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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Second-Stringers (originally published 7/02)

Of all the plum roles that an actor can luck into, one of the juiciest must certainly be that of the leading character in a continuing series of movies. As long as the movies in question maintain their popularity, it's the gift that keeps on giving. Even so, actors do occasionally tire of repeating a particular characterization or become unable to continue in a role. If that happens while the box office potential of the series is still robust, as with Harrison Ford's departure from the current series of Jack Ryan movies, then it becomes necessary to look for a replacement actor. Those of us whose closest brush with acting is buying a ticket to the show can only imagine how daunting it must be to replace an actor who has established himself in a popular role. For a look at how some of Ben Affleck's forerunners have handled this problem, look for these titles on home video.

"Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942). Boris Karloff established the role of Frankenstein's monster for Universal Pictures and played it in two sequels. By the time the studio initiated a fourth film in the series, however, Karloff was tied up with an ongoing stage commitment in "Arsenic and Old Lace" on Broadway. In any case, Karloff had grown weary of the role, especially in view of the marathon makeup sessions. For "Ghost," Universal passed the neck bolts on to Lon Chaney, Jr., the son of the versatile silent film star who had incarnated "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Chaney's performance as the monster is much less subtle than Karloff's, more like the familiar lead-footed, stiff-armed stereotype of the monster. This doesn't mean that Chaney was a poor actor; in fact, he was excellent as Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" three years earlier. Instead, it reflects the studio's lack of interest in developing the monster's characterization, which is why Karloff wanted no part of it.

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932). Even before Karloff relinquished the Frankenstein monster to Chaney, Karloff himself was asked to take over for another performer in an established role. Warner Oland had appeared three times as Dr. Fu Manchu, a Chinese physician who is obsessed with avenging the deaths of his wife and child in the Boxer Rebellion by persecuting the family of an English officer. Oland had played the part more or less straight, but Karloff and his co-star, Myrna Loy, opted for a tongue in cheek interpretation. This campy approach serves to soften what is essentially a virulently racist story, thereby salvaging some entertainment value.

"Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum" (1940). Warner Oland moved on from the role of Fu Manchu to become forever identified with the role of Chinese detective Charlie Chan. He was not the first film actor to play the role, but it wasn't long before he made it his own. Oland's genial portrayal of the self-effacing Chan had enormous audience appeal. When Oland died in 1938, character actor Sidney Toler drew the unenviable assignment of following him in the role. Toler's Chan was a bit edgier than Oland's; not quite so resolutely humble. Of the few Toler Chans available on video, "Wax Museum" is the most popular. What better place to solve a murder than in a wax museum, surrounded by the images of Jack the Ripper and Bluebeard?

"The Falcon's Brother" (1942). One of my favorite examples of one actor passing the torch to another occurs in the "Falcon" series. In the tradition of suave, aristocratic amateur detectives, the Falcon blithely solves mysteries that baffle the plodding and ineffectual police detectives. After three outings in the lead role, however, George Sanders had had enough. In "The Falcon's Brother," Tom Conway was brought in as the main character's brother. Later in the film, the Sanders Falcon is killed off, leaving his brother to carry on in future films of the series. What makes this on-screen passing of the baton so interesting, however, is that George Sanders was Tom Conway's brother in real life. Conway went on to do nine more Falcon pictures.

If you want to compare these latecomers to their predecessors, I recommend Karloff in "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), Oland in "Charlie Chan at the Opera" (1936), and Sanders in "The Falcon Takes Over" (1942).

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