The Top Leading Men On and Off the Screen


A few weeks ago, I wrote about my personal top ten actresses of all time.  Now, I think it is only right to dedicate this post to the actors.  Many of these men, could captivate the audience with a slight smile, twinkle in their eye, or at the mere sound of their deep voices.  The actors that I am going to be introducing to you are from a variety of genres, but are all part of the so-called “studio era.”  Much of the information will be coming from my own knowledge base, and the rest will be supplemented by a terrific book “The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era.”  There are two other books with a similar title:  one focusing on women and the other about on-screen couples.  Here is to the men of the big screen!

Number Ten:  Jack Lemmon

“He could do zany or tragic with equal success but he’s best remembered for his comic, put-upon everyman characters.”  For me one of the quintessential films, let alone Jack Lemmon film is “Some Like It Hot.”  Jack makes dressing as a woman more comical that one could anticipate.  “In ‘Some Like It Hot,’ Lemmon plays with maracas while announcing his engagement to Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) because in previews, the scene-originally shot without the instruments had generated so much laughter, the audience missed most of the lines.  The scene was reshot with the added business to allow pauses in the dialogue for laughs.”  His birthday would have been yesterday, so in a way this is a belated tribute to him.  “Before the state of every scene he played on camera. Lemmon would say, ‘It’s magic time.’  It does not matter which genre of film Lemmon is in or which leading partner he is lined up with—he always steals the show.   His on-screen persona is one people can relate, making people feel as though they know him.  Lemmon had tremendous range, and could bring out his emotions on-screen with the best of them.

Number Nine:  Kirk Douglas


“His straight-from-the-gut acting style simmered with restrained intensity in portraying men who refused to submit to authority.”  Kirk is a fabulous actor, who at the current age of 95 remains the oldest blogger on the web (doing so from his myspace account).  He brought tremendous intensity to the roles that he played, and he did not conform to Hollywood’s authority if it conflicted with his own values.  “Douglas helped to break the cold-war era Hollywood blacklist when he insisted that ‘Hollywood Ten’ member Dalton Trumbo be given screen credit for writing ‘Spartacus.’ Despite threats of boycott, the film was a box office success. I got to see Kirk in person last year at the TCM film festival.  He was wonderful, so full of life and wit.  Being able to see him for just a short amount of time was truly one of the moments in life I will never forget.

Number Eight:  Fredric March


“With a successful career on both stage and screen, he ventured far beyond his successful romantic roles to tackle an extraordinary range of challenging, often anguished characters with sublime craftsmanship and nuance.”  He was incredibly good-looking, with a persona to match.  March could do the whole gamete of emotions without having to think much about it.  One of his most notable films was “Nothing Sacred,” with Carole Lombard.  Together they made an unlikely pair, yet worked wonderfully on the screen.  “The famous scene in ‘Nothing Scared’ in which March plays a reporter who exchanges slugs with Carole Lombard, resulted in both stars ending up at the local hospital with cuts and bruises.”  His portrayal of a tormented star, unable to make the transition to talkies, in “A Star is Born,” is so honest that it makes the viewer feel the struggle that the protagonist is going through.  He had the unique ability to draw the audience in, and make them a part of the movie experience.

Number Seven:  Robert Mitchum


“He made blase sexy with his take-it-or-leave-it insolence and sleepy eyes while his offscreen antics added to his image as a tough guy rebel.”  With his deep, somewhat raspy voice, Mitchum commanded attention in the majority of scenes that he was in.  Though he was often written about in the popular film magazines of the day, there remained an allure of mystery about him.  Robert was at his best in films that were part of the film noir genre (“Out of the Past”) or those allowing him to play a tough man wanting to better himself in life.  Even when filming got rough, or long days were required, Mitchum never complained.  “For one scene in ‘Heaven Knows Mr. Allyson’ Mitchum had to crawl repeatedly over sharp coral.  When director John Huston was shocked at how badly cut up his legs were.  Mitchum said, ‘You work, you suffer.”  He was also able to make love scenes with his leading ladies very sensual, without it being over done.  Mitchum did not have to over-act or play up his scenes.  His nonchalant attitude allowed him to become a film icon.

Number Six:  Jimmy Stewart


“With his stammering delivery and gangly physique, he gave audiences a boyishly likable rooting interest, often playing average guys struggling to do the right thing when pushed to the limits.”  He was a man most people could relate too.  Often, I think audiences felt that he was talking to them while on-screen.  Jimmy could have been the boy next or your best friend.  Another quality about Jimmy that sets him apart from the rest, was his ability to kept his personal life his own.  He was never afraid to go the extra mile to make his performances more realistic.  “To sound suitably hoarse for his filibuster scene in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ Stewart dried out his throat with bicarbonate soda.  During all his fame, Jimmy never forgot who he was or where he came from.  “Stewart sent his oscar for ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ home to his father, where it stood in the window of the family’s Indiana, Pennsylvania hardware store for twenty-five years.”  He was a man whose heart was as big as the talent that he possessed.

Number 5:  Montgomery Clift


“Fans and critics alike swooned over the riveting combination of physical beauty, psychological nuance, and vulnerability that he brought to his introspective, alienated characters.”  Clift was a skilled actor, who could bring his emotions to the surface of any character.  He was not afraid to let himself feel emotionally exposed.  “It took three days to teach Clift to throw a believable punch for his climactic fight with John Wayne in ‘Red River.’  According to legend, the first time he tried, Wayne burst out laughing.  Clift’s humiliation may have made him look even more determined than required in the scene.”  Unfortunately, at the height of his career, Clift was involved in a bad car accident.  While he physically (thought never outwardly physically looked the same, due to scarring and reparative surgery) recovered from it, emotionally he never did.  He turned to drugs and alcohol to help him cope with the inner struggle he was having.  These habits led to an untimely end to a promising career.

Number Four:  Clark Gable


What can a person say about Clark Gable.  “To millions of film fans, he was Rhett Butler, the cynical rogue whose romantic heart, killer smile, and macho presence were the irresistible stuff of earthy virility.”  He was the icon of millions of men and women everywhere.  Gable was incredibly good-looking, and yet presented himself as the everyday man, someone people could relate to.  Often,  he appeared gruff and uncomplicated on film.  Yet that was far from the truth.  He oozed confidence, and yet was not near as self-assured as most of the public assumed.  However, he did find that confidence with Carole Lombard.  After several years of trying to get his wife to grant him a divorce, Carole and Gable were able to get married (though not for long due to her untimely death).  Here is an example of the impact that Gable’s acting had on the public.  “Gable triggered a crisis for underwear manufacturers simply by removing his shirt in ‘It Happened One Night,’ when he revealed he wasn’t wearing anything underneath, undershirt sales plummeted.”

Number Three:  William Powell


He was the perfect mix of sophistication and comedic genius. “Suave, streetwise, and never far from a cocktail shaker, he cornered the market on debonair irony as the ultimate gentleman sleuth in the Thin Man films.”  Powell was paired often with Myrna Loy, who was able to perfectly play his foil, by underplaying her comedic scenes, to enhance his.  It is strange to think, that he started off his career by consistently being cast as the villain in countless silent films.  With his smooth voice, he was able to successfully make the transition from silent to talkies.  “Powell surprised Hollywood by maintaining friendly relations with both of his ex-wives.  He even continued dating Carole Lombard after their split.  She told an interviewer, ‘We made better friends than we did as marrieds.  And now, free of marriage, we can enjoy friendship fully, without ties or obligations.”  This speaks volumes about the kind of man Powell was apart from his picture persona.  He made acting look effortless and was able to transport a movie audience into his world for a time, providing momentary escapes from reality for millions.

Number Two:  Humphrey Bogart


He might have lived a short life in the numerical sense, but he made each day count, and found the true love of his life.  In regard, he had a much fuller life than most people.  Bogart was known as playing tough guy roles, usually as a gangster.  However after making High Sierra (which George Raft had turned down) he really came into his own as an actor, and the public took note.  There was a shift in the roles that he was offered.  Now, he played tough men, with an understated softness, generally as the romantic lead.  Who can forget him as Rick in “Casablanca” or Steve from “To Have and Have Not.”  “Bogie was the father of the rat pack, a group of drinking buddies who got together regularly at Mike Romanoff’s Hollywood Restaurant.  Frank Sinatra was originally just a rat pack member, but he took over leadership after Bogie passed away.” He brought his characters on the screen to life, with his charismatic presence.  Bogie was a complex man, who had many different qualities that most people never got to see.  If you are looking for a terrific book to understand more about the man behind the image, “Humphrey Bogart:  Tough Without A Gun.”

Number One:  The One and Only Cary Grant


Cary possessed a unique mixture of good looks, a sense of humor, and voice that could melt the hearts of millions world-wide.  Many actors tried to model their careers after him, but none could match the qualities that made him stand out from the rest.  He even served as inspiration for one other very well-known actor, Tony Curtis.  Tony idolized him, and in one of his best films ever, he modeled his pseudo-millionaire style after Cary.  According to the book, “Grant often said that two roles captured his true character.  The gangster in ‘Mr. Lucky,’ (1943) and the cockney drifter in ‘None but the Lonely Heart,’ (1944).  Both presented characters with working-class backgrounds similar to his and ‘Mr. Lucky,’ even gave him a chance to demonstrate the cockney rhyming slang of his childhood.”  He is quoted as saying, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant – even I want to be Cary Grant.”  In addition to the aura of sophistication that encompassed him, he could clown it up with the best of them, especially when paired with Katharine Hepburn.  He was also incredibly athletic and knew how to perform fun acrobatic moves (which he learned during his time spent with the Bob Pender Stage Troupe), which can be seen in his movie “Holiday.”  No other many could carry himself the way he did:  making himself appear idyllic, yet at the same time approachable, someone that you wanted to get to know on a more personal level.


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