Cinematic Chemistry: That Certain Something . . . Part 1
Ever since the days when most of films were shot in New York, the vast majority of Westerns in Ft. Lee New Jersey and “movies” was the term used for the people on the screen or sheet (for after all, they moved) producers have been on the lookout for cinematic couples who possessed that indescribable something called chemistry. It has never mattered whether the chemistry was comedic or romantic, musical or slapstick; urban or western. All producers knew is that couples possessed of cinematic chemistry frequently caused cash registers to overflow.
Without question, the movies’ first “chemical success” was a pair of physically mismatched actors (like Laurel and Hardy and briefly, Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton) who thoroughly hated one another - both on screen and in real life. They were the short, morbidly obese John Bunny (1863-1915) and the tall cadaverous Flora Finch (1867-1940). Between 1909 and 1915. the two appeared in an incredible 160 one- and two-reel films together. Their films were all made by the long-forgotten Vitagraph Company. And because these flicks were silent, their popularity was literally global. Costarring in films with titles like The New Stenographer (1910), The Subsiding of Mrs. Nag (1911) and A Cure for Pokeritis (1912), these fan favorites quickly became known as Bunnyfinches. He was jolly and enjoyed a good time; she was prudish and taciturn. The secret of their success was likely that the hatred they had for one another in “real” life carried over into “reel” life as well. By 1912, they were the most popular and highest-paid players in the world. When Bunny succumbed to Bright’s Disease at age 52, he was mourned by tens of millions of fans the world over. Ironically, Flora Finch, did not mourn his passing, didn’t even show up at his funeral . . .
During “The Great War” (WWI), the most popular romantic pairing, without question, was Harold Lockwood and May Allison. The chemistry between these two had much of the world believing they had to be married in real life - which definitely was not the case; Harold was married to Alma Jones, and May did not marry until several years after Harold had died. And when she did marry, it was to James Quirk, the editor and publisher of one of the earliest film fan magazines, Photoplay. Between 1916 and 1918, when Lockwood died of the Spanish Flu, the two made 22 feature-length films together, the most famous being David Harum Never mind that the plots of their films were all but indistinguishable; the public saw them as the ideal of romantic love. He was a boy scout - loyal and true - while she was as pure as the driven snow. After Lockwood’s death (he died at age 31), Allison’s career was all but over. Although she lived until 1989 (dying at age 99), she had not been on screen for more than 60 years. At yet, to serious movie buffs until this very day, the names Lockwood and Allison are fondly remembered for having possessed that “certain something.”
From time to time, studios attempted to make ‘teams” out of actors who turned out to have less than a gram of chemistry. Mack Sennett tried to pair a novice Charlie Chaplin with first, veteran Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and then top-flight comedienne Mabel Normand (whom film historians would eventually tab ‘the female Chaplin’). And when he moved on from Sennett’s “Keystone Comedies” to Bronco Billy’s “Essanay Pictures,” the company attempted to team him with the cross-eyed Ben Turpin in two two reelers made two weeks apart in February 1915: His New Job and A Night Out. None caught on; from virtually the first moment he stood before a camera, Chaplin had an instinctive knowledge of what he could accomplish on his own. His best chemistry came when he called all the shots . . .
The reigning “chemical” stars of the late 1920s and early 1930s were sweet, wholesome yet gritty Janet Gaynor (who won the first Academy Award for Best Actress) and big, brawny Charles Farrell. After taking the world by storm in their first film, 1927’s Seventh Heaven, the pair made another 11 romantic films together over the next 7 years - the last being Change of Heart (1934). Today, Janet Gaynor is best known for playing Esther Victoria Blodgett (aka “Vicki Lester”) in the second of 5 versions of A Star is Born (most film historians hold that the 1932 RKO-Pathé production of What Price Hollywood? starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman was actually the first.) Today, Charlie Farrell is best-known - if remembered at all - for the mid 1950’s television show My Little Margie, in which he played Vern Albright, the father of Margie, played by Gale Storm. Gaynor and Farrell’s chemistry was that of young, first-time love . . . which people of any age can and do easily identify with. That they could maintain this chemistry into their early ‘30s was remarkable. Also, their films kept Fox from going bankrupt . . .
As the major studios got larger and more powerful, they had the ability to stockpile tens of dozens of actors and actresses and spend the time and money required to create cinematic identities and occasionally, teams abounding in chemistry. Among the most successful such pairings were William Powell and Myrna Loy who, between 1934 and 1947, costarred in 14 films - including 6 in the fabled “Thin Man” series. Prior to getting together (1934’s Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable), Hollywood had typecast Powell as either a bad guy or a suave swindler and Loy, unbelievably, as an Asian exotic. Immediately after costarring in the Gable film, MGM put the two together in The Thin Man. Their scenes together fairly sparkled; between the mystery, the Manhattans and the endless banter, they lit up the screen.
Then there was RKO’s pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - first as featured players in a minor 1933 Delores Del Rio - Gene Raymond fluffball called Flying Down to Rio. This totally forgettable film was saved when Fred and Ginger spent a little over 2 minutes dancing the Carioca . . . and thus was a new type of cinematic chemistry born. Ironically, Astaire wasn’t all that interested in dancing with Rogers again. As he wrote his agent, "I don't mind making another picture with her, but as for this team idea, it's out! I've just managed to live down one partnership (his sister Adele) and I don't want to be bothered with any more." But Fred was under long term contract to RKO, which meant he had to do what they told him. The next year these two received top billing in The Gay Divorcee, which would turn out to be the 2nd of their eventual 10 pictures together. And their chemistry? It was best explained by Katherine Hepburn (who knew a thing or two about onscreen chemistry . . . just ask Spencer Tracy) when she said “Fred gave Ginger class, while Ginger gave Fred sex . . .”
Comedy teams have long been a fertile source of cinematic chemistry. Think Laurel and Hardy (107 films together) Abbott and Costello (36 films), Martin and Lewis (17 films), The Marx Brothers (17 films) The Three Stooges (nearly 200 shorts) and of course Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (and let’s not forget Dorothy Lamour) who made 7 “Road to . . .” pictures. What made most of these teams work so well was either the attraction of physical opposites (Laurel and Hardy), Abbott and Costello), bipolar personalities (the suave Dean Martin and frenetic Jerry Lewis) and the complex relations between members of the same family (the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges).
From the perspective of younger generations of film fans, it would seem that what cinematic chemistry is in short supply. In part 2 of this essay (which will be posted when it’s finished) we’ll explore whether this is true - and if so, why so . . .
Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone