Monday, March 26, 2018

Bits and Bananas

There we were at the restaurant. He was on the tip of our tongues. We had his face but no name. Our smart phones were of no help. He was one of those bit players in 1930s, 40s, and 50s movies. A character actor. Not even a second banana or a third. Now his name came to me, Lane. But no first name and no movie because he’d been in seemingly every movie.

I went home and got it: Charlie Lane. It turns out he’d played in 250 films and hundreds of T.V. shows. Usually a grumpy, no-nonsense sort of guy. He actually lived to 102 with a career spanning seven decades. In a three year period in the 1940’s he was in 67 movies dashing from set to set probably with just a few lines in more or less the same role and often uncredited.

Lane was one of dozens of familiar faces we almost expected to see for a few minutes in every movie as if they created a part for him. Others included Andy Devine in cowboy movies, Jane Darwell (mother-earth), Franklin Pangborn (hotel concierge or floorwalker), Eugene Pallette (oversized C.E.O.), C.Z. Sakall (with the cuddly cheeks) and Arthur Treacher (always a butler), to name just a few. The last two moved up a notch as recognizable names at the time. Former stars in the Silent Film era who couldn’t make it in Talkies also got their licks in this category of familiar unknowns.

Each studio had its stable of Second Fiddles, Sidekicks or Second Bananas. Just as comedians like Burns and Allen or Abbott and Costello had their foils, leading men and women had their lessors. These included names like Donald O’Connor, Jack Okie, Zazu Pitts, June Allyson and Agnes Moorhead. They could be the girl next door or the guy from the other side of the tracks, always around so the star didn’t suffer by comparison. 

The Second Banana would lose his love only to be paired up with a Second Banana(ette) who was secretly in love with him all along waiting for the phone to ring. Off would go the glasses and suddenly she was cute or perky. Second Banana guys went off in the sunset with Second Banana gals as if some caste system ruled and everybody knew their place. But Bananas were closer to the marque than mere Bits and a few made it to top Banana.

I’m thinking of Ralph Bellamy who got snubbed by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, my favorite movie of that period. He later came back strong with his portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. Of course who could blame Russell falling for the irresistible Cary Grant. Stars like Gable or Grant needed Second Bananas who couldn’t quite or never would have that je ne sais quoi or weren’t suave and debonair or fast enough with the repartee.

Bananas, you could love; Bits you’d adore. As a kid I saw them as ever-present faces the way a distant relative would regularly show up for family functions. They made the world seem reliable. They were often eccentric. They gave me permission to be weird or qoofy at a time when conformity and anonymity was my default position. If I couldn’t identify with the Bananas at least there were always the Bits.

In a great scene in Casablanca when a table of German soldiers sing Deutschland Uber Alles it is followed immediately by the entire cafĂ© bursting out with Le Marseilles. In fact these were mostly Jewish character actors exiled from Europe… even the ones in Nazi uniforms. Of course the second Bananas were the team of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet who followed Bogey from The Maltese Falcon.

In the hierarchy of the studio system the only thing lower than Bit players was probably Extras. In hard times at least it meant a free meal for the day. They were needed for crowd scenes or C.B. DeMille’s cast of thousands. Nowadays they’ve been replaced by the magic of computer generating. Somewhere on this ladder is the cameo appearance which is an on-screen flash of a name actor the way Alfred Hitchcock got in front of the camera for an instant in most of his films.

It’s a good thing we don’t get to see the movie of our life before we live it, or even the coming attractions. Then we’d know our fate by the billing alone and the rest of it might not be worth the price of admission. However I’d like to think each of us is Top Banana in our own movie, the one we are living, angst and all, doing battle with evil and ultimately heroic and blessed.

Fifty years ago, in between films, Charlie Lane appeared in a reading of The Trojan Women along with Peggy at the Jung Institute. He told her she could have a career on the stage. No Bits or Bananas were they.

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