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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Book review: The Life and Times of Sydney Greenstreet

Author Derek Sculthorpe continues to conduct exhaustive research leading to the biographies of classic screen actors whose names are less familiar to the casual movie fan, but beloved by cinephiles. The bio of British-born Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954) is the latest of his for me to read and review, and this time I'm grateful to BearManor Media for providing me with my copy.  Check out my posts on the Van Heflin and Brian Donlevy bios, and my Q&A with author Sculthorpe included in the Donlevy post.

The thing about Greenstreet is this: while his film career was relatively short--he entered the industry in 1941 at age 61, but made his last film in 1949 due to his failing health--his appearances are so striking, his voice so resonant, and his characters' personalities loomed so large, that I'd wager that anyone would remember him after seeing a single of his films.  As his career arc differed so much from other classic film stars, I was particularly interested in learning about him as a way to illuminate some dusty corners in cinema history and early 20th-century cultural history. For this, the book does not disappoint.

Sculthorpe is a completist in his approach and offers everything that is known about Greenstreet, both professionally and personally, in a measured, chronological manner, starting with his family history. He drew from primary sources as well as books such as Ted Sennett's profile of Greenstreet and frequent co-actor Peter Lorre's professional collaboration, Masters of Menacebut his connection with Gail Greenstreet, the actor's granddaughter, was especially valuable, leading to insights and photos never before published. The book offers a complete catalog of Greenstreet's film, radio, and stage appearances, and 36 pages devoted to a bibliography and citations.

Young Greenstreet, ~1920.
From the book's Facebook page
"I seek to ... show that he had a full life before he became famous," Sculthorpe said in the book's introduction. As a result, over half of the book is devoted to his stage career, which actually encompassed most of Greenstreet's working life, but at first I wasn't sure that I would be as interested in that. However, as I continued reading I became fascinated by the new world of early 20th-century theater life was that opening up to me--the touring lifestyles, the larger-than-life theatrical impresarios, and changing tastes of the American public. Greenstreet, while a UK native, made the U.S. his adopted home early in his career, as he toured with a number of theatrical companies here.  Among those were Sir Philip "Ben" Greet of 'The Ben Greet Players',  Col. Henry Wilson Savage's company, which produced mostly musicals, Margaret Anglin, an actress and producer who produced a number of Shakespeare plays that Greenstreet sank his teeth into, and Minnie Fisk ("Mrs. Fiske") with whom Greenstreet excelled in Shakespeare's As You Like It.  Sculthorpe punctuates these histories with colorful stories of alfresco performances and audiences of suffragettes.

Greenstreet's star was considerably high at this point, and he never really actively sought to become a film star, but when John Huston gave him the opportunity with The Maltese Falcon after seeing him in a stage production of There Shall Be No Night by Robert Sherwood, Greenstreet's career was catapulted in a new direction. His success in the beloved noir led him to an Academy award nomination and a contract with Warner Bros., and he made Hollywood his home--this after he assumed The Maltese Falcon was going to be his one film, and did attempt to resume his stage career.
Greenstreet with Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.
According to Sculthorpe, the two actors shared a warm relationship.
Sculthorpe examines Greenstreet's film career through the lens of the actor's theatrical experience. In plays, because of his large size (Greenstreet always loved food and was heavy from his early days) he wasn't cast as romantic leads in plays, but rather villains and often clowns or comic characters. [Of particular note to film fans was a 1931 production of Arisophanes' play Lysistrata in which Greenstreet shared the stage with Miriam Hopkins and Fay Bainter, and after he left, Hopkins' role was taken over by Jean Arthur.] In contrast, in films Greenstreet rarely had the opportunity to exercise his comic chops, as his most memorable screen roles were of imposing, albeit refined villains.  He did, apparently, complain to his studio bosses about the narrow nature of his roles, and eventually did receive parts in comedies, that were, for the most part, second rate. Perhaps the best known and loved today is Christmas in Connecticut, in which Greenstreet's relatively straight character had some comic moments--in particular, having a tumble in the snow.
Christmas in Connecticut proves to be less than hospitable
for poor Alexander Yardley (Greenstreet).
Unlike many Hollywood stars, Greenstreet's personal life seemed to be somewhat calm. He married New Jersey native Dorothy Ogden at age 38, and they had one son, John, who spent many years in boarding school in the U.S. while his father toured much of the time. Sadly, Dorothy fell victim to a mental illness and was institutionalized at age 41 for the remainder of her life.  While his wife's illness and absence was a considerable strain, Greenstreet was an outgoing person who formed relationships with his fellow actors and was generally appreciated for his professionalism and warmth.  He mentored up-and-coming stars including most notably Zachary Scott, who credited Greenstreet as his film 'teacher.' He apparently loved a good party and enjoyed regaling everyone around with jokes and stories.

Greenstreet as the trumpeter in a 1938/39 stage production
(with Lunt-Fontanne) of Amphitryon 38 (from the
book's Facebook page here)
Greenstreet succumbed in 1954 after years of battling ill health. Some may say that it's too bad he only acted for nine years and 24 films, but in reality I believe our memory of him is enhanced because his work was preserved in such a concentrated period of time.  I recommend the bio for dedicated film lovers looking to fill in many gaps in our understanding of the man behind the imposing, often frightening physique in many 1940s classics. As previously mentioned, his film work does not dominate the volume, and those picking up the book should know that equal time and analysis is devoted to his stage work.  For those, like me, for whom this part of history was unexplored, those parts of the book will greatly add to your appreciation of early 20th century cultural life.