees in her a freshness, a humor and fragility, a charming unselfawareness, that touches him. He loves her. It’s that simple.

morningglory1.jpg

Let’s get down to specifics.

How does Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. DO all of this?

Surprise, surprise, it’s all about listening. If you want to see what real listening looks like, watch Fairbanks’ performance in Morning Glory. In his one-on-one scenes with Hepburn (the one at the party, in particular), he listens to her with a sensitivity and subtlety that seems quite modern, from another movie, another acting style all together. Nobody else in the film is listening quite like he is. And that’s right for the picture: he really is the only person with integrity, he really is the only one who SEES her. His way of listening helps him stand out.

There are these strange out-of-time performers whose work never dates, never seems like another style. They are timeless. They not only would “fit in” now, but they would dominate now as they did then. Cary Grant. Bogart. Wayne. Cooper. Judy Garland. Barbara Stanwyck. They came out of the same tradition as the great vaudevillian players of the time, they had the same training, the same context. Film was a new medium. These people figured it out early, and worked it to such a degree that they are still the gold standard of film technique. Many great and wonderful actors (Ronald Coleman comes to mind, although there are so many more) are placed firmly within a specific acting tradition, the old-school more classical style, the modulations of voice and gesture that dominated acting training for centuries until, well, Marlon Brando came along. There is nothing ‘lesser’ about that kind of work. But when you see someone like Gary Cooper or John Wayne in their early days, or John Garfield, or Bogart, you know you’re looking at something new, something different.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has that in Morning Glory. When he smokes a cigarette, he conscientiously blows the smoke away from her face. Totally naturalistic behavior. When he listens, he listens. You can watch the responses and thoughts flicker over his face, even if he has no lines. There is a spontaneity to the performance.

There’s one moment in a scene with Adolph Menjou where Fairbanks starts to laugh and he actually snorts while laughing. It is startling to watch someone who actually seems incapable of “creating” anything on purpose. It all just looks like life. A lot of us snort from time to time when we laugh hard. But actors back then, in general, didn’t. He did. I love him for it! And I love that he slipped into this really nothing part with a sensitive purpose, an understanding of where he might fit in, what his real role was in the story.

If we don’t feel like Eva Lovelace is missing the boat by not choosing Joe Sheridan, then the picture doesn’t work. We are aided in this by the casting of the manager, the rotund fatherly Menjou. If the manager was, say, Clark Gable, we’d have a very different picture. Fairbanks is so handsome, so at ease in his own skin, it’s fascinating (and part of the tension) that Eva is blind to him.

What I am really left with is Fairbanks’ ability at creating a man who understands kindness. (Think of how, during her potentially embarrassing meltdown at the party when she decides to perform Juliet’s balcony monologue for the entire crowd, and he, from his spot in the room, throws one of Romeo’s lines up to her … so she won’t have to sit up there, waiting for a cue that will never come. That’s the kind of man Joe Sheridan is).

At the end, I ached for him. I ached for her, too, sensing the tough road ahead, but I really ached for him. She will always be the one that got away. And he must let her go. That’s the gentlemanly thing to do, first of all, but it’s also the right thing to do. He does not pout, or bemoan his fate. He just kisses her hand, lingering there, and then walks out of the room.

He’s a nice man. And he just lost.

Fairbanks Jr. does it all with such a grace that we may not even notice how effective the performance really is.

Watching Morning Glory, I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from the first of Fairbanks’ autobiographies, The Salad Days (review and excerpt here)

I did not aim to supplant or rival my father nor to outdo my grandfather as a business tycoon. I did believe, quite as a matter of fact, that I would be better at whatever I put my hand and heart to than most people and that any shortfall would be due as much to my own lack of interest as to anyone else’s superiority. I wanted very much to be my own self, well clear of anyone’s shadow, but I had no very specific goals in mind.

I have never lacked awareness of the diversity and potential of my talents. By the same token, I have never been burdened with the conceit that I was another Noel Coward or Chaplin or even a carbon copy of my father. I have, since maturity, known full well the limits of my capabilities (which I’ve never quite reached), the perversities of my personality, and precisely how much self-discipline I should, could, and would apply to get whatever I had to do done well. I may have exaggerated myself to other people, but I have rarely deceived myself. That is probably my only real virtue.

Reading that passage, it doesn’t surprise me at all that such a man could so convincingly and with such great ease create true niceness onscreen.

Because it’s the genuine article.

This entry was posted in Actors. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Making It Look Easy: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Morning Glory

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    LOVE the pictures! Am so used to seeing him in middle to old age that I almost didn’t recognize him. Just amazing. Fine piece of research. And the writing ain’t bad, either.

  2. Tim Dunleavy says:

    Back in 1992 there was a Frank Capra festival at Film Forum, and they ran THE POWER OF THE PRESS (1928), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in one of his first starring roles. I didn’t see it, but a week later I was there for another Capra film and I heard one of the employees saying excitedly “Douglas Fairbanks Jr. showed up to see his movie!”

  3. Kate says:

    In 1999 I was a nanny for a wealthy family in Rhode Island. I lived in a mansion with two maids coming daily and the parents in New York during the week. Each day I took my charge to the “club” and an elegant old man had the cabana next to me. He said things like “Isn’t it a glorious day Kate?” We brought each other things from the “bar” like diet cokes and olives. We chatted a bit but I was 18 and interested in other things. On my last day when the mother happened to be in town, he called me by name and ask if I needed anything to drink. The woman looked stunned and asked if I knew who he was. I hadn’t known it was Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I’d been sunning with all summer long!

  4. sheila says:

    Kate – Oh. My. God.

    • Kate says:

      Jayseuz, I meant 1979! Sheila – you would have gotten soooo much more out that situation than I did. Even more interesting tidbits from that summer about Sunny Von Bulow!

  5. Stevie says:

    That first picture, where he’s reading and he says, “Oh, that’s marvelous!” in such a real way – pang of love. Then when he is brought to tears by the Juliet monologue and just touches his fingers to his bent face . . . this man was grace personified and had true ease (you’re spot on about all of this). He is also truly charming, whereas Kate is acting charming.

    Kate’s character is completely revealed when she comments that she’s sure this person (the old character actor) remembers her because she spent quite a little time with him. As in, “I work so hard being charming and memorable and I’m sure it was successful to my purposes.” It’s kinda breathtaking. She’s got her canned story about playing Mrs. Warren’s Profession when she’s old, dying onstage – it’s a charm shpiel. Ardent smarm.

    Love the piece, Sheila! Love you! XXX Stevie

    • sheila says:

      Stevie –

      // She’s got her canned story about playing Mrs. Warren’s Profession when she’s old, dying onstage – it’s a charm shpiel. Ardent smarm. //

      Exactly – there’s something tragic and truly unstable about it, wouldn’t you agree?

      And of course someone like that could never love someone like Joe Sheridan … and that’s her tragedy.

      He really is so lovely in it. I love watching him!

      Thanks, Stevie!!

  6. Stevie says:

    I want to read your book, Kate! :)

  7. Jessie says:

    Thanks for reposting! I tracked this MG down at archive.org and I’m so glad — it’s a treat and I loved Hepburn and Fairbanks.I might not have given her performance an Oscar but I’m not sure why it attracted a lot of criticism. It worked for me. I found her monomania rather scary at times: introducing herself as Eva-Lovelace-Do-You-Like-It-I-Can-Change-It-If-You-Don’t.

    But Fairbanks — yes! so nice! Compassionate! His yearning got me right where it hurts — romantic yearning is better than crack. Those two incredible scenes where he’s just standing in the background overawed by her and what he’s feeling and it’s just heartbreaking! His body language was incredible — how everything changed, sitting in that chair realising who Euston was talking about.

    I was sorry we didn’t get to see any of the play — crying about Calla lillies was one of my favourite things about Stage Door!

    • sheila says:

      Jessie – so glad you saw it!!

      // I found her monomania rather scary at times //

      I know! It’s really an excellent performance. That fragility/ego needed to be there – you really can see why Joe Sheridan would be worried about her. I liked the darkness at the edges of her role – how bleak life will be for a woman like that if she is not a “star”.

      // romantic yearning is better than crack. //

      YAY, I’m so glad you responded to the performance in that way. That’s exactly right. He was so GOOD at that – and it requires a gentleness, a sort of sitting-back-and-letting-her-be-awesome thing that is sometimes rare with male actors – and BEAUTIFUL when it exists.

      I love Fairbanks because he grew up with a superstar of a father – one of the biggest stars in the world – and he had to make his own way, and accept he would never be his father, and be okay with it. His autobiography is LOVELY.

      He’s a gentleman. He has nothing bad to say about any of the women he was with – he is BEAUTIFUL on “Billie” (Joan Crawford) – they really loved each other, and he was complimentary towards her and her talent – and even though the marriage didn’t work out, he didn’t seem to have bitterness. You can see why women loved/trusted him.

      // Those two incredible scenes where he’s just standing in the background overawed by her and what he’s feeling and it’s just heartbreaking! //

      Yes! Heartbreaking. And yes, it’s all in his body language. So good – harder than it looks!!

      I love that party scene when she does the monologues. Incredible.

    • sheila says:

      Also, I loved how explicit it was that she was sleeping with her manager. You just knew that was kind of a poor choice, and yet she made it because she felt she had to – at least if I’m remembering it correctly.

      But it was definitely a choice that would have repercussions.

      It was really quite realistic about how young women can be treated in show business, the choices that they feel they are forced to make – and then can justify because of the context. But it’s no less ugly because of that.

Add Comment Register



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>