Thursday, April 14, 2011

Oh, What a Character! Part Three: Ornery Henry

Today's supporting player most often portrayed characters who made life miserable for the leading characters, but who made cinema audiences respond heavily to him through his fiendish behavior. The delightfully nasty piece of work is Mr. Henry Daniell.

Daniell was born in London, England on March 5th, 1984. In 1913, at the age of nineteen, he debuted on the stage with a walk-on role in Kismet. The following year, he enlisted in the service, but was released by 1915 with a medical discharge. He immediately began to pursue a career on the stage and found swift employment in small roles in London theatres (this being WWI, most men his age were still serving in the armed forces.)

He crossed the pond in 1921 to appear on Broadway in Clair de Lune. This was followed by additional stage work, including three more Broadway plays, until he was courted by Hollywood in 1929 for The Awful Truth (not the Irene Dunne-Cary Grant film, but an earlier version of the same story. It had been filmed four years before as a silent and would be made still again as a color musical in 1953 as Let's Do it Again!)

Despite this turn as an amusing sophisticate, he would very soon become ensconced in period projects with characters such as Count von Rimpau in The Last of the Lone Wolf and King Maximillian in The Path of Glory (made back in his homeland of England.) Not attached to a particular studio, he continued to trek back to Broadway in between film assignments. Film executives quickly learned to exploit his skills as a sneering, hissable villain and by 1936 he was tormenting Loretta Young as a heinous blackmailer in The Unguarded Hour.

That same year, he played the possessive lover/benefactor of Greta Garbo in the now-legendary Camille. His haughty, aristocratic character, Baron de Varville stood in the way of Garbo and her earnest young love Robert Taylor. Daniell had started down the pathway to playing wealthy, entitled men capable of extreme selfishness and cruelty. His presence in a movie often meant that the viewer was going to be treated to a dollop of Grinchy meanness. Producers and directors admired his sterling professionalism and dependable work habits.

By this time, he had met and married his wife Ann Knox. Mystery about Daniell's sexual orientation has swirled for decades, perhaps due to his pithy, sardonic line deliveries and his aptitude for playing finicky, exacting characters. Adding to the mystique is the fact that he and his wife were once cited by author P.G. Wodehouse as being involved in at least watching and possibly participating in orgies that took place in downtown Los Angeles in the 1930s!

Still not tied down to any one studio, he was kept busy in the then-vast output of motion pictures (and, thus, was absent from the Great White Way until the early 1940s), while having the luxury of accepting the parts he wanted. Some of the films he worked in during this time include The Thirteenth Chair (with Dame May Whitty), Madame X (the Gladys George version) and the grandiose epic Marie Antoinette, all for MGM. He worked at other studios, too, such as Columbia for the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn comedy Holiday and to Warner Brothers for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Here, he was placed with Bette Davis and a certain hunk by the name of Errol Flynn.

He would re-team with these two, separately, in subsequent films of very high quality. All This, And Heaven Too was a lush period story with Davis. The Sea Hawk was a rousing swashbuckler with Flynn, containing one of the great sword fights ever put to celluloid between Daniell and Flynn. (The truth of the matter, though, is that Daniell was not at all comfortable with this type of action and was used only in close-ups, a double taking over in long shots and in the sequences shown in shadow.)

1940 was quite a year for Daniell for not only did he work on the two previously mentioned films, but he also appeared alongside Charlie Chaplin in his stinging spoof of Adolph Hitler, The Great Dictator, as a version of Joseph Goebbels, called “Garbitsch” here. The parody wound up being Chaplin's most commercially successful film ever (though he did later regret the lightheartedness with with he approached some of the material once he realized the severity of what was happening in Nazi-occupied countries.)

Still not done, Daniell also appeared in The Philadelphia Story, a rare excursion into the present day. Playing the publisher of a tabloid magazine, he sends Katharine Hepburn's old flame Cary Grant to cover her impending wedding to James Stewart. Thus, Daniell appeared in four significant critical and financial successes in one year, three of which were nominated for Best Picture! Several of his costars were nominated for Oscars as well, with Stewart (for The Philadelphia Story) and Barbara O' Neil (for All This, and Heaven Too) winning the statuette.

1941 brought the Joan Crawford picture A Woman's Face, in which he played the man prosecuting her for murder. (He would appear with Crawford again in the decidedly inferior Reunion in France the next year.) Ever busy, he was in six films in 1942. He appeared in a couple of Sherlock Holmes mysteries as suspects for Basil Rathbone (with whom Daniell might occasionally be confused due to their elongated features) to sort out. That's him second from the left.

Another memorable film was Jane Eyre, in which he portrayed the crusty, heartless orphanage overseer Henry Brocklehurst, the man who cuts off precious Elizabeth Taylor's thick curls and forces her to stand in the punishing weather until she is deathly ill.

He played a Nazi character in Watch on the Rhine who holds disdain for the very people he is serving. This was, again, a film nominated for Best Picture and its star, Paul Lukas, was the winner for Best Actor that year. (Henry is second from the right at the table below.)

He was cast in atmospheric director Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher opposite horror legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Despite his third-billing, he is really the primary character in the film, playing a doctor who does anatomical research on corpses that his henchmen obtain illegally. It was the closest he'd ever come to a “lead” role.

In The Bandit of Sherwood Forest, he was Regent William of Pembroke against Cornel Wilde's Robert of Nottingham, the son of Robin Hood. Daniell spent as much time in brocade, tights and longish wigs as many of the big action stars because a sinister presence was always needed and he could provide that in spades. Also, all through the mid-1940s, he appeared in Broadway productions, he acted there at least seventeen times including a show the same year he died.)

Unusual for him was the non-threatening role of Franz Liszt in 1947's Song of Love. Here he was a mentor to Paul Henreid's Robert Schumann and Robert Walker's Johannes Brahms as well as friend to Henreid's wife Katharine Hepburn. (This was the third and last time he would work with the actress.)

As color and widescreen began to dominate the cinema, Daniell continued to prove useful in such epics as The Eqyptian and The Prodigal. He also was onhand to needle Lana Turner in Diane (he's shown here with costar Marisa Pavan, who also had it in for Lana in the film.) From 1950 on, he appeared periodically on television, mostly in anthology series that would allow him to spread his acting wings a bit for a half hour or an hour.

He still obtained roles in significant films of the day, however, such as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit with Gregory Peck and Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas. As he aged, his parts became smaller and smaller, though the movies tended to be of decent quality such as The Sun Also Rises, Les Girls and Witness for the Prosecution. An exception was a part in the Irwin Allen fiasco The Story of Mankind, which put a raft of name brand actors into mostly idiotic vignettes about famous and infamous people throughout time.

1959 brought an outright horror flick to Daniell's resume (The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake) as he played a creepy, voodoo-practicing archeologist murdering people and carrying out experiments on their bodies in order to obtain immortality. He's a head-shrinker and not of the psychiatric variety!

The debacle of The Story of Mankind didn't taint his relationship with Allen and he appeared in the more popular sci-fi film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for him in 1961 as well as 1962's Five Weeks in a Balloon (in which he played a sheik!) At this point, Daniell was mostly appearing as judges, doctors and the occasional clergyman. He was a doctor in The Chapman Report for George Cukor and a judge in Mutiny on the Bounty, the one with an unruly Marlon Brando throwing his weight around.

Henry Daniell, who had never wanted to be anything but a working actor and who found himself in some of the screen's most enduring movies, died of a heart attack in 1963 at the age of sixty-nine. True to his craft until the very end, he did a full day's work on the George Cukor film My Fair Lady, in which he introduced a remodeled Audrey Hepburn to the Queen of Transylvania at The Embassy Ball. Then he came home and died that evening.

He worked for Cukor seven times in all over the course of twenty-eight years, an enduring friendship that did nothing to halt questions about Mr. Daniell's sexuality. No matter what, he was a wondrously snotty drop of vinegar in many a Hollywood movie, appearing in over sixty films within a thirty-five year period, in addition to his beloved stage work! In spite of the fact that he played so many memorable spoilers, Daniell was never nominated for any sort of major acting award in any medium. Thus, we are happy to display a bust of his scowling face in a certain corner of The Underworld.


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