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Friday, February 12, 2016

Classic Film Actor Discoveries: Clive Brook, dapper British star of silents and early talking films

Film actors who made the transition from silents to talking pictures are often remarked upon today as something of an oddity, at least contrasted with the more well-known silent stars who didn't make the transition successfully.  The British actor Clive Brook was one of those whose career spanned that transition, and for me, marks the first actor in that category that I came to appreciate first as a silent star.  I recently watched a few of his best known talking pictures from the 1930s and 40s, and found that I liked him much better as a silent film actor.  I began to wonder why.
Brook was born in London in 1887, to an opera singer mother and writer father.  He rose to stardom on the British stage, and after a deployment during WWI, he began his film career in England. He then moved to the U.S. for several successful years in silents working for Paramount, most notably a starring role in Josef von Sternberg's UNDERWORLD, and then moved to talking films.  He starred in the 1933 Academy Award Best Picture winner, CAVALCADE.  In the mid-30s, disenchanted with Hollywood, he returned to England for the rest of his career, dividing his time between the stage and British film -- the high point of this phase of his career arguably the film version of the Frederick Lonsdale stage farce, ON APPROVAL, which Brook not only starred but wrote and directed for film in 1944.   Brook and his wife had two children who also became actors, and Brook lived to be 87.

In many ways, Brook's early career trajectory was not unlike other prominent British actors of his generation, including Herbert Marshall, Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone.  Brook was handsome and aristocratic-looking.  When the talkies emerged, his fine delightfully-accented voice was put to use, and the complete package of Brook as the quintessential old-fashioned British gent was born in film.  But, as I first discovered him, he wasn't this way at all. I discovered him in UNDERWORLD, where he is a  vagrant alcoholic, working as a janitor in a Chicago night-club, and gains favor with the local crime boss, played by George Bancroft, becomes a partner, and ends up taking his girl (Evelyn Brent).  Here, through skillful body and face acting, Brook is able to effectively portray this transition between a bum and a sort-of gentleman, and while named "Rolls Royce" by Bancroft's character -- at no point do we suspect him of being any kind of English aristocrat, although his knack for portraying an air of nobility is put to good use as we follow his character's trajectory.  In addition, he exudes a raw animal magnetism that von Sternberg captures in the scenes with Evelyn Brent, who understandably, cannot resist.  Bancroft and Brent are both terrific in this film, but it is Brook who shines the brightest.
Brook as a lonely saloon janitor
Brook in a drunken stupor lying on the bed, being looked after by George Bancroft
In a publicity shot, recovered Brook romances "Feathers", portrayed by early screen beauty Evelyn Brent
Credit for the success of the film, and Brook's portrayal, could be attributed to the skill of von Sternberg, who in this stage of his career, was on the rise and near the peak of his lauded visual and story-telling style.  A year or so after this, Brook made FORGOTTEN FACES (dir. Victor Schertzinger), playing another shady character, "Heliotrope Harry", who is a con artist and ultimately goes to prison for the murder of his wife's lover, only to have a chance at redemption years later.  I had the incredible good fortune to attend a screening of a restored version of this film at the Capitolfest Film Festival in Rome, NY in 2014.  Not having been seen in public for so many years, it wowed the audience there (I'm hoping this will be released on DVD very soon).  For a description of this screening and the film itself, check out R. Emmet Sweeney's article in Film Comment here.

The film also stars Olga Baclanova and William Powell, another actor who made a hugely successful transition from silents, as faithful sidekick "Froggy".  Similar to UNDERWORLD, in FORGOTTEN FACES, Brook dominates the screen with his charisma, whether leading a crime caper or emoting over the fate of his estranged daughter.  The film itself is a gem of the late silent period.  A 1928 issue of Photoplay Magazine tells a story of Brook complaining about the prison uniform he had to wear in this picture, only to find out he was robbed of some cash and a watch from his street clothes.  The tidbit ends with the comment, regarding the prison uniform:  "both he (Brook) and Paramount have not yet found the man that should wear it." (!)   Images below from 
Intense drama of FORGOTTEN FACES
Brook is visited by estranged wife Baclanova while he does time.
This shot shows a young William Powell (kneeling)
As talking pictures emerged, von Sternberg had discovered Marlene Dietrich and was using her in most of his subsequent films, with results that have no shortage of comment.  As I prepared to watch the famous early von Sternberg-Dietrich pairing SHANGHAI EXPRESS, I was pleased to see that Brook was starring as well.  Unfortunately, I came away less than enchanted with Brook's performance here.  Part of me felt a bit like blaming von Sternberg, who I had previously observed in BLONDE VENUS to give little screen attention, or even adequate direction, to his male star (Herbert Marshall) in favor of Dietrich.  Yet, here was Brook, portraying a traditional English captain, with a delicious voice but little on-screen charisma beyond the straightness of his posture.  He rarely smiled, or showed emotion, and it was difficult to believe Marlene's character nurtured a passion for him, either past or present.  Dare I say his performance was "wooden".  I am not alone in that assessment as many reviews of the film mention him as the weak link as well.  
Brook and Dietrich wonder how they will survive their trip on the SHANGHAI EXPRESS
Then came CAVALCADE, the Noel Coward epic from 1933, starring Brook as an upper class Londoner, who, along with his family, endured personal and public tragedies ranging from the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and WWI.  Unlike many modern viewers I actually liked the film, but did not love it.  Brook was certainly beyond adequate in his role as the rather staid, upper-crust English gentleman, who aged over 30 years during the course of the film and along with Diana Wynyard, his leading lady, was the emotional anchor of the film.  He certainly was believable, but there was something missing from his performance -- a spark, a charisma, that had been present in his silents.  Early on in the film when he tells his wife on New Year's Eve that he loves her, he says it as though he's making a diplomatic pronouncement.  Well, perhaps the idea was to paint the Victorian gentleman with the figurative 'stiff upper lip', and, if so, Brook was the perfect casting choice.
With leading lady Diana Wynyard.  Gotta admit -- the mustache is a good idea.
Brook and Wynyard share screen time with the wonderful Herbert Mundin and Una O'Connor as the husband and wife service team.
A mere two years later Brook left Hollywood to return to England where his career continued.  He was quoted around this time as likening acting in Hollywood to a 'chain gang', so maybe he wasn't happy with his roles.  Perhaps it was a combination of things -- in his late 40s he was becoming too old to play credible leading men, and his natural skills and accent would forever typecast him, yet not stretch him.  In his final most notable film, a farce of unabashed fun called ON APPROVAL, Brook took over the reins and directed himself along with noted Canadian comedienne Beatrice Lillie, and Googie Withers and Roland Culver.  Again, Brook plays an upper class British gent (George, 10th Duke of Bristol) who, while penniless, still retains an attitude of haughtiness which has put off all females who might show any interest.  What's different here is this is farce, so his unique upper class persona is played for all it's worth, exaggerated to generate the humor, and when pulling out all the stops, Brook is brilliant.  It's as if he's parodying all those characters from his earlier film days.  The film is full of witticisms and not-so-subtle innuendo.  "You needn't lock the door, Maria.  Only the rain will want to come in."  "Rain is leaking in 13 places; however we only have 12 receptacles."  Highly recommended!
Brook and Lillie say "ho!" to the audience as part of the film's dream sequence
The foursome as they contemplate their getaway trip to test the potential of marriage
There are many other early talkie Paramount films that Brook made that I haven't seen, so I would certainly love to hear opinions from other classic film fans about Brook and his body of work.  I expect to come back to some of these, if for no better reason than to check out more early work of William Powell (a co-star and off-screen friend of Brook), Evelyn Brent, Doris Kenyon, and the like. Regardless, I'm pleased to have discovered another lesser-known classic actor who deserves to have his work more broadly exposed.

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