Monday, December 12, 2011
Emanuel Goldenberg 1893-1973
He would be 108 today. There's no need to get into the lengthy biography of this man who appeared in well over 100 films. Just know that he was born December 12, 1893 in Romania, came to the United States as a child and learned his craft in the New York Theater.
I suggest you get his excellent autobiography, nearly finished before his death and published posthumously in 1973. It's titled "All My Yesterdays" and covers every aspect of his fascinating life, including his amazing collection of fine artwork he was forced to sell in a divorce proceeding, as well as his unwarranted blacklisting during the McCarthy witch hunts. Here is a link to the book at Amazon: All My Yesterdays.
Initially, Emanuel Goldenberg hated Hollywood and felt movies paled in comparison to theater as a medium for artistic expression, but with the exhorbitant amounts of money offered him, only a fool would turn it down. So, he commuted for several years, working in limited film roles between stage appearances in New York Theater runs.
That all changed in 1931 when he was cast as Rico in Little Caesar. This 5'5" snarling little actor defined the role of gangster not only for himself but for all others who came after him. Tough nut with a gun, Edward G. Robinson's Rico would just as soon shoot you as look at you, and although he would reprise similar characters in countless Warner Brothers films, the leverage gained from this success allowed him to demand other roles as well.
Robinson soon learned, however, that elements of theater did not work well on film. Stage acting is far too bombastic for a camera lens. One fine example of an early EGR film where he demanded a theatrical scene that failed miserably is 1932's Two Seconds. An otherwise fine performance is made comical with the ending scene of a convicted man's plea for mercy before a judge preparing to pass upon him a sentence for murder. Lesson learned, he rarely if ever again interfered with a director's vision for his films.
There's a fine line between dominating a scene and commanding it. Robinson did the latter regardless of whether he was playing lead or support, and in the process he elevated the actors around him. Given a mediocre script, he salvaged the scenes from disaster; given a meaty script, he sank his teeth into it and transformed words into fine art. Like the paintings and cigars he collected, his acting skills increased in value with age, and I cannot name one film I've seen where the presence of Edward G. Robinson didn't improve the product. I'll try to cull my favorites down to a workable number and explain why I love this actor in each.
Bullets or Ballots (1936) - Tricky role in which EGR plays good cop turned bad cop who's really still a good cop gone undercover. The goal is to bust a gang led by Barton MacLane with Humphrey Bogart his strong man. EGR infiltrates the mob, and does so in such convincing fashion that he not only fools the bad guys, but the viewer as well. Five Star Final (1931) - He plays editor of a newspaper faced with a tough decision: ruin the marriage of common girl to socialite man by exposing past crimes of girl's mother, or bury it and let some other newspaper print the scoop. He goes with the story, and the girl's mother commits suicide. Robinson maintains his tough demeanor, but just beneath the surface is his disgust with the industry, its need for tabloid sensationalism and resulting tragedy, all symbolized by Robinson washing his hands in office lavoratory. Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and The Stranger (1946) - Similar roles as Nazi hunter, but the first is pre-war while the second post. Cool, calm and calculating, EGR meticulously gathers his information before out-foxing the foxes. His subtle underplaying convinces both his adversaries and viewers of the film that he might not be quite smart enough to foil the plots, so when he does the drama explodes on screen. Orson Welles stars in and directs the latter film.
Speaking of meticulously coy, EGR's role as insurance adjuster Barton Keyes in 1944's Double Indemnity epitomizes playing stupid to catch the smart. His persistent nagging of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in regards to her husband's supposed suicide is a classic performance in a classic film of noir. The questions he asks seem to be easily answered and accepted, but all the while he's adding up the particulars towards murder without ever giving away his process to the criminal minds, or ours.
A man spiraling towards insanity marks two of my favorite EGR roles. First is The Red House (1947) where as Pete Morgan, EGR tries to protect his adopted daughter Meg from learning of his horrible past. It all took place in the now-abandoned Red House, and as Meg and her new boyfriend get closer to the answers, Pete's fear drives him to measures ever-increasingly desperate. This film is frightening, thanks to EGR, who, performing as though he walks on wooden leg, begins as a loving father, but gradually deteriorates into a raving madman. The Sea Wolf (1941) features EGR as Wolf Larsen, captain of a ghost ship, a pirate ship whose captain is so obsessed with control of his crew that his cruelty knows no bounds. He loves to read and analyze, is an intelligent man but self-taught and highly resentful of those with formal education. Worsening his bitterness is the fact he's slowly going blind. EGR skillfully portrays this difficult character, deftly shifting between a man thoughtful and introspective to one of intense sadism and vindictiveness, until his hatred destroys both him and all around him.
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) is Edward G. Robinson at his most poignant. A Norwegian farmer in WWII Wisconsin, the love he shows for his daughter Selma, seven-year-old Margaret O'Brien, is ably and repeatedly displayed. In fact, the film is comprised of one scene after another with Robinson heaping affection on her without spoiling her. Finally, I must list The Cincinnati Kid (1965 with Steve McQueen and Karl Malden) as the quintessential film on poker. All these wannabees on the countless television poker (Texas Hold'em?) contests would do well to take lessons from Mr. Robinson and subtleties of the face. No sunglasses or goofy costumes of intimidation are needed here, as EGR's Lancy Howard keeps us guessing until the final card is turned. He's old and tired, challenged by the upstart youngster McQueen in a high-stakes game of five-card stud for serious money, but is he in trouble? To think that such drama could be built around a simple card game is hard to fathom, but not in the hands of these two capable actors.
These examples merely scratch the surface of an incredible film career. Tough guy? Sure, but he's so much more. Edward G. Robinson is one of the finest actors to ever grace the screen, and I challenge you to watch some of these films without being moved.