Howdy! Ernst Lubitsch, movie director (1892-1947). After his funeral Billy Wilder and William Wyler trudged solemnly to their cars—Wilder sighed, “No more Lubitsch.” Wyler answered, “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch films.”
I had similar sad stirrings over the passin’ on thru of former WC columnist Marc Lawrence in 2005, Hollywood gangster par excellence. No more Lawrence films. He played so many baddies named Lefty that they called him a Commie. I fondly recall Lawrence in his hoodlum threads: tight-fitting pin-striped suit—just enough room in the jacket for a shoulder holster—, gartered fine hosiery, patent leather shoes. All topped off by the derigueur gray fedora shading his sinister, clean-shaven, craggy face.
Todaze gangsta rap features backward baseball caps covering unshaven heads in need of haircuts, sweaty sweatshirts, baggy pedal pushers exposing skinny, hairy legs, flip flops. Arghhh!
But that man Lawrence! He had style. I never saw a Marc Lawrence movie I didn’t like—caught him recently on FMC in “Johnny Apollo” (‘40). My favorite scene: The bad guys are gathered ‘round a poker table studying the stolen blueprint of the state’s gray bar hotel. Next day, the gents are being sent up the river. With infinite patience and foresight they are planning their intricate escape, involving smuggled guns in the library, crawl-space in the ventilating system, an awaiting laundry truck—Huh?! Pardon me, fellows. Might I make a leetle suggestion? Heh-heh—wouldn’t it be slightly simpler and safer to go on the lam today? I mean, now!
Anyway, Lloyd Nolan is the scoundrel-in-chief. Previously, he’d stuck it to Charlie Grapewin with an ice pick. Remember Nolan in “The Last Hunt”? For me his death scene stole the show. What an actor. His credo: Like a good jazz musician, never play it the same way twice. Nolan’s Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” is the best acting I have ever witnessed.
Return with us now to Marc Lawrence. I onetime abutted him at a celeb sign-a-thon. Told him he deserved an Oscar for “The Asphalt Jungle”. Told him I once chanced upon a glassed-in exhibit of letters to John Huston at the Motion Picture Academy. Marilyn Monroe wrote him, respectfully declining his kind offer of a role in his “Freud” flick. She couched her phrases. Pulitzer prize-winning author James Agee jotted a note directly after viewing “The Asphalt Jungle”. He was overwhelmed, figuring it’d take a day or two to gather his thoughts to pen ‘em properly. He did find it in himself to pay high praise to Marc Lawrence as the sniveling squealer. Marc and I whiled away that sultry Sunday, side-by-side, laffin’ and scratchin’ a whole lot more than signin’—one acquires humility at such occasions. What the hey! I bought his book LONG TIME NO SEE. He signed it. I treasure it. On the back cover Richard Burton is quoted: “How fascinated I was by your manuscript, fascinated and bemused, angered and very moved. It should be and must be read.” I’ll go along with that assessment.
Marc Lawrence has a beautiful daughter. Don’t rightly recollect her name, but I’ll never forget her grace, talent, and humanity. Back in the ‘70s we performed in the Theatre Arts program of L.A. (TAPLA). She dated another TAPLAN, David Ankrum, son of character actor Morris Ankrum. I was lucky to work with the senior Ankrum on a Sweet Toes epic. Here’s what the aforementioned James Agee has to say about Ankrum’s performance in the film “Tennessee Johnson”: “Morris Ankrum, as Jefferson Davis, announcing the secession of Mississippi…works in a world apart from the rest of the company. He looks like a daguerreotype, not an impersonation. He bears himself like a man of 1860, not like a studious actor in a costume picture. He supplies the paralyzing electric energy of the present tense as against the rest of the show’s glossy, comfortably researched re-enactment of 80 year’s remote.” Wow!
Mark “Black Arrow” Roberts was my boss at TAPLA. We cavorted for audiences of all stripes, rain or shine, in doors or out. We ran the gamut from Moliere to baggy pants burlesque. Best dad-gummed job I ever had. We enacted our version of the “Slowly I turn” Bur-lee-Q sketch to a packed house one night. Mark was emcee. Reminded me of that famous Chinese magician, On Too Long. I resorted to a Red Skelton gag. I reached ‘neath the curtain and grabbed him firmly by the ankles and yanked hard. That was the last the audience saw of him, on his stomach, slowly disappearing backwards, enveloped by the curtain.
By way of setting the scene we hired a stripper, Big Bertha, to dazzle the folks with her Dance of the Seven Veils. But on our limited budget, we could only afford three veils. Bravo Bertha! You sure gave a cheeky performance.
For a short, happy time we HQ’d at Mark’s former bailiwick: dusty, barren Columbia Studio, by then a derelict ship washed ashore. Mark swore it was haunted. At twilight, sometimes, he could faintly hear down a musty hallway, ‘Nyuck! Nyuck! Nyuck!” Mark was such a good guy that he actually liked Harry Cohn.
Once, after a private screening in the projection room, Cohn proclaimed to all assembled, “This is a good picture, but it is exactly 19 minutes too long.” All was silent. A pip-squeak of a writer, knowing no better, piped up, “Excuse me, Mr. Cohn, why do you say exactly 19 minutes? Why not 15 minutes or half an hour?” Cohn looked at him and very quietly said, “Young man, exactly 19 minutes ago my ass started to itch, and right there I knew the audience would feel the same thing.” Imagine! Having your showbiz career connected to Harry Cohn’s hindquarters. Whatta crazy umbilical cord.
To unleash the child within Roberts’ company I formed a troupe, Klowns!, borrowing routines from my circus daze. No talk. Just 40 action-packed slapstick minutes timed to taped music. We donned garish outfits and makeup so as not to be confused with local politicians. I was Patches the Klown! Mayor Bradley came backstage to wish us well on our debut. I was changing costumes. He caught me with my pants down. That’s called “meeting cute.”
Robert Shayne, Inspector Henderson of “Superman”, was in our really big show. Years later, Babs and I attended his 93rd birthday party on a patio at the Motion Picture Hospital. Suddenly, a wild man in a wheelchair burst through swinging doors pursued by a nurse. “Now, come on, Curly Joe,” she said, “You have to go back to your room.” Awww! Wish he’d stayed. I’d-a asked him for a rousing Nyuck! Nyuck! Nyuck!
After 4½ years TAPLA tapped out late in ‘79. In true slapstick fashion the City Fathers kicked us in the butt with extry big shoes and sent us on our merry way. Our act might not have been pie-in-the-sky, but it soitingly was pie-in-the-face. Our final knockabout extravaganza was presented in a Chinatown library. We popped out from behind book stacks. The lady librarian said ours was the best show ever. Over the years Mark Roberts and I touched bases from time-to-time. Hey, Mark, hope you read the fine article Boyd Magers wrote about you in SERIAL REPORT before you passed on thru. You are the best dad-gummed boss I ever had.