Thomas Sutcliffe: What's so horrible about typecasting?

Click to follow

I watched Sullivan's Travels again recently, steered in that direction by David Mamet's Bambi vs Godzilla, in which the films of Preston Sturges are regularly invoked as a benchmark of Hollywood grace – not to mention an exemplary model for any wannabe scriptwriter. And Mamet is right: it's very good. I'd forgotten just how sexy Veronica Lake is, playing an aspiring starlet who ends up in the lap of Hollywood's hottest comedy director after buying an anonymous bum a cup of coffee in a diner (the bum turns out to be Sullivan, researching an earnest epic about the plight of America's indigent poor – a project that he eventually scratches after a spell on a chain-gang). The scene in which Lake brushes Joel McCrea's hair is so playfully intimate and unforced that it could serve as a type specimen for onscreen sexual chemistry. What delighted me most about the film, though, was my refreshed infatuation with another cast member: Eric Blore, the British character actor, who here – as in many of his 85 films – plays a manservant.

It was a refreshed infatuation because Blore first got to me many years ago when the BBC ran a season of Fred Astaire films on Saturday afternoons. It was in those films that I first encountered Blore's trademark combination of mullet-lipped facial agility and British servility – which frequently bears no resemblance to servility at all, but is rather a kind of condescension upwards. Blore's role in Top Hat as the manservant Bates is fairly typical of the parts he usually took: occasionally useful in the furtherance of a plot point, but more often just a bit of comic furniture to dress out the set. As well as valets and butlers, he played hotel managers, bookkeepers, critics and minor functionaries. The one consistent element was the facial expression, which deployed a wayward eyebrow and a sinuous clamp of the mouth to produce a look of consternation that often had very little to do with what was actually being said by the stars behind whom he was standing. His most personally satisfying role may have been as Jamison in the Lone Wolf series, a B-movie franchise in which Blore played a larcenous manservant to the anti-hero of the title. But he'll be remembered for the walk-ons and bit parts.

Sturges used him twice. In Sullivan's Travels, his air of unperturbable service is a perfect foil to Joel McCrea's furrow-browed desire to get beyond the frippery of hit comedies. "I think this one's sufficiently seedy Sir," he says respectfully, as he helps Sullivan try out his costume as a Depression-era tramp. "There's no use overplaying it, is there?" No use for the title star, perhaps, but plenty for Blore himself, who is a modest master of the reaction shot, pouting and eye-rolling to an internal rhythm that isn't always explicable but is usually very funny. Sturges also gives him a bit of slapstick in Sullivan's Travels, having him end up in a swimming pool with the butler, but it's a waste of Blore's narrowly defined talent, which pretty much demands that you be able to see his face. Earlier in 1941 Sturges had also cast him in The Lady Eve, as a card sharp and con man under the alias of Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith who has set up operations in Connecticut, in "the heart of the contract bridge belt". But Sturges didn't use him again – either because the right parts didn't come up, or because he understood that he'd pretty much exhausted Blore's range.

The latter verdict presumably sounds like doom to an actor, a perfect definition of the horrors of typecasting, which in Blore's case at the beginning of the Thirties opened a door marked Manservant/Toff/Waiter and padlocked all the others. But if that was true, you'd have to say that at least the door opened a lot more frequently to him than it did to more versatile performers, with no less than 10 film roles in 1941, in addition to the two Sturges movies. And though Blore's parts are often small and incidental, you can't miss him in the scenes when he appears because, more often than not, the scene has been shaped around what he does best – a privilege usually reserved for much bigger stars. It made me think that typecasting might occasionally be considered less as a prison and more as a custom-made frame – one that delivers something both to performer and viewer. And even if Eric Blore was in there dreaming of playing the romantic lead or the title role in Hamlet, there are surely worse things than going down to posterity as so inimitably yourself that you always play the same part.