Like a Mechanical Bird: The Peculiar Stoicism of David Wayne (Part One of Two)

Posted by on March 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

In Fritz Lang’s original, German-made M, the murderous pedophile (Peter Lorre’s triumph) seemed to roil and scuttle like some obscene debris from the churning crowds of Depression-era Berlin. In Joseph Losey’s 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 body’s baton-like shiftings remind one of his dance background, as highlighted in the stage musical Finian’s 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 — in attempted simulation of Lang’s horrendous confrontation scene —Wayne’s apologia (in itself a worthy counterpoint to that of Lorre) jets forth in a wheezing, keening falsetto stream of semi-consciousness. Only then, perhaps — under the spell of that appalling recitative — may one recall the subtle, broken syncopations of David Wayne’s performance: conjuring up weirdly hovering  overtones of Fred Astaire.

Recalling a mere, meager handful of performances from his deluge of featured parts, supporting roles, some rare starring appearances — from television and large screen (from his website credit crawl, he would seem to have guested his image somehow). It reminds me of Giacometti’s 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 Faulkner’s post-Hamlet writings about the verminous Snopeses. I’m 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 ’50s. His yapping, hyena-like, redneck torturer (and collaborator in her spectacular psychosis) of Joanne Woodward; and  —not vicious; but saturnine, bilious, and grousing — his status-bereft husband (of Marilyn Monroe’s periodic beauty queen, Mrs. Mississippi) in Nunnally Johnson’s We’re Not Married!, one of the anthology films issuing from Fox rather frequently during the ’50s.

The latter two films exemplify, in small compass, Wayne’s 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. Henry’s Full House), Wayne played sidekick to Charles Laughton, a vagrant in turn of the century New York. Complementing “Soapy” Laughton’s trundling bulk, Wayne, as “Horace,” 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 — plaintive and taciturn, against Soapy’s optimistic loquacity — disappears into a throng before the episode’s end.

His dancer’s 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 ’40s and ’50s; dispelling or at least diluting that once seemingly indispensable comic resource — quaintness — that often sustained in negligible roles the Ed Brophys, James Gleasons, and Ben Weldons — 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 survivor’s energy. It transmitted its presence even in otherwise empty roles like that off Dick Powell’s glad-handing, opportunistic political manager in the 1950 The Reformer and the Redhead. Tart — not quite bilious — 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 Finian’s Rainbow: Sharpe as a romantic-minded saloon owner who sponsors artist Joseph Cotton’s decorative mural: Wayne as, yes, his more dubious alter-type … “Ye dumb ox!” 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 Wayne’s case, however, the skylarking independence entails walking out on his wife and several children. Wayne — here, a low-keyed foil to Sinatra’s thrumming vitality — was taken in tow by the elegantly matronly, and maternal, Celeste Holm. His voluminous TV roster supplied him with eccentrics in abundance.  In Stirling Silliphant’s Route 66, he appeared as a psychotic puritan — one of Silliphant’s cherished bêtes noirs, one fancies — against the squalling outrage of dearest Nature’s champion, Mr. George Maharis. And on Alfred Hitchcock’s series, Wayne, a white-collar office exec, was confronted by his reeling sanity in “The Thirtieth of February”: adapted from a yarn by that specialist in middle-class upheaval, George Simemon.

Next: Part Two. Wayne’s work with other directors and more.

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  1. […] Calder Willingham’s first novel), and comic strips. I’m especially impressed by parts one and two of his majestic “Like a Mechanical Bird: The Peculiar Stoicism of David Wayne,” […]