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Broderick Crawford 8/25
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Broderick Crawford

100th Anniversary of Broderick Crawford's Birth - 12/9

"Don't applaud, just send me the check"
- Broderick Crawford

The son of popular stage and film comedienne Helen Broderick and vaudevillian Lester Crawford, Broderick Crawford was a burly, cantankerous supporting player of the 1940s and 50s who occasionally played leading roles in his prime. During the Eisenhower era, Crawford was everyone's favorite authority figure on television. With his bulldog face and barking voice, he roared down the interstate after lawbreakers as Chief Dan Mathews on the series Highway Patrol (1955-1959). Prior to his television success, however, it was Crawford's performance as Willie Stark in All the King's Men (1949), based on the Robert Penn Warren novel, that had established his reputation as an actor. As the honest country lawyer who becomes a ruthless demagogue, Crawford is frighteningly convincing in his transformation of character. His physical gifts as an actor - the beefy physique, the aggressive stance, the gruff voice - were never more perfectly exploited than in his portrayal of Stark's dichotomous nature. He was later to draw on this same persona in his strangely sympathetic impersonation of a much-feared FBI director in Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), a comic book-style fantasy that depicts Hoover as a sexually repressed neurotic who freely violated the law.

Crawford was born in Philadelphia in 1911 and as a child often accompanied his parents on their stage tours, sometimes playing small parts in their comedy act. After graduation from high school in Franklin, Massachusetts, he was accepted at Harvard but dropped out after three weeks to find work in New York. He worked a variety of jobs - a waterfront longshoreman, a tanker seaman - before finding steady work in radio and eventually made his way to London where he made his professional stage debut. He returned to New York where he made his Broadway debut in 1934 in She Loves Me Not and shortly thereafter was signed by the Samuel Goldwyn Company to appear in Hollywood films, making his screen debut in Woman Chases Man (1937) in a supporting role as a character named "Hunk."

Crawford returned to Broadway again in 1937 to play the role of Lennie in the stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Despite the great critical acclaim he received for the role, he didn't pursue further stage work and returned to Hollywood where he continued playing supporting parts and secondary leads in B pictures such as Island of Lost Men (1939) and When the Daltons Rode (1940). Occasionally Crawford got to shine in supporting roles in "A pictures" such as Slightly Honorable (1940) starring Pat O'Brien and Larceny, Inc. (1942) with Edward G. Robinson. It was, in fact, his experience in vaudeville and on Broadway that prepared him for success in his earliest lead roles as Speedy Miller in Tight Shoes (1941) and Aloysius "Butch" Grogan in Butch Minds the Baby (1942). In these two broad theatrical comedies by Damon Runyon (Guys and Dolls), Crawford established himself as the quintessential Runyon hero - the soft-hearted, streetwise mobster.

Then World War II intervened and Crawford joined the Army Air Corps which took him to Europe where he saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned to Hollywood, it was back to playing leads and supporting roles in B movies such as The Runaround (1946) until director-producer Robert Rossen personally selected him to play Willie Stark in All the King's Men. The film made him an overnight star and won him an Oscar® for Best Actor at the 1950 Academy Awards ceremony. He also won the Best Actor award for the same film from the Golden Globes and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

Yet, despite his success in All the King's Men, Crawford continued to accept roles in films of variable quality since he was essentially a character actor and not a leading man - those roles went to Cary Grant, William Holden or James Stewart. As a result, Crawford appeared in a lot of crime thrillers and melodramas such as Convicted (1950) and Cargo to Capetown (1950). His familiarity with the underworld personality, the result of his portrayal of amiable rogues from the Damon Runyon canon or thugs like Steve Crandall in Broadway (1942), served him well when he gave a brilliant comic performance as Harry Brock, the arrogant, self-made tycoon in Born Yesterday (1950), the film version of the Garson Kanin play that also made a star of Judy Holliday.

Crawford is never more likeable than when he plays against type which happened more often than not in his long career; a melancholy policeman in The Time of Your Life (1948), an artist in Night Unto Night (1949), an officer who loves orchids in The Real Glory (1939) and a delightful cameo as himself in A Little Romance (1979) to name just a few. The subtlety of his work in these offbeat roles tends to be overshadowed by his more familiar image as a screen heavy, the gangster boss or cunning sociopath in movies such as New York Confidential (1955), Big House, U.S.A. (1955), Scandal Sheet (1952) and The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), in which he plays a trigger happy gunslinger who forces a reluctant Glenn Ford into a fatal shootout.

Apart from his acclaimed performances in All the King's Men, Born Yesterday and The Mob (1951), an underrated film noir in which he plays a tough undercover cop, most of Crawford's fine work has been dismissed or overlooked by film critics. Two of his best performances are in this category: Fritz Lang's Human Desire (1954) and Federico Fellini's Il Bidone (1955). In the Lang film, Crawford commands pity and fear as the tormented railway engineer driven to insane jealousy and murder by his unfaithful wife (Gloria Grahame). In the Fellini film, he is eloquent and moving as the petty thief and con artist who attempts to redeem himself for the sake of his adoring daughter. The tragic final image of Il Bidone with Crawford alone and dying beside a deserted mountain road, is one of the most heartbreaking in the history of cinema.

* Films in Bold will air on TCM in December

by Jeff Stafford

The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Volume III - Actors and Actressesbr> Baseline

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