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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

If the Best Man is the Best Man, Why Does the Bride Marry the Groom?

A Week in Byron’s Hollywood Dept., Day Three: We’re spending a few days celebrating some of the actors who created the character archetypes of the classic motion pictures.


Mischa Auer
HE’D ALREADY BEEN in over 80 films by 1936, although some roles must have been fairly unmemorable, like “Firing Squad Victim No. 3 (uncredited)” in Greta Garbo’s “Mata Hari.” The screwball but sort-of socially conscious “My Man Godfrey” changed everything. Mischa Auer was cast as Carlo, a mad Russian genius whom wealthy socialite Alice Brady keeps as an artistic protegé, although his most creative act seems to be the gorilla impression he performs to cheer up spoiled Carole Lombard.

Auer got an Academy Award nomination and never looked back ... at least until the political climate changed. For the next fifteen years, Auer was the crazy but adorable Russian, sporting such character names as Prince Muratov, Baron Rene de Montigny, Dimitri Kyeff, and, memorably, dance master Kolenkhov in “You Can’t Take It With You,” Frank Capra’s film of the Kaufman-Hart Broadway smash (and played on Broadway by George Tobias, another of Hollywood’s character-actor greats).

You can sense that behind Auer’s wide, mournful eyes and crazy characterizations lurked a deep intelligence, and it’s confirmed by his unusual history. Born Mikhaïl Ounskovsky in St. Petersburg in 1905, he grew up in a well-to-do family whose fortunes changed with the early death of his father and, of course, the Russian revolution. He fled with his mother to Turkey, where she worked as a nurse and died of typhus. The young Mischa was found by his mother’s father, who brought him to America.

Leopold Auer was an enormously famous violinist, conductor, and pedagogue in Russia, whose emigration was financed in part by his most famous pupil, Jascha Heifetz. Although Mischa took his grandfather’s name, he was more interested in theater than in the music career Leopold encouraged.

Auer made his Broadway debut in a walk-on in Dudley Digges’s 1925 revival of “The Wild Duck,” then traveled with companies led by Eva Le Gallienne and, later, Bertha Kalich – in which ensemble he was seen by film director Frank Tuttle, who lured him to the screen.

He glided without seeming effort from clowning with Stokowski in “One Hundred Men and a Girl” to playing straight-up operetta cartoon in “Sweethearts,” then back to out-and-out craziness in “Destry Rides Again,” where he was up against tough competition in the character actor division – Charles Winninger, Allen Jenkins, Billy Gilbert, and Sam Hinds, among others.

With Baby Sandy
“East Side of Heaven” paired him with Bing Crosby and the scene-stealing Baby Sandy, with whom Auer appeared in two more of the child’s eight films (the kid packed in acting at five and continues to enjoy civilian life). Auer is supposed to be Bing’s best man for the crooner’s oft-delayed marriage to Joan Blondell, and he laments, “Best man? If the best man is the best man, why does the bride marry the groom?” It seems to make sense as he says it.

Auer clowned with Abbott and Costello (“Hold That Ghost”) and Olsen and Johnson (“Helzapoppin’”) before taking over the Danny Kaye role in the song-stripped movie version of Kurt Weill’s musical “Lady in the Dark” and giving some weight to his characterization of another cartoon role – which may be about the only good thing in the film.

As the ’40s waned, the multilingual Auer drifted to Europe, working in England and France and Italy. He was in Orson Welles’s big, incomprehensible “Mr. Arkadin” and could have been a memorable “Don Quixote” had Welles not run out of cash. As the blacklist settled into Hollywood, Auer found it more expedient to remain in Europe, living in Rome and appearing in a string of Italian movies – although he found time to work with Tony Curtis in “Arrivederci, Baby!” and Rossano Brazzi in “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t.”

He married for a fourth time in 1965. His new wife, Elise Souls, must have been a spunky lady: she previously was married to Arctic explorer Herbert Patrick Lee, and she quit the D.A.R. in 1939 when they refused to let African-American soprano Marian Anderson sing in Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall. When Auer died, two years after the wedding, his body was cremated and the ashes interred in the Souls family plot in Prospect Hill Cemetery in Gloversville, NY, about a dozen miles from my house.

I’m sure that the literate Auer would have appreciated the joke that now endures: his fading marker in a corner of a run-down boneyard, forever in the midst of so many dead Souls.

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