Little Known but Memorable Movie Scenes
By HENRY P. RALEIGH
ART TIMES Sept/ Oct 2009
For sheer acting fortitude, for the most extraordinary focus on a role it’s hard to beat a scene with Anna May Wong in the 1929 British film ‘Piccadilly’. Miss Wong was a popular actress in American and European films from the ‘30s through the next several decades. In ‘Piccadilly’ we are treated to a close shot of Miss Wong’s face, her head resting on her bare, upraised arm. As the scene opens we can see a fly on her arm at lower right. At first sight, this might be taken for a spot on the film but then, leisurely, the fly walks up her arm, stops now and then, zigzags a bit, then continues on to disappear in the shadows. Miss Wong doesn’t bat an eye, she steadily maintains throughout the fly’s journey her signature look of cool seductiveness. How many actors are capable of such concentration? Could you hold a pose while a bug is crawling up the underside of your arm, I ask you? Miss Wong knew well that British films in those days lacked the budget that would permit re-shooting scenes. Trooper to the end, she wasn’t going to let the studio down. Someone reading this will be quick to point out that a close-up of Falconetti in the 1928 ‘Passion of Joan of Arc’ also features a fly buzzing about the face of an actress. I say that’s a much different challenge. The fly didn’t land on her face and set off on a carefree wandering which might certainly have begun a squinting and twitching. Ms. Falconetti did manage to pay no heed to the fly, I’ll give her that.
My favorite scene, and I may have mentioned this elsewhere, is in the 1939 ‘Gunga Din’. Here, Sam Jaffe, clad only in turban and diapers, stands shakily atop a slippery dome blowing a bugle to warn off approaching British troops. He has no lines to speak that might be enshrined in movie history, nothing but a few discordant, tuneless squawks from the bugle that are impossible to remember. This astonishing performance anticipates the final scene in ‘White Heat’ of 1949 where James Cagney stands on a burning gas tank shouting, “top of the world”, to his deceased mother. You see, we remember that one, all right.
There are many splendid yet unheralded acting performances, some barely noticed, cruelly passed by. Just look carefully at the background actors in any restaurant scene. No, not the one in ‘When Harry Met Sally’, when Rob Reiner’s mother says, “I’ll have what she has”, where again a spoken line keeps it in memory, but those standard scenes, featured actors up close, bit players far to the rear yet in focus. Seated at a table seemingly eating, conversing. Imagine how difficult this must be, each wishing the camera might turn to them to be seen to good advantage, knowing how slim the chances of movie fame still doggedly chewing at whatever it is that is supposed to serve as food, striving bravely to look engaged in casual dinner conversation. What do they talk about at such times? Are the words sad, hopeless, cynical? Are the actors instructed to mouth only nonsense to prevent lip readers from eavesdropping? We never know. If hidden microphones could secretly pick up what these actors talk about, I bet an entire film could be built around it.
Having brought up ‘White Heat’ I am reminded of the truly great acting scene that is never forgotten by legions of nameless actors and bit players. It is an inspirational story that some will say is no more than an urban legend, a tale for the gullible — still, it persists though seldom openly acknowledged. You may recall the scene in the film in which Cagney shoots a hostage in the trunk of a sedan. I’d like to point out to you that we never see the hostage released from that trunk. Now you’ll probably say the director simply stopped the camera, had the actor hop out and then continued the filming having Cagney riddle an empty trunk with real bullets. That may be, but as the story goes, the actor refused to exit the trunk, claiming that for the integrity of the film, for the artistic necessity of retaining the brutal authenticity, and unwilling to abandon this one last chance of acting stardom, he would remain there until the end — and he did.