Alfred Lunt — A Comedian — Not a Hero (1923) 🇺🇸

Alfred Lunt — A Comedian — Not a Hero (1923) |

January 31, 2024

When an artist of the stage ventures into the movies, something happens. Either he develops an entirely different personality, is submerged altogether, or, in rare instances, is brought out by the camera to such an extent that he acquires new values and achieves a position far greater than the stage seemed ever to offer.

by Norbert Lusk

For example: Douglas Fairbanks [Douglas Fairbanks Sr.]. In his first Triangle picture, The Lamb, he found the touchstone of success. His appearance on the stage, Broadway star though he was at the last, had neither the scope nor the definition of his screen acting.

The celluloid record of his buoyant comedy at once was flung, after the manner of film distribution, to the four quarters of the country and, in fact, the globe itself.

He became a star of the first order because he offered no subtleties, either featural or histrionic, that eluded the lens, and gave much that was fresh to the screen. Moreover his first picture was shrewdly chosen to display what he had to offer to the best advantage. It enabled Fairbanks to emphasize on the screen precisely what he had given to the stage.

All of which is by way of a preamble to the case of Alfred Lunt, adroit and ingratiating comedian of the stage, whose picture debut was effected in Backbone and further exploited in The Ragged Edge, but hardly with that distinction wished for by those who admired his ability behind the footlights.

Why should a player with methods facile and individual, unique in the field of high comedy, elect to mask those qualities in roles of straight heroics? we asked among ourselves.

That inquiry sent me in quest of Alfred Lunt. The same brings this story to the moment he entered his rooms, resigned to an interview, to find me bent over a book.

“You’ve got hold of the best one in the house. I found that in a second-hand shop the other day. Fascinating, isn’t it? but involved and awfully expensive to practice. I’m glad you’re interested. Such a book is an index to character. Few notice it.”

Mr. Lunt, primly garbed as a silk salesman in a department store, airily indicated the old cook book that engrossed me with its lavish directions to soak the filets of sole in a quart of white wine, to toss into the jelly a bottle of champagne, adding thereto: twenty nectarines, a gill of maraschino, et cetera.

But this, I admit, is irrelevant, though to me not unimportant. Epicurean tastes seldom are found in commonplace or unimaginative people. An indirect compliment to Mr. Lunt, understand, not the writer.

While Alfred, (we’ll drop the prefix right here and now) chose, for purposes explained later, to get himself up in the sedate black-and-white of a vender of ladies’ dress goods, as the term goes, his manner was volatile and his mood gay.

Anything in the world, you would have said, but a commonplace man or, to an interviewer, a movie hero in the sanctity of the family circle.

It was engagingly informal, this family circle, the flavor of it being most apparent when Alfred bowed low and gave his weekly studio wage to his wife, Lynn Fontanne, Dulcy of the stage, with a facetious remark about dutiful husbands and good little boys.

She, in turn, about to dine out, removed the dim embroidery that covered the piano and draped it over her shoulders in lieu of the traditional gorgeous evening wrap… Here, I thought, are people who know the ways of pleasant living and have the uncommon gift of making a first caller feel a part of their integral scheme.

“Look at these shoes!” Alfred squeaked and grimaced in amusement, “I got them in a bargain basement. They told me they would wear a year or more. I pretended to hesitate doubt, to draw out the salesman. Comfortable, I will say that.”

He thrust out feet in the style that used to be called vici kid — the joke, you see, being that in costuming himself for his part in Second Youth, his new picture, he was mistaken for a department-store worker in search of shoes that were first of all easy to stand in for long periods.

He had just come from the studio for a hasty dinner and was due to spend the evening in one of the big shops doing additional scenes: hence the character make-up. “We’ve a wonderful cast,” he volunteered. “Margaret Dale, Jobyna Howland, Walter Catlett — oh, and my wife plays a small part, her first on the screen — the role of a librarian whom I meet on a bus. Just for the fun of it, you see. We enjoyed it immensely because we play well together at all times.”

Naturally influenced by values, as they obtain in the theater, he had particular enthusiasm for a company that comprised artists recruited from the stage.

I asked him, midway in our vegetable dinner, about his first picture.

“Oh,” he replied, his flexible voice sliding-down the scale, his eyes, for the moment, engaged on buttered squash. Then I pressed the question aforementioned: Why did a plastic comedian choose to forget himself and be merely a big-boned hero?

That query, or one like it, aimed at a regular star of the studios, usually evokes a revelation of duplicity on the part of the “front office,” the scenario writer or the director. In instances of deep wrongs, meaning especially bad pictures, it is sometimes termed a plot — a cabal — involving all three in a united effort to force the star to act against his or her better judgment. For, in my experience, stars assume blame for nothing.

“Did you know what you were doing?” I pursued.

“Of course I did! I thought I was a good actor. I thought I could play anything. Now I know I can’t. This is a bitter moment,” he finished in mock dismay. Cabbage seemed to alleviate his distress, however, for he went on.

“Really, you know there aren’t any leading men in real life — I mean heroes, like this,” he illustrated with lofty gesture and orotund tone.

“It is a false, type exactly as the curly-haired movie girl is false to life. People have weaknesses and faults and peculiarities — inconsistencies, we’ll say. These are the characters that interest and fascinate me. They’re the ones I’m cast for in the theater. But being a hero pays better. I thought I could be one in pictures, but didn’t quite make it. No one to blame but myself. Second Youth, now, is wholly my style.”

Rarely, very rarely, is equal candor found among artists in any medium. It is nothing short of astonishing among workers in a studio, where the elements that enter into a film fable are many and varied and responsibility shifts with the breeze.

“I think,” said Alfred, “that in the movies a good actor can be more quickly spoiled than on the stage. No; this has nothing to do with myself — just an observation. I mean the methods of work are so different. In the theater we have time to build up a scene gradually, word by word; before the camera time is lacking in the short space given us before we are asked to do another scene in a different mood. All this has been said before, I’ve no doubt, but it is what the actor of the stage finds when he begins photographic acting.”

He got up to pace around the room, to pick up a book or just to change his position. Always he is on the move, his conversation darting here and there, with graphic gestures galore. Alfred Lunt distinctly is a kinetic individual. What he said was dropped in bits and his digressions were no less entertaining. Something like this:

“Albert Parker is a splendid director… Resourceful… He invents details that make a scene live… great feeling for the comic, too… They tell me his Sherlock Holmes was a beautiful piece of work… Don’t hurry with your dinner; we have plenty of time. That is, I think we have… What time is it anyway?... My wife is glorious… Often we ask if any other people are as happy as we are... It comes from liking the same things, the identical friends… We’ve been married over a year… She reminds me of my mother in one respect… She doesn’t bind herself or me to any routine… Because it happened to be Monday my mother didn’t insist that the washing be done then… She was more likely to say it was a great day for a walk or a picnic, and send every one out for one… Lynn is like that… Did you see us with Laurette (Taylor) early in the engagement, or late?... If it was late you saw a better performance… We all improved…

It surprises me to know that you remember Romance and Arabella… Ran only two weeks, years ago... A good play, I thought, but one loses his perspective when he is concerned in a production… The critics didn’t like it at all… Good-by, dear (to Lynn Fontanne), have a good time and tell everybody at the party about your new job for next season.

I was talking about the screen ruining good actors, wasn’t I?... It certainly can make poor ones seem good, too… The very methods that confuse the experienced actor are a safeguard to the one who isn’t an actor at all… Short scenes, cut at the instant they tax the player’s limitations… Painstaking direction… discreet lighting . . . sympathetic situations in the scenario… These can put over a negligible actor in pictures more than on the stage… Am I talking too much? … Let’s have coffee… I’ve been working in every scene at the studio since nine this morning and I’ve a night of it ahead of me. ... I like it, though… Here’s the coffee… There’s the bell — and the taxi’s come… What time is it? … You’ll go with me, of course?”

At this point Alfred did a little thing that revealed much. A trifle that I looked upon as a salient detail in building a comparison in the manners — the ethics if you will — of the screen versus the stage. He left his coffee untouched. And he very much wanted it.

The significance of this was its novelty. Stars, or even featured players, alive to their importance as controllers of a studio situation, are not, as a rule, so imbued with the idea of punctuality that a couple of minutes are allowed to stand between work and their pleasure — or whim.

The more capricious of our favorites have been known to plunge into a complicated bath, and read the morning newspaper, while waiting motors chugged their insides out at the curb and directors tore their hair. In the theater the spirit is otherwise, because rehearsals and performances are governed by routine, schedule.

When Alfred was reminded of this he agreed that it probably was true. “To show that I’m not weak-kneed, though, I’ll take two gulps of my coffee.” Which he did, but went no farther toward the bottom of the cup.

At the department store I noted rigid, almost military, attention on his part, and silence. Though distant only a few yards he seemed suddenly to be on a far stage. His face changed, his expression altered, he slipped out of his own into the character of the silk salesman. And in the simple scene that followed he displayed his bolt of orange charmeuse to Mimi Palmeri, his customer, with no diminished zest as the episode was repeated more times than I remember.

Each time the silk was meticulously rolled up, smoothed and replaced on the shelf by himself. He was an actor, personally responsible for the props used in the scene. Whereas in the studio the player undertakes no responsibility of this kind at all. A knickered assistant director does the rolling, smoothing and replacing, to spare the star all strain — and to have it done right.

These points are perhaps unimportant, you say? It is true they do not sway your opinion of the finished picture but they indicate the part played by character, tradition and habit in the work of those you see on the screen and the interviewer sees away from it.

Alfred Lunt is from Milwaukee, probably of Scandinavian descent, and might have gone on playing old men — they were getting older each week, he says — in the Castle Square Stock Company of Boston, had not a stage director brought his possibilities to the notice of Margaret Anglin who, when the need arose, offered him a leading part with her on four days’ notice. He accepted, and has not gummed on a beard since.

He created the role of Booth Tarkington’s Clarence, acted later on the screen by Wallace Reid, and found himself acknowledged a comedian of decisive originality. In quick succession other plays followed, as they do once one has “arrived” on Broadway, and the inclusion of the screen was inevitable with an actor young, ambitious, eager.

Yet these copy-book merits don’t begin to approximate Alfred Lunt. Let me, for my own pleasure, say that he is a drawing-room leprechaun. Puck grown up, with a sense of humor that glances and ripples and sparkles. He has the charm of the mercurial mim and none of his faults.

Alfred Lunt — A Comedian — Not a Hero (1923) |

Alfred Lunt is a comedian of decisive originality, and quite as engaging and likable a person as his appearance would lead you to believe him to be.

Photo by: Pach Brothers (Founders: Gustavus Pach [1848–1904], Gotthelf Pach [1852–1925], Morris Pach [1837–1914])

Alfred Lunt — A Comedian — Not a Hero (1923) |

These pictures of him in character are from Second Youth, in which, it is predicted, he will come into his own, on the screen.

Alfred Lunt — A Comedian — Not a Hero (1923) |

Alfred Lunt — A Comedian — Not a Hero (1923) |

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, November 1923