Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 12, 2015
I have a memory of watching THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) as a child and thinking Katharine Hepburn looked like Mrs. Bates from PSYCHO (1960) — wizened, withered, old, maybe even ancient. Long story short, an old lady! I watch the movie now and think, “Hmm… not bad!” Hepburn was 44 when THE AFRICAN QUEEN went into general release, a full decade younger than I am today; if our eyes were to meet across the room at a singles bar, I’m sure Hepburn would write me off as an old codger and not give me a second thought. (Plus, I hear she was kind of into chicks.) Anyway, this realization that movie characters I have always accepted as “old” are now younger than I am has inspired today’s navel-gazing look back at old movie guys who were then younger than I am now. Feel my pain!
If you love James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) as much as I do, then you will find it kind of hard to watch SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), where Boris Karloff returns to the neck bolts and cement spreader boots of Frankenstein’s immortal creation for the last time. We all love Karloff but the movie seems like a struggle for him; whereas at age 44 his monster was coltish and palpably newborn, in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN he seems arthritic and is visibly aged under Jack Pierce’s heavy makeup. I still like the movie, I still buy it, but in a lesser child sort of way, a warts-and-all way. Karloff would part company with his signature role here and take on the more age-appropriate mad scientist characters that took up the bulk of his screen time in the 1940s, in such films as THE APE (1940), BLACK FRIDAY (1940), BEFORE i HANG (1940), and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941). In these movies, Karloff is stentorian, patrician, in obvious elder statesman mode (as you can see in this shot from THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, released in late 1939)… and yet he is no older in the last of these than I am about to be… me, in my cargo pants and black Frankenstein tee shirt. It’s madness, I tell you! How did this happen?!
Edward Van Sloan brought a reliable measure of sciatic integrity to all of his movie roles; vigorous he was not but that was part of the charm. In Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931), he’s the oldest guy in the room who isn’t immortal and we rely on his age and his experience and knowledge to defeat Bela Lugosi’s Carpathian arriviste. Born in 1882, Van Sloan was only 48 when he made DRACULA … oh, to be 48 again! (By point of comparison, Harrison Ford was about 48 when he made PATRIOT GAMES and THE FUGITIVE — movies that required an almost collegiate level of aerobic activity; Sandra Bullock was about 48 when she starred in GRAVITY.) Van Sloan was 54, the age I’ll be in three weeks, when he made DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1935) and yet he reads 70… snowy-haired, stooped, myopic but steadfast. He probably never wore cargo pants.
When he played Old Man Clanton in John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), Walter Brennan was only 51 or 52. If I were hanging around the O.K. Corral, I could call him “junior” or “sonny” or whatever I wanted until he shot me in the face. Of course, Brennan always did read old — even in his early movie bits he comes off like an old, dug up potato, and that’s one of the reasons we love him. When I was an actor, thirty-odd years ago, I always got stuck with the old man roles and it’s one of the reasons I always loved the character actors more than the leading men. Namely, character.
One of my longtime favorite old movie coots is Henry Hull, who was way too old to be Valerie Hobson’s husband in WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) and was about my age when he made LIFEBOAT (1944), in which he is meant to be a crusty old businessman, long in years and rich in life experience. Like Walter Huston, Hull communicated a very particular variety of old age that just doesn’t check with me now that I am that age. And speaking of Walter Huston…
… he was 54 when THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1937) dropped. That’s another thing. It’s weird enough to be twice the age of your standard Playboy centerfold but quite another to be older than actors who play the Devil. The Devil should be ancient, not young enough to be my kid brother!
It’s weird for me to be older now than Vincent Price was when he started making his Edgar Allan Poe movies for Roger Corman. Price was not yet 50 when he starred in HOUSE OF USHER (1960) and only 53 when THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964) premiered. Price was always so stately and had such an aristocratic bearing; he was courtly and cultured, personality traits that usually come with a life well-lived. I’ll never be Vincent Price on his worst day but on some atomic level I have absorbed his teachings, even if I am a dunderheaded slob who can never find his shoes. Price was 54 when he starred in DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE (1965) but I’ll be damned if I’m watching that for my birthday.
Peter Cushing could seem young — and he did in some of his earlier films (VIGIL IN THE NIGHT comes to mind) but he got old fast and he seems considerably older than his years in his early 60s stuff, like BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) and CAPTAIN CLEGG (US: NIGHT CREATURES, 1963), though he is younger in both of those than I am at this moment. Cushing was pretty spry in both of these movies, leaping over railings and dodging fangs and bullets and I marvel at his athleticism as I feel the first twinges of degenerative disc disease and what some milk-breathed whelp might call “old age.” I’ve been watching Peter Cushing taking care of business (and occasionally causing the business that needs to be taken care of… of which needs to be taken care… of which care needs to be taken… never mind) for most of my life and he’s gone in my estimation, as I have grown older, from Cool Old Dude to Cool Middle-Aged Dude to Cool Dude Whose Age I Would Rather Not Consider. In all seriousness, it’s fun to go back and look at these roles from the vantage point of my mid-50s and reassess Cushing, seeing the youth in him that I couldn’t appreciate until I had a few years on me.
Robert Shaw’s crusty World War II veteran/sea captain in JAWS (1975) is one of cinema’s great old codgers. He’s the Quint-essential Old Salt, spilling briney wisdom and bald-faced insults at landlubbers and college boys alike. The character reminds me of Shakespeare’s eulogy for King Lear: “We that are young shall never see so much nor live so long.” Shaw was in his late 40s when he made JAWS and dead at age 51 in 1978… meaning that he never lived to be as old as I am now, or even as I was two years ago. (Another childhood favorite, Warren Oates, died at 53.) I feel like such a boy compared to all of these guys; good genes help, of course, and right-living, as well as horrifically oily teenage skin that made me look a horror age age 13 but at age 53 has rendered me virtually wrinkle-free. Anyway, as Indiana Jones would tell you, “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” I still feel as though I have many miles to go before I sleep (as Mr. Freeze would say. I think.) which just means that watching movies is going to get stranger and stranger as I outpace Burt Mustin and Edward Everett Horton and maybe, just maybe, if I am very lucky, Charles Lane or Norman Lloyd. Fingers crossed and pass the Ben Gay.
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