11 July 2007

"That Guy" From the Movies Dies at 102

This is rather off topic, but I'd like to comment a bit on the death of Hollywood character actor Charles Lane, who died on Monday at the age of 102, living long enough to see his strange journeyman career of hundreds upon hundreds of bit parts convert itself into a legend of sorts.

I had actually been thinking about Charles Lane recently, while watching a series of film noir DVDs I had purchased on Amazon. Lane seemed to be in every one of them. He was a florist who didn't want any trouble in "I Wake Up Screaming"; he was the prosecuting attorney in "Call Northside 777."

But then, I watch a lot of old movies, so Lane is never too far from my consciousness. He's like that neighbor you never get to know well, but whom you're forced by circumstances to see every day of your life. You exchange a few lines and then leave it at that until the next day.

Lane always played the same sort of guy: a hard-nosed jerk. He was a lawyer, a clerk, an executive, a hotel clerk (in fact, his first four movie roles were as hotel clerks), whatever—but he always looked the other actor straight on his beady eyes, leaned in with his wiry frame, opened his tight mean mouth and let fly with something unpleasant or unhelpful in a voice like a nasal mosquito. But while his range was limited, whatever it was that he did was damned effective, because, even though most of his roles lasted one scene and a few lines, you always remembered him. "As I say, it's no skin off my nose. But one of these days this
bright young man is going to be asking George Bailey for a job," he says to Lionel Barrymore in "It's a Wonderful Life." He the only guy besides James Stewart in that film that tells Mr. Potter off. And he does it without blinking.

Capra used him a lot. He was the tax collector who gets nowhere with Grandpa (Lionel Barrymore again) in "You Can't Take It With You." He was a "Nosey Newsman" (he was often a reporter) in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." But my favorite role of his was against another Barrymore, John, in "Twentieth Century." He plays Max Jacobs, a producer and the bete noir of Barrymore's outlandish producer Oscar Jaffe. (He was billed as Charles Levinson back then.) At one point Barrymore rails at him hilariously, calling him an "amoeba" saying, "Owen, take this creature who came to me as an office boy as Max Mendlebaum and who is now Max Jacobs for some mysterious reason and throw him into the street."

Lane did not see the humor in Barrymore's statement. Lane's characters never see the joke. They see the main chance.

By the late '70s, Lane was already a mythical figure of sorts. When Stanley Donen made "Movie Movie," a sort of tribute to old style double features, he cast Lane is a brief role to give the piece some authenticity.

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