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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Anthony Caruso's collaborations with Alan Ladd

This post is my contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon, hosted by the great blogger team of Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club, and Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled. Go to any of those sites to read the other blogathon entries on this always fascinating topic of character actors.
Anthony Caruso in the 1940s
Like many of the best character actors during the 'golden age' of Hollywood, Anthony Caruso's output was prolific. Need a menacing henchman for your mob lead in a gangster picture? Call Caruso. Require an Indian chief to complicate the life of your Western hero or heroine? Caruso's your man. Caruso did it all and more in a 50-year career in movies, TV, and radio. Some of his parts were large, others were tiny, although most were villains or at least unsavory characters. His best roles allowed him to display his sensitivity and humanity. Today, there is not much written about him, but a few interview clips with him are available. What is interesting is that in those that I've seen he discusses his relationship with star Alan Ladd. On the surface, two more different actors could not be paired - Caruso, large and swarthy; Ladd, diminutive, soft-spoken, and blond. But yet the two careers were tightly intertwined in the 1940s and 1950s.
Caruso in Johnny Apollo film poster, 2nd from left.

Caruso was born in Indiana to Italian immigrants, but moved to California at age 10. His acting career started when he was still a teenager, playing in "all the chronicles Shakespeare ever wrote, from King John to Henry VIII"(1), at the Pasadena Playhouse. When young, he was a handsome guy, but his dark and brooding face and large muscular physique had the studios steering him into 'bad guy' character parts almost immediately. His first film role was in the 20th Century Fox Tyrone Power gangster film Johnny Apollo. His name appears way down in the credits as 'Joe the Henchman' but he appears in a film poster (2nd from left) with Power. His final film credit was in 1990, and he died at age 86 in 2003.

Throughout the 1940s, Caruso found steady work as a character player for multiple studios. His collaboration with Alan Ladd started very early in both their careers, in the 1942 Paramount gangster comedy (!) picture Lucky Jordan. This was a film Paramount rushed out when after This Gun For Hire, they realized they had a star in Ladd. (In another twist, Caruso was being seriously considered for the lead in This Gun For Hire, but Paramount chose to cast Ladd against type). Caruso had one short scene, sharing the screen with the film's villain Sheldon Leonard. Blink and you'll miss it.

A couple of years later, he had a bit part in another Ladd film, And Now Tomorrow, also starring Loretta Young. In this role, he again didn't have a chance to make much of an impression on the audience, but he did make one on Ladd. This is where their lifelong friendship and film collaboration truly took off.
Caruso (r) supporting Sheldon Leonard in his (unsuccessful)
attempt to take down Alan Ladd's character via a sharp shot
through a window in Lucky Jordan.
Caruso's version of the story goes like this. On the set, Alan asked Caruso to come to his dressing room to chat, and it was quickly clear to him that Caruso didn't remember their encounter nearly 10 years earlier. He refreshed Caruso's memory: in 1933 both aspiring actors were trying out for roles at the Pasadena Playhouse, and because Ladd had no lunch money, Caruso, who would have been 17 to Ladd's 20, bought Ladd lunch. Ladd related that he never forgot that act of kindness and wanted to give Caruso work whenever he could: "From that time on, Alan, a star, would throw me a script and say, 'pick a part'."(2) "He insisted that I be in his films, whenever I was available."(3)

Due to his bankable star status, Ladd had considerable sway at Paramount. It's not clear, though, if he played a role in Caruso's casting in The Blue Dahlia (1946), or Wild Harvest (1947). In The Blue Dahlia, Caruso is memorable, but again uncredited, as a Marine recently returned from WWII who is provoked by William Bendix's character at a bar's jukebox. His role in Wild Harvest is likewise tiny. Interestingly, Ladd's last role for Paramount was as the titular character of the classic Western Shane (1953). Caruso stated that he would have liked to have done a part in Shane more than any of the Ladd pictures he did do (3).

It didn't seem that Caruso needed Ladd for his career. In 1950 he was a major supporting player in one of the finest movies of his career, the great noir heist film, The Asphalt Jungle. Here he plays the safecracker Louis Ciavelli, a desperate man trying to provide for his family during difficult times. He gets shot when the heist goes wrong, but takes hours to die, staying loyal to his compadres to the end. The role took full advantage of Caruso's sensitive side and elicited the sympathy of the audience.
Caruso (second from right) plans a heist with Sam Jaffe,
Sterling Hayden, and James Whitmore in The Asphalt Jungle.
It was when Ladd moved to Warner Brothers in the early 1950s that Caruso's profile in Ladd's films increased. This was a time of career uncertainty for Ladd, as he was challenged to find his footing at his new studio. His response was both negative and positive--he started drinking heavily, but he also built his own production company, Jaguar Films, under the Warner Bros. umbrella, and produced a series of mostly Western films. None of these rose to the stature of Shane, but most were entertaining and bankable. Ladd relied heavily on many colleagues from Paramount and developed his own 'stock company', in which Caruso was a prominent member. Reliable directors such as Delmer Daves and Frank Tuttle, and co-stars such as Virginia Mayo, Shelley Winters, Edmond O'Brien, and Charles Bronson added to their value.

Caruso as Brog in The Big Land
At Jaguar/Warner Bros. from 1952-1958, Caruso worked with Ladd on seven films: The Iron Mistress (1952), Desert Legion (1953), Saskatchewan (1954), Drum Beat (1954), Hell on Frisco Bay (1955), The Big Land (1957) and The Badlanders (1958). In two of these, he played a Native American, today a controversial casting choice, to be sure. However, despite that, in those roles Caruso was convincing.

One reason Ladd may have been eager to cast Caruso--according to Caruso, he was willing to slouch, stretch out his hips, or contort in other ways so as not to be taller than Ladd. "I know Alan appreciated that", he said (5).

I'd like to highlight two contrasting films of this time. The first, The Big Land, is a middling Western with Ladd teaming with Edmond O'Brien to make the Great Plains safe for cattle merchants. In this one, Caruso has a large part as the main villain, Brog. He's a ruthless cattle buyer who uses intimidation and murder to shut out the competition. There is no subtlety in the role, as Caruso leers and sneers, milking a mediocre script for all it's worth.

The second film is widescreen Cinemascope color noir Hell on Frisco Bay. This film evokes some memory of Ladd's success in noir in the 1940s, and adds to its noir credentials with the likes of Edward G. Robinson and Paul Stewart. It's worth checking out on DVD. Here, Caruso has a cameo that is a far cry from the cardboard villain Brog. He's a devoted father who happens to have some knowledge of a mob murder on the docks that ex-con Ladd is investigating. Ladd visits Caruso in his flat and catches him in the middle of a shave. While wanting to be helpful to Ladd, he realizes the price he may pay, and the risk to his young son, if he reveals too much. Over the course of the short scene he's tough, threatening, soft, fearful, all in quick succession. His casting here is a work of genius and perhaps the peak of the Ladd/Caruso collaboration.
Caruso assures Ladd he knows little about murder at the docks
in Hell on Frisco Bay.
Caruso with his young son (Peter J. Votrian) in Hell on Frisco Bay.

Sadly, Alan Ladd struggled professionally and personally at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, until he died from an accidental overdose at age 50 in 1964. In this later period, the film The Badlanders (with Ernest Borgnine and Caruso in a small role) is definitely worth checking out. It's a western version of The Asphalt Jungle, and Ladd brings an appropriate amount of world-weary cynicism that enhances the adventure.

As for Caruso, his career lasted almost another 30 years after Ladd died, and he continued to find success in Westerns, mobster, and 'ethnic' roles in TV and movies. Fans of the original Star Trek TV series will recall him as a gangster in the time travel episode 'A Piece of the Action' from 1968. If he were born a generation later, he may have found long-lasting success as a member of the New Jersey mob in the acclaimed TV series The Sopranos. In real life, apparently, Caruso's life was quite the opposite of many of his characters. His hobbies included cooking and gardening, and his marriage lasted 63 years. His career is a model of character actor success in Hollywood-a nearly 50-year career in all kinds of roles, using a variety of talents, and knowing that taking work is sometimes more important than ensuring that every role has substantive screen time. Whenever Caruso pops up in a film, you're guaranteed to be entertained.
Caruso (l) confronts Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in Star Trek's episode
"A Piece of the Action"

(1) Interview with Sunset Carson
(2) Alan Ladd: The True Quiet Man (Documentary)
(3)-(5) Interview with Sunset Carson