Capable and compelling character actors put meat on the bones of great movies, and two of the most memorable share June 18 as a birthday. Chinese-American icon Keye Luke (1904-1991), who would have turned 114 today, is best known across several generations as Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son” in nine inscrutably detected mysteries, the blind yet infinitely wise Master Po in the 48-episode, three-season run of TV’s Kung Fu, and the crotchety and cautionary Mr. Wing in two Gremlins movies. He brings his distinctive spark to a pair of Twilight Time titles. In the expansive and scenic island surroundings of The Hawaiians (1970, directed by Tom Gries, starring Charlton Heston and exclusively available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30903/THE-HAWAIIANS-1970/), which continued the massive narrative of the shaping of our nation’s future 50th state chronicled in James A. Michener’s bestselling novel Hawaii, he plays Foo Sen, the Chinese immigrant community’s resident sage and interlocutor with the Chinese homeland, who in one of the incident-crammed film’s quieter and more shatteringly poignant scenes, informs the indentured couple Mun Ki (Mako) and Char Nyuk Tsin (Golden Globe nominee Tina Chen) about the rigid, tradition-bound terms of their relationship, in which any children they bear are officially the offspring of Mun Ki’s wife in China, and she is to be considered the “Auntie” that merely raises them. In his final movie, his expertise as advisor/healer/transmogrifier is on full-tilt, wholly magical display. Consulted by Mia Farrow’s hypochondriac title role of wealthy, directionless Manhattan housewife Alice (1990), Luke’s no-nonsense acupuncturist/herbalist/shaman Dr. Yang is the medicine man of our dreams (The New York Times’ Vincent Canby dubbed him “as mysterious as the ancient East but as practical as a neighborhood druggist, who has something for every occasion”) in this Woody Allen written/directed romantic fantasy. His free-form regimen of hypnosis, potions and herbal blends unleashes Alice’s stifled potential for confronting the self-restricting memories of the past, asserting herself in the regimented present, and unleashing her inhibitions to embrace a fulfilling future recharged by love and purpose. As he died a month after the film’s release, it proved a lovely swan song capping a 56-year stage, screen, television and animation voiceover career that grew out of and also paralleled his output through the decades as an artist, illustrator and book jacket designer.
Today’s fellow celebrant, 104-year-old Minnesota-born E.G. Marshall (1914-1998) was a founding Actors Studio member and veteran of the original Broadway productions of The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), Jacobowsky and the Colonel (1944) and The Iceman Cometh (1946) before easing into movies in the mid-1940s and took on that initial-laden professional name in his 20s, he would say, “because I was playing character parts as a young man, and I thought it sounded more mature, more distinguished.” Mature, distinguished and splendidly versatile, the alumnus of television’s 1950’s “Golden Age” of live drama and two-time Emmy®-winning star of The Defenders (1961-1965) delivers top-notch performances in a vital and varied TT blu-ray quartet of film gems marked by superb ensembles. The complex Cinemascope Western Broken Lance (1954, directed by Edward Dmytryk) casts Marshall as one of many less- than-sterling authority figures in his character portfolio – and in quite distinguished company in this King Lear-inspired take on the familial and political conflicts surrounding a ruthless ranching/mining empire land baron (Spencer Tracy). As The Film Experience blogger Nathaniel R. writes: “In the film’s most sympathetically acted moment of strife, Tracy squares off with the governor (E.G. Marshall) over their children's unexpected romance [between co-stars Robert Wagner and Jean Peters]. The governor's discomfort with his daughter falling for his closest friend’s bi-racial son – a young man he otherwise likes quite a lot and has seen grow up, mind you – clearly scars both men, tearing their decades long friendship apart. Prejudices hurt everyone, not just the target of the prejudice.” No stranger to the works of the great Horton Foote, having appeared in Foote’s teleplays The Oil Well (1953) and The Night of the Storm (1961), Marshall embodied the corrupt soul of a fractious small Texas backwater as local banker and developer Val Rogers in the film adaptation (by Lillian Hellman) of another Foote drama, The Chase (1966, directed by Arthur Penn). Pulling the strings of the community’s wealthy set and turning the screws on its ineffectual yet principled town sheriff (Marlon Brando) to track a fugitive convict (Robert Redford) reportedly heading their way, Marshall’s character echoes contemporary politics all too well as a self-obsessed nabob who fans the flames of fear and prejudice to whip the citizenry into a hyperventilating state, all the while flouting his largesse and overarching ambition (indeed a 180-degree shift from his caring and committed-to-justice attorney on the just-concluded run of The Defenders). His next TT man in charge (inspired by the real-life Brig. Gen. William Hoge) commands the U.S. forces at the climax of World War II attempting to seize control – before German forces can destroy it and halt the advance of Allied troops into the Fatherland – of The Bridge at Remagen (1969, directed by John Guillermin). Marshall’s sober but unmistakable order is concise and grave: “It’s a crap shoot, Major. We're risking 100 men, but you may save 10,000.” Bradford Dillman plays the ambitiously steely Major given the order, while George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Bo Hopkins portray the brave and crafty fighting men who must execute it in this underappreciated war epic based on accounts by the actual soldiers about how they did it and filmed on Czechoslovakian locations which themselves represented a danger zone as cast and crew had to uproot and relocate when the Soviet Army invaded the country during the filming in the summer of 1968. The final and most outwardly controlled and placid Marshall character among the four films probably wreaks the most devastation: Arthur, the attorney patriarch of an upmarket, emotionally marred New York family, who, reflecting on his neatly arranged marriage to Geraldine Page’s fragile designer Eve in the opening moments of Woody Allen’s starkly and reverberantly dramatic Interiors (1978), ruminates: “Then, suddenly, one day, out of nowhere, an enormous abyss opened up below our feet and I was staring into a face I didn’t recognize.” His calm, measured announcements – first of a trial separation, and later that he wants a divorce in order to remarry – are body blows to his three variously troubled, unfulfilled daughters (Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith, Mary Beth Hurt) and the unraveling Eve; though the female performances enjoyed greater acclaim and focus, Marshall’s performance is also key to understanding the frayed family dynamic, a minimalist master class born out of 40 productive years of training and experience. These six TT hi-def Blu-ray movies sparked by the gifts of birthday celebrants Luke and Marshall offer the choicest cuts of meat-on-the-bones character acting. Dig in.