Hume and Jessica: A Matched Pair

Posted by on January 21st, 2010 at 12:01 AM


“Offhand, I can’t think of more than twenty-five or thirty reasons why your marriage shouldn’t work out.” – Arthur Keats, defense lawyer for Frank and Cora: The Postman Always Rings Twice

They were a curiously elusive couple, in Hollywood terms. Their relatively infrequent appearances together contrasted with the platinum-embossed screen partnerships of the (unmarried) Tracy and Hepburn, or William Powell and Myrna Loy. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were a married theatrical couple, who, in contrast to their scant onscreen appearances as man and wife, appeared au pair in a plenitude of stage productions, including whimsical surveys like The Fourposter (a set of linked sketches) and The Honeys (a mordantly macabre coupling of two short stories by Roald Dahl, in which Cronyn and Tandy played twin couples: bilious, malignant bullies of identical-twin husbands married to gentle, ostensibly submissive twin sisters who eventually murder their mates — coshing with a frozen leg of lamb and poisoning with caviar aux fines herbes, including some death-dealing spices).

One notes the wild stylization implied in the situations described, the zestful sophistication and anti-sentimental intelligence, and commitment to style  — “style” as something beyond the ingratiating foreplay tactics of Powell-Loy and Tracy-Hepburn:  plus, a marked regard for theatrical distancing, and the carefully controlled perspective that it entails.”Personality” was not a dramatic commodity for Hume and Jessica, as for the other couples mentioned. In sum, they were not fixed stars:  rather, a pair of vagrant meteorites, dispensing sparks of psychological perception; of quotidian reality; of anti-glamour.

The latter contribution of Hume/Jessica ranks them with Hollywood’s most noteworthy character actors, distinct from many, perhaps, in the refusal to be cubicled for any overweaning stretch (this applies particularly to Hume) as “character comics.” The stage discipline that they shared gave their performances, together or apart, a sharply limned definition: an energy that made full use of film’s multi-faceted realism, creating character types that were readily identifiable, and convincing. In Jessica’s case, this manifested as a matronly stability and forceful clarity, often flickeringly touched with that eroticism which she brought to the portrait of Blanche Dubois, the role she introduced in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Hume’s frequent character was of an edgily intense professional type: a practicing intellectual, darkened with cynicism. Such was one of his crowning performances: Arthur Keats, the defense lawyer for the murderous couple, Frank and Cora, in the excellent adaptation ( directed to near perfection by Tay Garnett) of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Keats, in the novel, was named”Katz.” No doubt, the producers wished to retain, without any ethnic self-commitment, the sum and substance of the astute, wary, yet compassionate Jewish attorney. Hume Cronyn’s slender frame, acquiline profile, and air of robust matter-of-factness surely cinched his election. His sardonic jocularity (note the quoted epigraph) heightened the poignancy of the ending, when Frank is terminally incriminated: the hardboiled counselor’s gaze of sad resignation.

The definite yet plausible distintion of his physique and face surely heightened the encroachments of caricature, typecasting, in occasional film roles. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, in his 1951 supersermonette of liberal piety, People Will Talk (and did they, ever!) cast Cronyn, with the matching-profiled Margaret Hamilton, as a team of egregious academic busybodies, flittering in the rafters of Dr. Cary Grant’s Peaceable Kingdom. Both nattered gamely through their thankless roles. In the 1946 A Letter For Evie — a B plus-budget comedy from MGM — Hume’s (illusory) look of frailty was utilized in a World War II comedy, with updated overtones of Cyrano: Hume and the strapping John Carroll as GIs in amicable rivalry for the love of a pretty correspondent, Marsha Hunt (in a pre-HUAC flirtation with stardom). The director, Jules Dassin, endeavored to adrenalize the mild affair with strenuously operatic reactions by the various participants:  shrieks and sobs, vibrato, from Hunt; Dracula-like leers and ogles from her aging lecherous employer (Norman Lloyd); and, from Hume, some Eddie Brackenish writings of panic-stricken perplexity. Nonetheless, Cronyn’s overall governance of his fatuous role evidently heartened Jules Dassin to select him for the role of the icily sadistic prison guard captain in the 1947 Brute Force: a richer field of opportunity for Dassin’s spaciously stylized hijinks. One recalls how Cronyn’s steely self-governance brought an illusory power to the much-cited scene — a crescendo of hoke — in which Cronyn bludgeons a prisoner (portrayed by Sam Levene), whose screams are drowned by recorded strains of Wagner. Hume’s profile, this time, served to exemplify his remorseless determination.

Counter to this and that scrawny-aspect role, Cronyn was a former pugilist:  hence, most likely, his versatile deployment of the deceptively wiry body. Though rather crudely employed by Jules Dassin, it served him memorably in occasional roles of realistically based comedy. Such was his role as the next-door neighbor (of the California family portentously visited by “uncle” Joseph Cotten) in Hitchcock’s fifth American film, Shadow of a Doubt. The family’s gentle paterfamilias, Henry Travers, shares with Neighbor Cronyn a ravening interest in murders, real and fictitious: twin exemplars of respectable, middle-class obtuseness and fatuous optimism toward the lowering realities around them. Hume’s bearing was a corporate sag:  knees, shoulders, and jaw adroop, extending to his scarecrow-like clothes. His typical expression immingles misgiving, and a ravenous expectation. He draws a faintly rapacious look from his avid, hankering profile and — no doubt, with Hitchcock’s gleeful encouragement — achieves a mini-portrait of a male gossip: his avidity for discovering evil among his fellows, channeled to relatively harmless backfence criminology. Yet, he and his playfellow, (actor Henry Travers), ultimately elicit a scream of protest from Teresa Wright (as Charlie Newton).

His presence in Hitchcock’s later (WWII) film Lifeboat was considerably more retiring. There were no further such appearances that I recall; but Hume has appeared on Turner’s Classic Movies (TCM) with glowing recollection of Hitchcock’s considerateness. The ambiguities of Shadow‘s next-door neighbor may have helped nurture a vein of insight that enriched many a later performance.

Especially in his appearances with Jessica, which occasionally offered sardonic variations on a classic convention: the female guardian of stability, versus the mercurial gallivanter and romantic. Jessica’s peculiar power might best be perceived as an unremitting spiritual/dramatic energy that illumined various prototypical roles. In David Susskind’s Play of the Week television production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, Jessica played the steadfast, illusionless Juno: counter and check (but never foil) to Hume’s improvident, intemperate, shiftless blusterer “Captain” Jack Boyle. She fairly merged, as against Cronyn’s flarelight, with the tenement-spawned acrid darkness of O’Casey’s early 20th century Dublin Onstage. Together, the pair appeared as Lord and Lady Politick, would-be preposterously swanking pair of nouveau riche (and newly noble) gulls, calling on the busy swindlers in the shop of Ben Jonson’s Alchemist.

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