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Monday, May 07, 2012

That’s Why They Put Rubber on the End of Pencils

A Week in Byron’s Hollywood Dept.: We’re going to spend the next few days celebrating some of the actors who created the character archetypes of the classic motion pictures.

                                                             

Allen Jenkins
NOBODY WRENCHED AS MUCH inflection out of the start-of-the-sentence word “Say!” as did Allen Jenkins. The rubber-faced character actor spoke with a drawl colored by the vowels of his native Staten Island, and was the perfect foil for the likes of James Cagney, with whom he appeared in five movies between 1933 and 1935 (“The Mayor of Hell,” “Hard to Handle,”
Jimmy the Gent,” “The St. Louis Kid,” and “The Irish in Us”) and Humphrey Bogart, with a long run of seven pictures between 1932 and 1940, one of the most memorable being 1937's “Dead End,” where Jenkins played gangster Bogart’s sidekick.

(For the record, the other films are “Three on a Match,” “Marked Woman,” “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse,” “Swing Your Lady,” “Racket Busters,” and “Brother Orchid.”)

Jenkins played a character who was worldly-wise, who knew how to hustle a quick buck, who delivered side-of-the-mouth wisecracks with deceptive ease – and was good-looking enough to win the second- or third-billed girl. He was at his best in movies like “Three Men on a Horse,” (1936), based on a hit George Abbott play. It was a film without above-the-title stars, and there’s a sense of merry abandon as Mervyn LeRoy (with whom Jenkins worked often) keeps the cast in some semblance of order.

Frank McHugh plays Erwin, a writer of greeting-card poetry who dopes out the horses as a hobby. He always gets them right, but never bets. One day a domestic squabble sends him into a bar, where genial Edgar Kennedy suggests some libations (a role he would repeat in Preston Sturges’s “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock,” an otherwise middling Harold Lloyd vehicle).

Erwin’s secret is discovered by a trio of gamblers sporting superb New York accents: Jenkins, Sam Levene, and (brother-of-Lorenz) Teddy Hart, who has the finest line in the piece: “Ain’t green a restful color!”

But Jenkins manages to soothe both the excitable Levene and the drunk and remorseful McHugh, even telephoning an angry Guy Kibbee, Erwin’s boss, to make excuses for his employee’s absence. Jenkins never changes expression as Kibbee hollers threats and imprecations into his ear, then hangs up and calmly tells the hapless McHugh, “He says it’s hunky-dory wit’ him, Oiwin. In fact, he says to take care o’ yerself. An’ if you didn’t feel like comin’ in for a coupla days, that’d be jake, too.”

As Charlie in "Three Men on a Horse"
Before settling in to this persona, Jenkins studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and made his first stage appearance in an off-Broadway musical, dancing alongside Cagney. Jenkins was one of the reporters in the Broadway smash “The Front Page” (1928), and, although he didn’t appear in the two subsequent film versions (the second was titled “His Girl Friday”), he ended his career with a cameo in the dreadful Billy Wilder 1974 version.

Spencer Tracy grabbed the attention of Hollywood while in a 1930 Broadway hit titled “The Last Mile.” Jenkins replaced Tracy for three weeks and won similar notice, embarking on a film career of over a hundred roles, including notable appearances in “Three on a Match” (1932) with Bogart, Bette Davis, and Joan Blondell; 1932's “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” which saved the Warner Bros. studio from bankruptcy; “42nd Street” (1933), which invented the Hollywood musical.

In 1933, he became the seventh member of the Screen Actors Guild, a controversial organization at its founding.

Jenkins was menacing but sensible in “Dead End” (1937), in which tough guy Bogart won’t listen to his advice, and Jenkins philosophizes with, “Maybe I’m wrong. We all make mistakes, boss. That’s why they put rubber on the end of pencils.” In George Marshall’s “Destry Rides Again” (1939), he’s one of the gang supporting evil Brian Donlevy amidst a star cast that includes Marlene Dietrich, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, and Billy Gilbert. And James Stewart.

With Bogart in "Dead End"
Watch him swagger into the midst of an array of other character actors like Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, and Leonid Kinskey in Howard Hawks’s “Ball of Fire” (1941) and steal the scene out of from under them. Two years later, in the endless all-star wartime cheer-‘em-up “Stage Door Canteen,” he played himself as the master of ceremonies.

Jenkins easily transitioned into television in the 1950s, racking up appearances on such programs as “Hey, Jeannie!,” “Playhouse 90,” “The Ernie Kovacs Show,” “The Red Skelton Hour,” “Wagon Train,” “Ben Casey,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” And he was the voice of Officer Dibble on the cartoon series “Top Cat.”

But it’s that string of pictures from the 1930s on into the ’40s that made him a recognizable star – one of the many whose name you might not know right off the bat, but whose presence assures you that you’re going to enjoy this movie.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Holllywood as it should be. Very enjoyable story.

theslapsticklinguist said...

Yeah, Allen Jenkins is the grain planted in WB pictures that keeps their portrayal of gangsters and crime-doesn't-pay morality from growing into anything other than pure comedy. Robinson and Cagney each have their share of earnest bad guy films in the 30s - but they made far more total comedies and pseudo comedies, nearly all of these featuring the cuddly blockhead routine Jenkins perfected during the transition from precode to code (Dr Clitterhouse and Hard To Handle are my favorite, Jimmy the Gent and Three on A Match are real close, though). I mean, the guy's right of Merry Melodies, interrupting scenes with his lovable, working-class daftness. He's just a puppy, if puppies could be alcoholics (Jenkin's an early celebrity figure backing the then-new mission of AA).

I've never seen Three Men on a Horse and will rectify this immediately.