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    Father Figure

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    On this Inauguration Day, we remember a one-time Screen Actors Guild president. He was a SAG “founding father” and charter board member in 1933, along with a couple dozen others, so it’s appropriate that stage and screen favorite Leon Ames (1902-1993), born 115 years ago today, despite his extensive repertoire of dapper and often sinister characters, would be best remembered as a dad. He famously parented Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis, the March sisters (as in June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and again O’Brien) in 1949’s Little Women, and Doris Day in her beloved Americana musicals By the Light of the Silvery Moon and On Moonlight Bay. He also played the proud title papas in TV series adaptations of Life with Father and Father of the Bride. It was in between these two shows that he played two rich and rather reprehensible dads in big-screen Cinemascope melodramas. The first was Leslie Harrington, the manipulative local mill owner who tries to keep his wayward son Rodney from marrying unwisely in the provocative adaptation of Grace Metalious’ New England-set best-seller Peyton Place (1957), coming from Twilight Time in March and which will be revisited next month. His other paterfamilias heel was iron and steel tycoon Samuel Eaton, the emotionally distant husband of Myrna Loy and begrudging father of rebellious World War II veteran Paul Newman, in director Mark Robson’s screen version (via shrewd screenwriter Ernest Lehman) of John O’Hara’s popular, controversial 1958 book From the Terrace (1960). Ames is only around in the film’s early portion, but the seeds of his chilly, all-business malevolence (fueled in part by the tragic loss of his other son) are felt throughout this roiling romantic saga, in the poignant loneliness of Loy’s performance as his neglected, alcoholic spouse, and in the steely determination of rejected Newman’s drive to marry into money (i.e. Joanne Woodward as a promiscuous Main Line beauty) and outshine his father by carving out his own industrial venture rather than being subordinate within the family trade. As TT’s resident historian Julie Kirgo pertinently nails it: “The American Dream is the subject here, and the compromises necessary to achieve it.” Unlike his other father roles, Ames here never achieves any personal redemption at the end of his hard life, but we can only hope that Newman can ultimately extricate himself from his “sins-of-the-father” predicament when second chances appear after he survives catastrophic career setbacks and discovers an honest, restorative love (with captivating small-town girl Ina Balin). The SAG-AFTRA website notes: “Leon was a Screen Actors Guild institution and treasure, named "President emeritus" from 1979 until his 1993 death. He served but a single year as President (1957-58) but his total tenure as an elected officer and Board member stretched unbroken from 1945 to 1979.” It seems that Ames’s bracing and brutal turn in From the Terrace, available on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, was just a piece of polished acting in a career that also included substantial professional service. On this Presidential Inauguration Day, let’s hope such lightning can strike again.