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Could it Ever be Hip to be Square?

Discussion of the actors, directors and film-makers who 'made it all happen'

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moira finnie
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Could it Ever be Hip to be Square?

Postby moira finnie » May 5th, 2007, 11:46 pm

As Huey Lewis sang back in the '80s, could it really be "hip to be square" sometimes?

After reveling in hipness via the Marlon Brando celebration this week on TCM, I started thinking about all those guys who "just don't get it". Some were big stars, others just journeymen, and some seem to be downright reactionary types while others may be simply more thoughtful.

One might think that describing someone as a Square is meant pejoratively, but there's something kind of appealing about those fatally unhip, sometimes socially awkward guys who populated the movies during the classic era, mentally keeping their mind and spirit buttoned down with a carefully placed pocket protector over their heart. Here's a few suggestions for a brief overview of men who lived in the center of Squaresville, (at least in the movies).

Fredric March: despite his adventures in Design for Living and with his boon companion, Dr. Hyde, Freddy never really could shake off that earnest air of respectability, though he had a good time being a stiff in several films, especially when he also found a way to convey the chinks in the armor of his characters, (see Best Years of Our Lives, Inherit the Wind, and Hombre, among others).
Freddy's ultimate square parts: Death Takes a Holiday, The Desperate Hours & One Foot in Heaven

James Stewart: while Jimmy could sometimes play quite neurotic (Vertigo, Winchester '73 et al), and winsome (Harvey), Mr. Stewart donned the mantle of Squareness like few other actors. His laidback portrayals of family men bound by an iron sense of rectitude really bordered on the unnerving, but most of time, (when Mann & Hitchcock weren't the directors), he played guys who never knew the score, hipwise.
Jimmy's ultimate square parts:
The FBI Story, The Spirit of St. Louis, & It's a Wonderful Life.

Can you add a few others?

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Welcome to Squaresville

Postby Dewey1960 » May 6th, 2007, 12:56 am

Ralph Bellamy: KING of the SQUARES
Robert Young: MAYOR of SQUARESVILLE
Hugh Marlowe: SQUARE!
Fred MacMurray: Mega SQUARE
Van Johnson: SQUARE Root
Bruce Bennett: SQUARE du jour
Vincent Price: SQUARE squared

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Postby bobhopefan1940 » May 6th, 2007, 1:23 am

I think of Harold Lloyd as being square, but really cool (in my sight). But I agree that Jimmy Stewart is definately the best example...
"How strange when an illusion dies. It's as though you've lost a child." --Judy Garland
"To help a friend in need is easy, but to give him your time is not always opportune." --Charlie Chaplin
"Dumb show is best for screen people, if they must appear in public." --Buster Keaton

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Fred MacMurray: Could he be less Square?

Postby moira finnie » May 6th, 2007, 9:58 am

Dewey, you nailed the squareness of several actors immediately, and I agree with your choice of Ralph Bellamy and Hugh Marlowe as perfectly symmetrical squares, in particular. Bobhopefan, I know what you mean about Harold Lloyd being so square it's cool--his characters always struggled to try to be thought one of cool crowd, but were held back by an endearing inner niceness.

The only person I don't think belongs on that list was Fred MacMurray. In recent years, I've come to believe that Fred MacMurray wasn't all that square--especially in movies of the '30s & '40s. Yes, his work in My Three Sons & those Disney movies couldn't have been more cubical, but MacMurray had a sneaky hipness and refreshing streak of cynicism that often emerged in such earlier work as Swing High, Swing Low (1937) and Sing, You Sinners(1938), both of which played off his musician roots. Director Edward Dmytryk in The Caine Mutiny (1954) cast MacMurray perfectly as an Iago figure in Lt. Tom Keefer, who is one of the main catalysts of the mutiny, and a more self-serving cynic than any of the other characters.

Billy Wilder also highlighted MacMurray's inner darkness in those plum parts he gave him in Double Indemnity (1944)and The Apartment (1960). The recent TCM discovery, Pushover (1954) with a very young Kim Novak also made me reassess MacMurray as a not-so-straight-arrow.

Besides, there's something about Fred's way of narrowing his eyes and the way that he holds his mouth. He knows that he can't escape the oh-so-respectable role that fate has cast him in, but he doesn't believe in the upright facade that so many of his characters maintain--and he's not above adopting a hypocritical pose to protect himself from the dense types who surround him who really seem to believe in the status quo. He's actually a much more interesting actor than he's given credit for by many observers. Btw, I think he disliked showing this side of his screen persona from what I've read about the actor--which is one reason he chose to bury his talent in the pablum of the tv series and Disney movies.

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Postby Dewey1960 » May 6th, 2007, 10:11 am

Hi Moira -
That's really funny; immediately after posting that I began to have second thoughts about Mr. MacMurray, especially with respect to the Mitchell Leisen film you mentioned, SWING HIGH SWING LOW. Then other films came to mind (PUSHOVER, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, REMEMBER THE NIGHT) and I really began to regret that choice. But it was late and I decided to simply turn out the light. Although I think it is safe to say that at some point in his career (Disney films / My Three Sons) he certainly did become, well, a square, albeit a lovable one. But his pre-square career was definitely hip enough to guarantee him entry into the Hall of Cool.

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Postby mrsl » May 6th, 2007, 10:37 am

Moira:

Good thoughts. I would definitely put Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at the top of that ultimate square list though. Who could be more square, and dim than Mr. Smith? It's funny however, as square as Mr. Smith is, we all love Jimmy Stewart for exactly that particular role! So maybe squareheads aren't so bad after all.

Anne

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Postby moira finnie » May 6th, 2007, 10:37 am

Actually, Dewey, I'm not sure that Fred MacMurray was such a lovable square. He kinda grated on me as the all-knowing Dad in My Three Sons, though I do have a soft spot for his Flubberized Prof in two Disney flicks.

Another candidate for Square of the Year came to mind:
Warner Baxter: His weary characters often seem to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders,(42nd Street) and he spouts off regularly and justifiably about the unfairness of it all, (The Prisoner of Shark Island), and he may occasionally seem to be a bit of a rogue (In Old Arizona, Penthouse), but Warner has a likable, doggedly conscientious quality. Finally, Baxter's characters usually chose to follow what I suspect was even then, an old fashioned sense of doing the right thing, and be a pretty good--and quite square--guy. Btw, my respect for this actor's abilities to create a recognizably human persona has increased markedly since TCM started showing The Crime Doctor movies, which seem to be among the more intelligently written programmers of that period.

Warner's ultimate square parts:The Crime Doctor, The Squaw Man, The Cisco Kid

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Postby Dewey1960 » May 6th, 2007, 11:02 am

As "all-knowing" as Fred was (and he certainly was), he never pounced on his kids and was never condescending. There was always that squared-off, sincere effort to actually understand what was going on under his roof. The grating quality you refer to was no doubt the residue of having Frawley and Demarest as his "helpmates." Upon reflection, MacMurray just might be the quintessential square hipster. Thanks for kicking off this provocative thread!

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Postby pktrekgirl » May 7th, 2007, 10:16 am

Well, I think Fred MacMurray's role in MY THREE SONS was meant to be that way. During that era of TV, pretty much all dads were portrayed as wise and all-knowing - rulers of their domain. Look at Ward Clever on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. Totally square...and always all-knowing and wise.

And then we have shows like FATHER KNOWS BEST. You don't even have to look past the title of that one! :lol:

And what about Brian Keith's portrayal of a dad on FAMILY AFFAIR. Or a bit later, the quintessential all-knowing dad, Mike Brady of THE BRADY BUNCH.

For me, most of the TV dads of the late 50's through the early 70's were portrayed as wise, long-suffering, and all-knowing.

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Postby pktrekgirl » May 7th, 2007, 10:19 am

Now for my own candidate to toss into the pot, since I don't think he's been mentioned yet -

HENRY FONDA

I know he didn't always play weenie roles...but he did play a awful lot of weenie roles. And when he wasn't playing those, we was playing good guys, for the most part - only a couple of bad guy roles that I can recall (although I have yet to see MANY of his films).

I agree particularly about Ralph Bellamy. Most of his roles were very square. Although if you are looking for something different, he plays a pretty nasty character in FORBIDDEN (1932). Wow, he is vindictive in that film!

And I also agree about Frederic March. You don't get much square-er (is that a word? :D ) than his role in INHERIT THE WIND.

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Another Square

Postby moira finnie » May 7th, 2007, 10:54 am

Another square guy occurred to me: Gregory Peck. Peck's embodiment of square values, blended with a sincere manner and a handsome face aided him in creating a 50+ year career. Greg's ability to make squareness highly appealing and to show the price of squareness on the spirit (Twelve O'Clock High, The Keys of the Kingdom, Roman Holiday, Gentlemens' Agreement) made him one of the most effective actors of this breed.

Even when he attempted to step out of his squareness (The Gunfighter, The Bravados, Cape Fear), his characters were essentially those willing and able to accept responsibility for their "outlaw" behavior and were motivated by a desire to protect others from the consequences of his own actions.

There were certain movies in his long career in which Mr. Peck tried to break out of his squareness, (Duel in the Sun, The Boys of Brazil), but audiences took them with one big grain of salt since, "our Greg" wouldn't do such things, would he?

Greg's Ultimate Square Parts: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Gentlemens' Agreement

I think that I might nominate Gregory Peck for Chairman of the Square Board.

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Postby Ayres » May 8th, 2007, 12:31 pm

If you don't mind my chiming in here about "My Three Sons" (well, after all, we are talking about squares), I'd like to make an observation. I recall watching the show avidly when I was a kid, but only in color, and only from the point in time that Ernie (Barry Livingston) became a character on the show. I absolutely idolized Katie (Tina Cole) once she became Robbie's girlfriend and then wife. Until Nick at Night ran them in the '80s, I had never seen the earlier, black-and-white episodes made before 1965 or so.

What a difference! William Frawley was even more irascible than William Demarest, Tim Considine was a more dimensional eldest brother than Don Grady, and many of the shows had a somewhat darker feel. It's hard to explain--it seemed to better capture the scariness of childhood in a more compelling way then. Once a lion got loose in the house; this was both the scariest and funniest episode of a sitcom that I think I've ever seen.

MacMurray was a bit more like the one we see in the Leisen films in those early years. As the show turned to color and got sappy (though believe me, I loved it as a little one), Fred got more like the absent-minded professor.

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Postby Dewey1960 » May 8th, 2007, 1:28 pm

Moira wrote: I think that I might nominate Gregory Peck for Chairman of the Square Board.

I just watched Peck in GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT last night in order to prepare for my class tonight in Messgage Movies (Films That Made A Difference). Tonight's topic, of course, is anti-semitism, and after watching GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (it had been many years since the last time), it made me quite thankful that I chose CROSSFIRE to show the class. Peck is unbearably square in G.A. rendering the picture (for me at least) almost unwatchable. What a gigantic bore! Anyway, yes, I wholeheartedly agree with your nomination for the otherwise perfectly nice Mr. Peck. (Can you just imagine what a meeting of the Square Board might be like??)

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Postby ken123 » May 8th, 2007, 1:36 pm

From THE HONEYMOONERS - Norton to Ralph - " How can someone so round to be so square ". Brooklynnites I believe - Bensonhurst :lol:

jdb1

Postby jdb1 » May 9th, 2007, 11:09 am

ken123 wrote:From THE HONEYMOONERS - Norton to Ralph - " How can someone so round to be so square ". Brooklynnites I believe - Bensonhurst :lol:


Purportedly Bensonhurst, Ken, where I lived as a teen.

However, we Brooklynites recognized the Kramden's living space, and the people in and around it, as Bushwick people. Bushwick is a very old, and still rather gritty neighborhood, where Gleason grew up. It's geographically on the other side of Brooklyn from Bensonhurst. Living in Bensonhurst would have been like living in the suburbs to the people of Gleason's youth, and Bensonhurst is pretty darn blue collar itself.

It's always said that Brooklyn is a series of small towns, and I've lived in several of those "towns" throughout my life, and it's true - they are different in age, architecture and atmosphere; all you have to do is walk a few blocks either way, and you're in a totally different place.


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