Popularity is a status that is equally difficult to gauge and maintain. Actors obtain popularity through a combination of marketing, looks, luck, and of course talent. Too often, however, the actors who become stars do so as a result of fickle trends, physical appearance, and controversy rather than through actual merit. As a result, many deserving performers fail to obtain the star status that they have earned while others attain that same status through mere circumstance. This week, I’ll be focusing upon four talented, versatile, and unique performers who were underrated despite their numerous merits. Please let me know what classic stars you think are underrated in the comments!
1. IDA LUPINO: Initially marketed as a ‘blonde bombshell’, Ida Lupino only began gaining notice as an actress when she died her hair back to her natural brunette and began testing her skill with less glamorous parts. A self-described ‘poor man’s Bette Davis’, Lupino spent the late 30’s and 40’s playing dynamic roles that utilized her acting skills rather than her looks. In a time in which women’s role were often relegated to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls, she defied typecasting and created a series of characters who often had little in common beyond their realism, intelligence, and personal strength. After being suspended from Warner Brothers for turning down yet another hand-me-down role from Bette Davis, she used her free time to study the activities behind the camera and became interested in moving beyond acting into directing and producing. She used her new passion to found the independent film company The Filmmakers with then husband Collier Young, and spent late 1940’s into the 1960’s producing, directing, and co-writing films that largely focused upon social issues, particularly women’s issues such as rape and single motherhood. In an era dominated by restrictive gender roles and studio constraints, Ida Lupino blazed her own trail as a true pioneer who left her mark in film on both sides of the camera.
2. EVE ARDEN: After making her start as a 1930’s Zeigfeld girl, Eve Arden went on to pursue a career that spanned nearly sixty years and several entertainment mediums. She gained national attention in a series of films throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s playing supporting roles in a way that made her sarcastic secretaries, snarky best friends, and quirky neighbors offer serious competition to top billed leading ladies. Beginning with her portrayal of a quick witted aspiring actress in the star studded screen version of Stage Door, Arden brought an engaging mix of comedy and insight to her roles. Her performance as street-smart waitress Ida in Mildred Pierce kept the notoriously melodramatic Joan Crawford vehicle grounded in reality through her snappy brand of comic relief. In the mid-40’s she expanded her parts to include radio roles on the Danny Kay Variety Show and the title role in the hit radio program Our Miss Brooks. In the 1950’s she reinvented herself yet again when she brought Our Miss Brooks to television and followed up with the short-lived Eve Arden Show, as well as guest appearances on such hits as I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and Maude. Through her signature wit and timing Eve Arden bridged the gaps between stage, radio, film, and television with equal skill, making her a unique performer and a true Jane of all trades.
3. VAN HEFLIN: When he first signed on as a player at MGM, Louis B. Mayer reportedly told Van Heflin that he would never play the character who gets the girl. His response was “I worked on my acting” and over the course of his nearly forty year career that work certainly showed. Like many 1930’s stars, he began his career on the Broadway stage before signing contracts first with RKO Pictures where he played leading roles in minor films, and then MGM where he gained success as a character actor. After winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a mobster’s philosophical and alcoholic best friend in 1942’s Johnny Eager, MGM continued to cast him in a series of supporting roles in ‘A list’ films and leading roles in ‘B list’ films that have since gone on to become classics in the western and film noir genres. Throughout his career he also continued to return to the stage in such hit productions as The Philadelphia Story, A Memory of Two Mondays, and A View from the Bridge. He also took a hiatus from acting to serve his country as a combat cameraman in World War II. While he may not have ever been a matinee idol, Van Heflin brought a substance and skill to his lengthy career that far outweighed an entire catalog of roles ‘getting the girl’.
4. CLAUDE RAINS: Despite the difficulties that his cockney accent and speech impediment caused early in his career, Claude Rains went on to become one of the most elegant and fascinating character actors in the 1940’s. He began his career in the London theater before emigrating to the U.S. and continuing his stage career on Broadway. His film career faced a false start when his first screen test was deemed a failure before winning the lead role in The Invisible Man, ironically because of his distinctive voice. He was initially typecast in horror films in the early 1930’s, but eventually broke out of the box Warner Brothers had attempted to place him into by playing the role of villain Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood. He turned in an Oscar nominated performance for his breakout role as a corrupt senator in the crusading political drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which led to such memorable performances as a life changing psychiatrist in Now Voyager, a love struck Nazi war criminal in Notorious, a wronged husband in Mr. Skeffington, and many more. Perhaps his most memorable and certainly his most quotable role was as womanizing corrupt Vichy official Louis Renault in the ultimate classic romance, Casablanca. Rains continued as a successful character actor throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s during which he always added a level of pathos and sophistication to even the most brief of appearances. The London theater’s loss truly proved to be the American theater and cinema’s gain as Rains not only played, but genuinely and memorably portrayed an extensive list of characters that may have been good, bad, and everything in between but were never less than fascinating.