The Eternal Star, Trapped in Time

Quick, how long was Clark Gable’s movie career?  If you said  38 years, lasting from 1923, his first uncredited extra work in Fighting Blood, to the 1961 posthumuous release of The Misfits in 1961, you’d be correct, technically.  For me, his career spanned 1930 to 1939, with Gone with the Wind as his swansong.   Oh, he didn’t actually do anything of note in 1930 and he did a hell of a lot of note after 1939 but when I think of Gable, I think of the thirties.   I identify most actors with a specific decade and, as box office returns would indicate, so do a great many people as actors’ careers tend to have a five to ten year period of total dominance followed by years of ups and downs.


Clark Gable made his first appearance on the Quigley Publishing Top Ten Money Making Stars poll in 1932 as did every other star on the list since that was the first poll that tallied up who the most popular draws were, according to theater owners. Gable stayed on the list for every remaining year of the thirties and made several more after that.  But this isn’t about when a star made money or didn’t but the decades when they were in their prime, the years that feel like theirs, no matter how long they performed.  And for me, Gable is an actor of the thirties, always will be.  Despite liking much of his work afterwards, including a personal favorite, Run Silent, Run Deep, Gable’s career feels more like It Happened One Night through Gone with the Wind.   Earlier movies, like A Free Soul and Night Nurse, feel like test runs for the career that would be and the movies after, like Teacher’s Pet, feel like idling down after the long race is over.   And Gable’s not alone in the thirties.  Not by a long shot.

Despite delivering one of my favorite supporting performances in all of movie history, in the year 1946 (as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life), Lionel Barrymore will forever be an actor of the thirties to me.  From the previously mentioned A Free Soul to Dinner at Eight and You Can’t Take it With You, Barrymore was thirties, always.  As was his brother, John, despite dozens of credits and major success in the teens and the twenties.  John will always be the star of thirties movies, from Svengali to Twentieth Century, not the teens and twenties.

Some stars are successful for so long they seem to defy the one decade rule.  Bette Davis would fit that mold as she had multiple periods to her career but I still identify her with one more than any other and that one is the 1940′s.  Forget the two Oscars from the thirties, the forties gave us The Letter, The Bride Came C.O.D., The Little Foxes, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington and, at the tail end, in 1950, All About Eve.  Am I the only who, despite the great performances that came after, feels like All About Eve is the cap to Bette’s career?

Another actress with a long and varied career, who nonetheless associates in my mind almost exclusively with the forties, is Joan Crawford.  Her career spanned from the silents to the seventies but the forties gave us Strange Cargo, Mildred Pierce, Possessed, Humoresque and Daisy Kenyon.  She achieved quite a bit before and after the forties but it was in that decade that Crawford defined herself as she would be known in years hence.  It was in the forties that she became Joan Crawford.


John Wayne may be the most successful actor in history, in terms of continued popularity.  He was on the Quigley list an astonishing (and record breaking) 25 times, almost consecutively (he was on the list from 1949 – yes, believe it or not, that was his first year on the list – through 1974 with only one year absent, 1958).  And yet, I still think of Wayne primarily as a fifties actor because those are the movies I got to know him from.  Movies like The Quiet Man, The High and the Mighty, The Searchers and Rio Bravo were the movies I associated with John Wayne and still are.  I love Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, too, but it’s the fifties I link to Wayne.

Another star of the fifties, regardless of how much he did in every decade for, well, decades, is Jimmy Stewart.  He won Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story from 1940 and delivered his greatest performance in It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946 but thanks to Rear Window, Carbine Williams, The Glenn Miller Story, The FBI Story, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Spirit of St. Louis and Vertigo, the man says “fifties” to me.

Steve McQueen did scant few big movies in the fifties, most notably The Blob, and several in the seventies, most notably (well, in my opinion, at least), The Towering Inferno, but in the sixties, Steve was the man!  The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Cincinati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt (and I’m still leaving some off) all add up to mean I will never be able to think of Steve McQueen and not connect him immediately to the sixties.

A costar of McQueen, Faye Dunaway, made her name in the sixties and had great successes, including that one with McQueen, The Thomas Crown Affair, and, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.  But the fact is, Dunaway has “seventies” written all over her.  Little Big Man, Chinatown, Three Days of the Condor, Network and The Eyes of Laura Mars are some of my favorite movies of the seventies (Mars for all the wrong reasons – big, trashy, glitzy fun) and Dunaway is terrific in each one doing her usual level best at playing to the rafters.


The other actor I associate almost exclusively with the seventies, despite loads of work in the eighties, nineties and beyond, is Dustin Hoffman.  Having made his name and reputation with such sixties classics as The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, he quickly became one of the most recognizable names in showbiz and one of the most in demand actors in Hollywood.  Little Big Man, Straw Dogs, Papillon, Lenny, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, and Kramer vs. Kramer are just some of the movies that led Hoffman’s rise to dominance in the seventies.   And like Bette Davis and All About Eve, I feel like Kramer vs. Kramer is the cap to his career.  He rose to fame playing a college grad and finished the arc by playing a father fighting for custody of his son during a bitter divorce.

As for actors whose careers exist solely in the eighties or nineties or aughts, who cares, this is TCM, let somebody else worry about it.  Looking back, there seems to be no quantifiable trait that links an actor’s career to a decade.  Gable was in the first, biggest stage of his career in the thirties.  Barrymore, both of them, in the final stages of their careers.  Davis and Crawford were clearly in the middle of their careers in the forties.   It goes about the same for all the others I mentioned as well.  Some in the beginning, some in the middle, some in the end.  It often has less to do with where they were as actors and more to do with my own personal connections at the time.  Someone else might associate Bette Davis exclusively with the thirties or Jimmy Stewart with the forties.  Cary Grant I’d put in the fifties but I can see someone putting him the forties instead.  Marlene Dietrich, thirties.  Gary Cooper, forties.  Bogart, forties.  Bacall, too.  They all had careers that spanned the decades but to me they will always be eternal stars, trapped in time.

17 Responses The Eternal Star, Trapped in Time
Posted By Andrew : December 18, 2013 2:45 pm

I am trying to pick a decade for Henry Fonda. I think I am having trouble because I can’t remember him fighting his age. He always seemed to play the role as what ever his age happened to be at the time.

(That is probably a separate topic altogether: the mythic age of the leading man with the experience/wisdom of 50, family of 40, and physical skills of 30)

Posted By LD : December 18, 2013 3:01 pm

Barbara Stanwyck’s decade to me is the 1940′s. DOUBLE IMDEMNITY, THE LADY EVE, BALL OF FIRE, SORRY WRONG NUMBER……
Yet she had a big career in the 1930′s and 1950′s. There are people who would define her by her years on the Big Valley or by her portrayal of Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds. I am in the process of reading her biography by Victoria Wilson.

Noir fans, saw on TCM Remembers that Audrey Totter passed away within the last week. Somehow I missed this. Perhaps because I have been reading….

Posted By Doug : December 18, 2013 6:15 pm

My personal favorite is a “Thirties girl”, though I love all of her stuff from all decades. Ginger Rogers owns the 1930′s for me, from her dancing with Astaire to her turns in comedy with William Powell and Jimmy Stewart to dramas such as “Bachelor Mother”.
Speaking of Powell-he ruled in the ’30′s, both in drama and comedy.
Slightly off topic, but I just received “Murder, He Says” starring Fred MacMurray which I was introduced to here at Morlocks.

Posted By Tom S : December 18, 2013 7:24 pm

I always find actors with extremely distinct phases to their careers- like Lionel Barrymore, whose presence in Key Largo is almost unrecognizable from who he was in the 20s and 30s- fascinating, since it seems as though the trend for actors with longevity now is to go the Tom Cruise route, where the roles they take in their 50s aren’t necessarily all that different from what they were taking in their 20s.

One actor for whom I think the answer to this would be somewhat loaded is John Travolta- though in many ways a quintessential 70s guy, his two greatest (imo) films are from the 80s (Blow Out) and the 90s (Pulp Fiction, obviously) and I would imagine that a lot of people think of him almost exclusively for the latter.

Posted By Andrew : December 18, 2013 7:44 pm

Tom S, I agree Travolta is like a trick question. If you start with the big actors of the 70′s then John Travolta is going to pop up pretty quick. If you start with the actor then you probably start with Pulp Fiction and all those action roles that followed right after in the nineties and 00s.

Posted By AL : December 18, 2013 8:59 pm

Barbara Stanwyck. Maybe Rita Hayworth ?

Posted By Emgee : December 19, 2013 11:33 am

What about Paul Newman? Nobody would define him as an 80′s actor, even though he won his Oscar in 1986. I think he was pretty consistent as an actor throughout his long career, with the inevitable ups and downs.
Henry Fonda and James Stewart ditto.

Cary Grant i would not put in the fifties myself; by then his character was already well established, and IMO much of his best work already in the past.

Posted By gregferrara : December 20, 2013 12:14 am

With new actors, that is, actors who achieved success in my lifetime, I tend to see their whole career and thus think of them throughout their whole career. With Cary Grant, on the other hand, I put him in the fifties because it was those movies of his I saw first and that decade contains my favorite, North by Northwest.

But John Travolta, Tom Cruise, etc, I see as still in the middle of one long multi-decade career that I can’t yet see from afar

As for Henry Fonda, thanks to Grapes of Wrath and The Lady Eve, he’s a forties man to me.

Posted By gregferrara : December 20, 2013 12:21 am

(That is probably a separate topic altogether: the mythic age of the leading man with the experience/wisdom of 50, family of 40, and physical skills of 30)

Jimmy Stewart seemed particularly adept at getting cast as the love/spouse of exceptionally younger women (Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Glenn Miller Story, Bell Book and Candle, Vertigo, Take Her She’s Mine, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation). Granted, some of those were within eight years his age but that’s the closest you’ll get.

Posted By Doug : December 20, 2013 3:16 am

I have a book on Jimmy Stewart which notes that after “Bell, Book And Candle” Stewart wanted no more ‘boyish romantic leads’-he thought that he was too old for such parts.
In his day actors didn’t seem to fight against Father Time quite so much-how many of our current crop of stars look much the same as they did when they broke into the business?
The other night I saw an episode of “Gunsmoke” and I noticed that Miss Kitty looked a bit matronly in the episode from 1970.
I checked IMDB-she was in her early forties. These days early forties means that an actor will play a high school senior instead of a freshman.
Remember when Tom Cruise did a movie with gray hair? Now he’s back to black.

Posted By robbushblog : December 20, 2013 3:20 pm

There are a few other actors who I pin down to one decade: Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson and Burt Reynolds are 70′s guys to me. Pacino with The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Cruising, Serpico, among others. Hackman with The French Connection, The Conversation, The Poseidon Adventure, Night Moves and others. Nicholson with Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chinatown, The Last Detail, Goin’ South, et al. Burt Reynolds with Deliverance and all of the Hal Needham action-comedies.

Clint Eastwood could be pegged as a 70′s guy, but he had successes from every decade since then.

Posted By gregferrara : December 20, 2013 6:01 pm

I suspect Mr. Cruise will not go gently into old age. I think in ten years we’ll have the very depressing sight of a man in his sixties trying to look like his thirties.

Posted By gregferrara : December 20, 2013 6:02 pm

And, yes, no matter what else he ever did or does, Burt Reynolds is the seventies man for me. The mustache practically seals the deal by itself.

Posted By robbushblog : December 20, 2013 6:14 pm

“I suspect Mr. Cruise will not go gently into old age. I think in ten years we’ll have the very depressing sight of a man in his sixties trying to look like his thirties.”

You mean like Roger Moore as James Bond?

Posted By missrhea : December 20, 2013 8:57 pm

My first guess says Robert Young belongs in the Thirties since he had 56 screen credits between 1931 and 1940 including “New Morals for Old”, “Navy Blue and Gold”, “Stowaway”, “Three Comrades”, “The Mortal Storm” and “Northwest Passage”. Since he is so identified with TV of the 1950s (Father Knows Best) or the 1970s (Marcus Welby, M.D.) we tend to forget how many movies he actually made. Or should we say the Forties since there were 26 between 1941 and 1950 including “Journey for Margaret”, “The Canterville Ghost”, “The Enchanted Cottage” (my favorite), “H.M. Pulham, Esq.”, “They Won’t Believe Me” and “Crossfire” just to name a few?

Posted By george : December 21, 2013 1:53 am

It’s kind of scary to realize Cruise has been a star for 30 years now (since “Risky Business”). He’s been a movie star for as long as Gable and Cagney were, and longer than Bogart was.

Posted By vp19 : December 24, 2013 2:28 am

Not all that long ago, we might have pegged Loretta Young as a ’40s actress, or even a ’50s one (she stopped making films early in that decade, but made a successful transition to TV with her anthology series). Then came the pre-Code revival, and all sorts of movies she made in the early ’30s — but most of us never got to see on TV because they were too racy or obscure — suddenly resurfaced, and now most of us probably view Loretta as a ’30s actress…and a darn good one, too. (I’m delighted she was able to see her career re-evaluated before she left us in 2000.)

Of course, my all-time favorite actress (Carole Lombard) will eternally be tied to the ’30s — but what a decade it was for her.

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