THERE WAS effectively a 40-year gap between Don Ameche's two film careers, and in some ways the second was more resplendent than the first - which was marked by a serious underestimation of his talent. He was as smooth and suave as Cary Grant or William Powell but not the all-round actor that was Spencer Tracy; yet he was the equal of them when given the occasion.
Ameche was working in radio when 20th Century-Fox signed him to a contract in 1936. Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of the studio, thought he had a new romantic star, but as he groomed Ameche, the handsome young Tyrone Power made a meteoric rise at that same studio. Ameche became merely a support for the ladies who ruled the roost at Fox - Loretta Young, Sonja Henie and, notably, Alice Faye. He, Faye and Power were united for the studio's two biggest pictures of 1938, In Old Chicago, a political drama climaxing in the great conflagration of 1871, and Alexander's Ragtime Band, a cavalcade built round 30 of Irving Berlin's songs. Henry King, who directed both, always claimed that the latter was his own favourite picture. When I asked him why it was so successful he replied 'because Alice, Ty and Don liked each other so much'.
This is a tribute to Ameche, who in both films had to take second place to Power. Still, he was Fox's most popular male star after Power, and he starred in two of the prestigious biographical films which Hollywood was then making: The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) and Swanee River (1940), a Technicolor opus about about the composer Stephen Foster. The first of these, though it takes liberties with the facts, is one of the better of the biopics, and the sequence in which he and Henry Fonda converse by telephone for the first time is both sober and touching. At the time it did Ameche no good at all: to a generation of American radio comedians he was 'the man who invented the telephone'.
In Greenwich Village (1944), Ameche's character composes a concerto which we recognise as 'Whispering' - and which becomes the song of that name in the last reel, with Ameche again smiling complaisantly at his fate. It was the sort of soppy role which Fox was now handing him, and he was offered no better in two serious patriotic pictures, Happy Land (1943) and Wing and a Prayer (1944).
Ameche's best serious film is Confirm or Deny (1941), directed by Archie Mayo. He has a vital force as a journalist covering the blitz on London (while falling in love with a colleague, played by Joan Bennett). With one exception, Ameche's other important movies were made on loan-out. Paramount borrowed him for Midnight (1939), with Claudette Colbert on sparkling form as a penniless showgirl who is stranded in Paris. Ameche matched her perfectly as the cab driver who poses as her husband. Paramount sent for him again to play another plum role, in Kiss the Boys Goodbye, as the Broadway director who refuses to consider the Southern belle Mary Martin as a likely contender for a stage Scarlett O'Hara.
Ameche immediately went into The Feminine Touch at MGM, as a professor who has wife trouble - Rosalind Russell - after writing a bestseller. By this time Fox had acquired the services of Ernst Lubitsch, then regarded as the medium's finest exponent of comedy. For him, Ameche played a philanderer given a second chance on earth by the Devil (Laird Cregar) in Heaven Can Wait (1942). The film remains a delight, not least because of Ameche's superb playing.
In 1944 Ameche refused Fox's offer of a new contract - to find, in his own words, that he was virtually unemployable. He played opposite Colbert again in Guest Wife (1945) and Myrna Loy in So Goes My Love (1946), and with Colbert in a murder mystery, Sleep My Love (1948). But the offers dried up after Slightly French (1949) with Dorothy Lamour. He didn't film again till 1954, when he appeared in a B picture, Phantom Caravan, followed a year later by another, Fire One.
Speaking of this period, he observed that he always earned more than he needed to live on, but he curiously omitted to mention star roles in two Broadway musicals, Silk Stockings, Cole Porter's version of Ninotchka, with Hildegarde Neff in Garbo's role, and, three years later, Goldilocks (1958), a spoof on silent movies in which he played opposite Elaine Stritch. His notices for both should have revived his career. Instead, he began a television series concerning circuses and made an occasional movie. His comeback was Trading Places (1983), in which the hobo Eddie Murphy and the wealthy broker Dan Aykroyd do just that - at the behest of two old codgers, Ameche and Ralph Bellamy. It led to a second consecutive box-office success, Cocoon (1985), in which he and his wife in the film, Gwen Verdon, were among several old people rejuvenated by the presence of aliens in a Florida resort. He won a Best Supporting Oscar, which he regarded partly as compensation for being neglected. He would not have to complain of that again, but of the movies he made - several for television - the only one of note was David Mamet's Things Change (1988), in which he was an elderly Sicilian-born shoeshine picked up by two hoods because he is the double of their Mafia boss. Ameche took the film from Joe Mantegna, playing the minder who looks after him at Lake Tahoe, and won a Best Actor award at the Venice Festival.
In the same year he appeared in Cocoon: the return - disliking the script, but feeling that it would be ungrateful to turn it down after the Oscar. He said in an interview: 'The camera was kind to me. But I was never a screen personality like Gable or Flynn. The camera did something with their faces that was special . . . I'd listen: that was what it was all about. Listen as hard as you can and be totally honest in trying to be that individual, trying to think like that individual.'