"WHAT DO YOU WANT MEANING FOR? LIFE IS A DESIRE, NOT A MEANING." (Charlie Chaplin)
What's It All About?
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Leo Genn -- A Movie Staple
I watched John Huston’s marvelous movie Moby Dick (1956) today, and feel that a tribute to actor Leo Genn is in order. Genn played first mate Starbuck, about whom the narrator Ishmael said “He was one of the great staples of the ship, like beef or flour, there when needed and not to be foolishly wasted.”
This description of this character applies in a special way to Leo Genn as an actor. He was indeed a great staple of the movies in which he appeared. Genn’s career included many movies and TV appearances in later years, but his real place in movie history comes from three important movies – The Snake Pit (1948), Quo Vadis (1941), and Moby Dick (1956). His dignified good looks, presence, and mesmerizing voice with British accent were a large part of his success on stage and screen. Born in England in 1905, Genn first attended law school and became a barrister. Fortunately for us, he turned to the stage and eventually movies as an actor.
The Snake Pit features Genn as a psychiatrist who treats patient Olivia deHavilland in a mental institution. Lauded for its portrayal of mental illness, The Snake Pit was a movie that has taken its place as one of the important classic films. Genn plays Dr. Kik, dubbed so because his full name is too long for anyone to pronounce. As deHavilland’s doctor, he is kind, probing and determined to be allowed enough time to get to the root of the patient’s problem, a difficult goal in the crowded, under-funded hospital. As many patients do, deHavilland has feelings of love for her doctor during treatment, and indeed, who wouldn’t? Genn is the calming hand of care and reasoning in the midst of madness, and plays his part to perfection.
In his next major movie, Genn plays Petronius in Quo Vadis, a major epic of Rome and the mad emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov). His character, the unwilling but interested courtier of Nero, looks upon the corruption of tyranny with a cool, removed sense of irony. In contrast to Robert Taylor’s testosterone-loaded hero, Genn is the symbol of intelligence and prophecy about the future of Rome. His humor is biting, and goes right over the head of the arrogant Nero who believes that Petronius is his admiring follower. Genn’s final scene, in which he writes a note to Nero expressing his true feelings about the tyrant, is unforgettable, as is Nero’s reaction to the note. In a movie which I believe to be somewhat pompous and flawed, Genn stands out in his part.
The third major movie in which Genn plays a central character is Moby Dick. Huston’s extraordinary screenplay, in which he collaborated with writer Ray Bradbury, brings to full life the character of Starbuck. In contrast to the obsessed, unswerving desire for revenge of Ahab (Gregory Peck), Starbuck tries without success to bring his mad Captain back to reality and clarity of thought. In his loyalty and habit of obedience to his Captain, Starbuck reflects upon his dilemma – “Oh I see plainly my miserable office, to obey rebelling.” Starbuck is a beloved character, and his fate difficult to accept.
In all three of these movies, Genn plays the character who is the conscience of the stories. His physical presence and the soothing tone of his voice made him a natural for this type of role. Even in a later role in a TV version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Jack Palance in the title role, Genn plays Dr. Lanyon, the friend and conscience of the tortured doctor. This was the character type he played so flawlessly.
Leo Genn deserves to be remembered as a significant element in movies that continue to be watched and admired so many years after their initial release. His movies, particularly the three discussed above, would not have been as good as they were without him.