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Twice the Talent
by Jon Schuller

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The old saying that good things come in three's may be true but sometimes good things come in pairs: a sumptuous meal with a delicious dessert; a vacation at the beach with tropical drinks; great music played live; seeing a movie with someone you like. We all have our own favorites, no doubt, and I could fill this page with all the choices. But there is another type of pairing that comes to mind for today's column: putting together individually great gifts into a team that's twice as talented.

History has spawned a long list of famous pairs throughout the ages, some good, some bad. Julius Caesar had his Brutus, Henry the 8th had several unlucky wives, Marc Antony's fatal attraction to Cleopatra, Napoleon conquered Josephine, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Marie discovers Pierre Curie, Romeo's tragic romance with Juliet, John and Abigail Adams, Dolly and James Madison and the modern duo of England's King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. My focus is about the duets we know and love in the movies. How two individuals, sometimes known to each other, who became paired by either design or accident and created an even more famous team together. How or why these unions happened is sometimes more fascinating than the ultimate outcomes. I'll attempt to discuss some of the more famous couples here.

One of the earliest movie pairings was Laurel & Hardy, almost by accident in a short silent film called The Lucky Dog in 1921. They were already two separate and successful silent performers (Laurel in 50 and Hardy in 250 films), mostly one- and two-reelers. But another five years would go by and Hal Roach would formally have them sign a contract and their first film, Putting Pants on Phillip came out in 1927. Their success as a team was instantaneous and audiences around the world fell in love with these two men who were such opposites on-screen but great friends off-screen. The obvious differences in their physical appearances and their personalities were the stuff of fame and legend. Hardy, large and bossy, Laurel, prone to moments of crying and head-scratching ignorance, somehow blended together perfectly. People could identify with them as they refined familiar moments of simplicity into complex, mass confusion. They made more than 100 films together and their regular supporting casts were some of the movies' great character actors and actresses.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were both fairly well-established movie regulars when they were put together in 1933's Flying Down to Rio as supporting players. They were billed as stars in 1934 in The Gay Divorcee and their trade-mark energetic, original dance moves. Cole Porter's classic song, Night and Day, along with The Continental (which was the first to win a Best Original Song Academy Award), were
featured musical numbers. 1935:Roberta and Top Hat
1936:Follow the Fleet and Swingtime
1937:Shall We Dance (featured score by the Gershwin brothers
1939:The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle
From then until they re-united in 1949 for The Barkleys of Broadway, both actors followed individual movie careers with some dramatic roles they wished to pursue. No one can ever take away from this duo's original and immortal choreography. Their energies, their talents and their hard work (some scenes took dozens of takes) made them twice as powerful a movie force as their individual talents displayed. When we think of movie pairs Fred & Ginger are always high on the list.

The movies, like so many things in our society, are always being scrutinized by people who feel it their duty to "protect" our morals and values. Taboo subjects have always been targets for these folks and when used as plots for films, received extra inspection. If extra-marital affairs became part of movie magazine gossip the Hollywood and New York gossip columnists would have a field day they still do; only now it's the 24-hour news cycle. In the late 1930's and early 1940's two movie stars were the subject of such gossip: Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn. Tracy had marital troubles for many years, including several affairs, but never divorced from his wife, Louise. His star status was protected by his studio, M-G-M, and these things were known but never openly discussed. The first film with Hepburn, Woman of the Year (1941), started their long relationship as these two incredibly talented stars went on to make another eight movies together. The fact that the open "secret" about their affair was well-known in Hollywood circles, was never revealed to the public until many years later. But all of that aside, their combined acting skills made their movies the most memorable and treasured parts of their relationship. Their on-screen chemistry was magical as each actor played off the other, again and again showing movie audiences how real people are even when they're acting. I don't believe that either one of them particularly cared about who knew what or when, etc. Their affection for each other still carries over from the screen to us spectators today.

Another romance that started on the Big Screen and carried over into real life was in 1944 when director Howard Hawks made a bet (with his friend, the book's author) that he could make a great film from Hemingway's "worst book." It was titled To Have and Have Not and the main characters were a "world-weary fishing-boat captain Harry Morgan" (Humphrey Bogart) and a 19-year old model from New York, in her first film, playing Marie "Slim" Browning (Lauren Bacall). Bogart was already a well-established 44-year old Hollywood
star when they met and fell in love. He finally divorced his third wife, Mayo Methot (apparently a rather nasty, jealous woman). Rumors about the couple were rampant, including one that Hawks was also in love with Bacall and didn't approve of her relationship with Bogart off-screen. Regardless of gossip they married in 1945 after the film was released. They went on to make three more films together:
The Big Sleep1946
Dark Passage1947
Key Largo1948
Although Bogart had already made many great films prior to 1944 as an individual actor much of his memorable career is tied to Lauren Bacall. She too went on to a marvelous movie career after Bogie died in 1957. As a pair of talents they rank high on the list of all-time greats.

Many actors have played the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. As recently as 2011 Robert Downey, Jr. reprised his (2009) role as the great Holmes in Game of Shadows. But movie fans around the world know Holmes on-screen because of fourteen films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as the ever-loyal and equally smart Dr. Watson. Fourteen films (plus two hundred radio programs) between 1939 and 1946 cemented the characters in peoples' imaginations as Rathbone epitomized the ever-resourceful, ever-observant Holmes and Nigel Bruce as a somewhat bumbling yet intelligent Dr. John Watson, the perfect foil for the tremendous power of the Sherlock Holmes character. Almost from the inception of movies the Holmes character has been portrayed by over 70 actors in more than 200 films. Admittedly the most recognizable are the films starring these two marvelous British actors; the films have stood the test of time, even when Holmes was catapulted into the World War II era, fighting Nazi spies and other villains. No one seemed to care about this time-traveling detective who always helped London's Metropolitan Police capture the bad guys through deductive reasoning and superior intelligence. Again we see two men, bonded by circumstances and sharing passions about right- and wrong-doers, combining their resources and winning the day. They're a good model for our modern movie hero teams (like the Die Hard series or the X-men films).

Another well-loved team was Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, who started out in nightclubs in 1946, starred on radio and television programs and made seventeen films between 1949 and 1956. To be sure their performing personas probably matched their real life ones as Jerry was the crazy clown, willing to do anything for a laugh and Dean was the handsome, singing leading man, the straight man object of so many jokes. But it worked until their break-up exactly ten years to the day of their original pairing. They went their separate ways, to their own successful movies and television shows.
Dean's television series was one of the most successful ever seen and his membership in the famous Rat Pack just enhanced his solo career. Jerry never stopped working for his favorite charity, the MDA, on his annual Labor Day telethons and his movies were also well-received. As individual actors, their team personas were simply transferred to the Big Screen. No matter what, their duet was, and still is, a beloved part of cinema history.

My last pair, a modern movie one, teamed two of America's most popular actors for just two films; but these movies, like the stars themselves, are enshrined in audiences' hearts and minds as beloved classics we can't grow tired of watching. Paul Newman and Robert Redford were both established Hollywood leading men in 1969 when George Roy Hill directed them as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Their powerful, individual screen personalities were masterfully blended as a duet of late-19th Century western robbers who are constantly being chased by the law ("Who are those guys?") and living in their infamous hideout, the Hole-in-the-Wall (in Wyoming) that spawned the name of their gang of outlaws. Butch is the thinker and Sundance the thoughtful, but cold-blooded killer whose reputation always precedes him. Their robbery schemes sometimes work with comic consequences as they are forever (it seems) riding away from the good guys no matter the territory. Their failures as outlaws forces them to a totally new territory in Bolivia as the gringo bandidos. They will not survive their last encounter with the Federales as they die a very fiery shoot-out surrounded by dozens of soldiers.

The two actors were again paired by Hill in 1973 for The Sting where they portray a down-and-out famous con-man, Henry Gondorff (Newman) who's given a last shot at the "big con" by Johnny Hooker (Redford), a young hustler who's just seen his mentor, Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) murdered in cold blood as retribution for stealing local big-shot Doyle Lonnegan's (Robert Shaw) money. Gondorff and Hooker are also being pursued by a crooked cop named William Snyder (Charles Durning). Hooker's not too serious but Gondorff keeps a protective eye on him. Their mis-adventures and eventual chance to con the bad guy once and for all add up to a wonderful movie I watch again and again. What's fascinating to me is the two actors, both different in style and characterizations, are not connected in any way in the two movies. We root for them to win in both films.

By now you've probably added your own nominees to my own short list of famous movie pairs. There are, no doubt, many more that could fill another future column. I love to get suggestions from readers for themes or personalities to write about. The lists are endlessly exciting and stimulating as well.

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Jul 11, 2013 3:40 PM
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Laurel & Hardy were a wonderful comedy-duo. Their unique brand of slapstick humor has never been matched.

Thanks for the informative column.
Jul 11, 2013 4:01 PM
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Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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