Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), dir. Rouben Mamoulian.
Dr. Jekyll consumes a potion he concocted to summon his soul. In a moment, the fiend within, Mr. Hyde, commandeers the mirror. Actor, cameraman Karl Struss, and editor each play a vital role in the performance. Fredric Marsh plays the physician and plays the fiend.
A sorority ditz transforms herself into a courtroom genius in Legally Blonde (2001). An English teacher from Pennsylvania turns into an Army Ranger captain in Saving Private Ryan (1998). A debt collector turns into a contender in Rocky (1976). Clark Kent is Superman, Donald and Charlie Kaufman trade writing credits in Adaptation (2002). The king and the prisoner trade places in The Man In the Iron Mask. The supporting player abides and conforms, but the leading character rebels.
Some actors in film outlast their negatives, but most—like one of the first, Annabelle Moore—pass stage by stage into invisibility. Describing one actress, fan magazines of the 1920s would incant, "the ever popular..." Does her once-familiar name, Elaine Hammerstein— first an ingenue, then a player, last somebody thought to be an ex-film star— suggest perhaps a misprint for you?
I become who I am. I become who I am not. As Hyde dissolves into Jekyll, Fredric Marsh enacts the actor's paradox. In action from A Double Life (1947), Ronald Colman, too, describes the actor's paradox.
Actor M.E. Clifton James (while impersonated himself playing someone else) reiterates.
"I is someone else (Je est un autre)," the French poet Rimbaud says.
“Please arrange for the executives…to see the test of Fred Astaire. I am a little uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even in this wretched test.”
David O. Selznick, January 26, 1933
Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford in 1933 posing on the MGM lot for a publicity shot for Dancing Lady (1933), dir. Robert Z. Leonard.
David O. Selznick needed an actor to play a "movie star" and therefore borrowed Astaire, unknown then to moviegoers, from RKO. Astaire had visited the set of of a Mary Pickford film as a teen in 1915, but this was his first screen performance. He walked into movies playing a character called, well, "Fred Astaire." Singing "Stand Up and Sing," his first (and perhaps his perpetual) movie character was himself.
“I don’t know how you focus. You just focus…. You gotta take all your emotions, all your anger, all your love, all your hate, and push it way down here into the pit of your stomach and then let it explode like a reactor. Pow!” “The Subway Ghost” in Ghost (1990)
You Did It Then: Cast Hamlet. Consider how six movie actors of the past interpreted the speech beginning, “To be or not to be.” (Seventy-five actors have played the role on film since 1900. In 1913, one Frank Leonard parrots lines from Hamlet here.) Step by step instructions and the component shots are here.
You Do It Now: Audition five actors to play a Hamlet-like role. Record how each delivers a page of script, what casting directors call a “side.” Cast the actor who brings life to the lines. If you like, you can use this speech:
I would have told you about my problem, sir, but I didn’t think you wanted to hear about it. I am sorry, truly sorry, for any grief I may have caused. It’s just, sir, I’m incapable of speaking truthfully when I’m up against it. In the last analysis, sir, it’s every man for himself, I think. We have such fine faces in the sunshine but when the dark comes the owls start hooting in the forest and the night comes alive with fears. I am a creature of darkness, so you can find me there.
From the 1880's to the 1920's, Robert B. Mantell (above) was the Shakespearean actor from Central Casting. He crisscrossed America delivering soliloquies on small town stages as other men delivered bread and milk. (Arrest warrants for failure to pay alimony kept him out of New York, except for Sundays, for decades). Between 1915 and 1917 Mantell acted in six movies, all lost, for Fox Studios. In Cosmopolitan's Under the Red Robe (1923), he played Cardinal Richelieu.
February 3, 1915
October 24, 1899
June 28, 1928.
Mary Pickford bobbed her hair that week. On Palm Island off Miami Beach, Al Capone bought himself an estate and surrounded it with a ten-foot high wall. The time of "an actor of the old school" had come to an end.
November 10, 1915
You can view Mantell slipping into other identities here.
Mantell belongs to that vast horde of itinerant Shakespeareans in and out of movies that surely includes Granville Thorndyke in My Darling Clementine (1946) and Tony Buckingham in Shakespeare Wallah (1966).