Hooray for Hollywood!
November 22, 2001

by Joe Sobran

     I love old movies. Not just the classics recommended 
by the best critics, but good old vulgar Hollywood studio 
productions with big stars. I'm fascinated by the world 
they reflect. Think of a country in which the top box-
office attraction was Mickey Rooney! How we've changed.

     I grew up accepting the notion that a movie star is 
a very different thing from a great actor. Clark Gable 
was a big star, it was said, but he always played 
himself; Alec Guinness was a great actor because he could 
lose himself in a character, so much so that he might be 
unrecognizable from one role to the next. Laurence 
Olivier was the rare performer who could handle both the 
romantic lead and Shakespearean tragedy.

     But I've come to believe that this distinction sells 
the movie star short. It takes a special talent to create 
a durable persona that can carry film after film, and not 
every great actor has that talent. Even John Gielgud 
couldn't do what Humphrey Bogart did.

     I used to hate Bette Davis and James Cagney. I 
thought they were ugly and abrasive, and I marveled that 
they had ever been popular. Now I watch them with 
appreciation. True, they didn't have conventional good 
looks; but how they could rivet the viewer! They moved 
superbly, often using only their eyes to dominate the 
screen; and they could deliver a line with the force of a 

     One of the secrets of every great movie star is the 
voice. It needn't be a resonant or powerful voice, but it 
must be distinctive. More important than its timbre is 
the way it's used. If its intonations are predictable, we 
forget it; the great old stars all had peculiar, and 
memorable, ways of speaking. They made their lines their 
own, even if the script was written before they were 

     Spencer Tracy is widely hailed as one of the great 
Hollywood actors, and he was also a star. Again, he 
wasn't especially blessed in his looks and voice; his 
style was understated; he wasn't terribly versatile. But 
he made you watch, listen, and believe. His work holds up 
even now, and it always will.

     William Powell, one of the great stars of the 
Thirties, would probably be unemployable in today's 
Hollywood. He looks very dated. You can hardly imagine 
him without his elegant suit and mustache. His looks were 
far from glamorous, and his voice, though fine, was a 
little stagy. But his delivery was forceful and witty. 
For films of his period, he was perfect. He deserves to 
be seen and appreciated in his element, even if it's long 
out of fashion.

     Joan Crawford is another who used to repel me, and 
of course her posthumous reputation has been damaged by 
her adopted daughter's memoir, MOMMIE DEAREST. I wouldn't 
call her beautiful. Her large-shouldered glamour looks 
silly now; it cries out for a female impersonator. For 
all that, I love her bold-lined face and the way she uses 
her eyes. The less pretty she got, the more she seemed to 
own the screen.

     Hollywood usually cast Claude Rains as a villain, 
with his swirling hair, his ominous brows, and his 
insinuating suavity; but what a delicious villain he was, 
often stealing the movie from the hero. He always gave 
the same performance, but it was always note-perfect, and 
I never tire of it. Much the same is true of George 
Sanders, the cad's cad.

     Nobody in movies spoke with more silken grace than 
James Mason, whom I've always thought extraordinarily 
handsome; his sad eyes reminded me of my father. Hero or 
villain, he conveyed intelligence as few actors did. I 
never fully admired Cary Grant as a screen actor until I 
saw him steal scenes from Mason in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. I 
didn't know it could be done.

     Charles Laughton showed how interesting an ugly face 
can be. He could get the most out of a line with an off-
hand growl. As Quasimodo, the hideous hunchback of Notre 
Dame, he abandoned his greatest asset, his rich voice, 
and still managed to give one of the most heart-breaking 
performances ever filmed.

     These are only a few of my personal favorites. Each 
of them illustrates the genius it takes to project an 
enduring personality onto the big screen. Many other 
stars of their era have faded; these won't.


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