In Fritz Langâs original, German-made M, the murderous pedophile (Peter Lorreâs triumph) seemed to roil and scuttle like some obscene debris from the churning crowds of Depression-era Berlin. In Joseph Loseyâs 1951 remake, the stalk-like body of David Wayne paces, deliberate as a praying mantis, across the desolate space of a Midwestern cityscape: flanked by stolid, lobotomized-looking Midwestern architecture (Manny Farber recalled the photography of Cartier Bresson). He bears a small girl in tow. His bodyâs baton-like shiftings remind one of his dance background, as highlighted in the stage musical Finianâs Rainbow, in which he played a leprechaun. His phrases of ingratiation to his prospective child victim are a nasal drone. He and she are perceived as a single detail of the gaping Midwestern wilderness. Then, in the imminently preposterous sham-operatic climax designed by Losey â in attempted simulation of Langâs horrendous confrontation scene âWayneâs apologia (in itself a worthy counterpoint to that of Lorre) jets forth in a wheezing, keening falsetto stream of semi-consciousness. Only then, perhaps â under the spell of that appalling recitative â may one recall the subtle, broken syncopations of David Wayneâs performance: conjuring up weirdly hoveringÂ overtones of Fred Astaire.
Recalling a mere, meager handful of performances from his deluge of featured parts, supporting roles, some rare starring appearances â from television and large screen (from his website credit crawl, he would seem to have guested his image somehow). It reminds me of Giacomettiâs tweaked-looking miniature sculptures: an energy bordering on the mechanical (a mechanical bird, as hinted by his beaky profile): the chill vigilance of occasional glances. Yet, the sheer physicality is buttressed by a sense of lurking, semi-animate stoicism, fatalism, and watchfulness. He exhibited on occasion a chilling portrait of rustic personality: occasioning regret that Hollywood (though God knows what the result might have been, recalling The Long Hot Summer) did not make a reasonable feint at Faulknerâs post-Hamlet writings about the verminous Snopeses. Iâm thinking primarily of The Town, and The Mansion: both of which feature not only that arch-out-finagler, Flem Snopes: but the barely articulate, vengeance-bound fugitive, Mink Snopes. I have in mind, two (particularly) notable supporting performances by Wayne, both from the â50s. His yapping, hyena-like, redneck torturer (and collaborator in her spectacular psychosis) of Joanne Woodward; andÂ ânot vicious; but saturnine, bilious, and grousing â his status-bereft husband (of Marilyn Monroeâs periodic beauty queen, Mrs. Mississippi) in Nunnally Johnsonâs Weâre Not Married!, one of the anthology films issuing from Fox rather frequently during the â50s.
The latter two films exemplify, in small compass, Wayneâs comic subtly; and especially the aforementioned rigor: the intimation of a steely, yet resilient, backbone. In yet another Twentieth Century Fox portmanteau film (the overall vapid O. Henryâs Full House), Wayne played sidekick to Charles Laughton, a vagrant in turn of the century New York. Complementing âSoapyâ Laughtonâs trundling bulk, Wayne, as âHorace,â moved with a herky-jerky jogtrot rhythm: hands thrust into the pockets of an oversized lumber-jacket from some charity dispensary, with a billed winter cap shadowing his eyes. His movement, I recall, reminded me of a character created by the German satiric artist Wilhelm Busch: The Dognapper. The precipice edge or grotesquerie: yet firmly reined in. Horace â plaintive and taciturn, against Soapyâs optimistic loquacity â disappears into a throng before the episodeâs end.
His dancerâs command, his lithe and at times ambiguous command, sustains his onscreen presence in many of his performances, supplanting the gimmicky mannerisms of many a comparable character actor of longer standing. In this respect, Wayne represents that additional layer of realism that slid into many a Hollywood film of the middle-to-late â40s and â50s; dispelling or at least diluting that once seemingly indispensable comic resource â quaintness â that often sustained in negligible roles the Ed Brophys, James Gleasons, and Ben Weldons â all capable of more dramatically, and comically, substantial work.
David Wayne, forgoing vocal and pantomimic dalliance, was sustained by a restrained but no less fierce survivorâs energy. It transmitted its presence even in otherwise empty roles like that off Dick Powellâs glad-handing, opportunistic political manager in the 1950 The Reformer and the Redhead. Tart â not quite bilious â realism. A wary Sancho Pancha, playing by the score. In Teahouse of the August Moon, he was a wily, deferential go-between. In Down Among the Sheltering Palms, he capered and sang, along with William Lundigan, in an amiable bargain-counter South Pacific, which was further enlivened by some beautiful older songs. In the vapidly wistful, brilliantly packaged A Portrait of Jenny, he was re-united with Albert Sharpe of Finianâs Rainbow: Sharpe as a romantic-minded saloon owner who sponsors artist Joseph Cottonâs decorative mural: Wayne as, yes, his more dubious alter-type â¦ âYe dumb ox!â Sharpe reproves him.
Wayne, however, had been through too many domestic wringers on-screen to be scarred by such rebuke. In The Tender Trap, he was dapper and wryly composed as the office-professional buddy of Frank Sinatra: like him, seeking non-committal romance. In Wayneâs case, however, the skylarking independence entails walking out on his wife and several children. Wayne â here, a low-keyed foil to Sinatraâs thrumming vitality â was taken in tow by the elegantly matronly, and maternal, Celeste Holm. His voluminous TV roster supplied him with eccentrics in abundance.Â In Stirling Silliphantâs Route 66, he appeared as a psychotic puritan â one of Silliphantâs cherished bÃªtes noirs, one fancies â against the squalling outrage of dearest Natureâs champion, Mr. George Maharis. And on Alfred Hitchcockâs series, Wayne, a white-collar office exec, was confronted by his reeling sanity in âThe Thirtieth of Februaryâ: adapted from a yarn by that specialist in middle-class upheaval, George Simemon.
Next: Part Two. Wayne’s work with other directors and more.