Character Actors In Horror And Science Fiction Films: 1930-1960 by Laurence Raw (book review).

The book title ‘Character Actors In Horror And Science Fiction Films: 1930-1960’ by Laurence Raw holds no secrets. Alas, there is no contents pages to show which actors he’s highlighting, unless you want to rely on the index or anyone’s name in capitals in the text of other people’s entries. This is a weird omission from publisher McFarland, who’ve been printing such books for years and should have spotted this and sorted it out because it becomes less of a reference book unless you know what you’re looking for.

One of the weird things as you read this book, I presume you do this before treating such books purely as a reference book, is how many character actors made the transition into lead characters for a while before back into character actors from this time period. From an acting point of view, the character actor will always get a lot more and varied work than the lead actor who can face being typecast for particular roles. Although reading here, many actors got stuck in certain roles proving the effects of typecasting mixed in with the desire for regular work. No actor likes to be ‘resting’ between jobs so most take whatever was on offer even back then. For each entry, there is a brief synopsis of their role for each of the films they appear in although I do wish all of them noted significant other appearances where you might have seen them later. Take Turhan Bey as an example as his last two roles were in ‘Babylon 5’.

With two columns to a page, there is a lot of content here, so I’ll pick out the odd things that struck me. I’m sure you’ll find more. If you thought the invasion of British actors into American films was a modern day phenomenon, you’ll start counting here and should have some surprises.

I never knew that Robert Armstrong actually started off as a comedic actor before taking leading roles as in ‘King Kong’. Whit Bissell got typecast early as officials or military roles. He also has the distinction of being in both ‘I Was A Teenage Frankenstein’ and ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf‘ (both 1957) films.

It should hardly be surprising that a number of Roger Corman films crop up from time to time and, in the case of actress Susan Cabot, comments on how his own views changed over time.

Some details tend to stick. At the start of each entry, you have the births and mostly the inevitable deaths of most of these people, often with their real names and place of birth. Henry Cording, I was most surprised to learn came from my own county, Somerset, in the UK. I’ve been told by Americans in the past that my own accent doesn’t sound as guttural as many of my own countrymen make it sound but his dialogue was reduced in films.

If you like making connections, actor Dwight Frye played Renfield-like characters in all of the early vampire and Frankenstein films. The same applies to lead actor David Manners who appeared in ‘Dracula’ (1931), ‘The Mummy’ (1932) and ‘The Black Cat’ (1934). The same applies with actress Maria Ouspenskaya appearing across the early werewolf films. Actor Edward Van Sloan appeared in the early Dracula and Mummy films as well.

Long before ‘Mission: Impossible’, actor Peter Graves invariably played scientists who happened to be married. Long before the TV series ‘Daktari’ (1966-69), actor Marshall Thompson was a regular stalwart of SF films. The same applies to actor Regis Toomey, long before TV’s ‘Burke’s Law’ (1963-65).

Of all the actors shown, the only one still alive here is Dick Miller, although Raw did get his height wrong. I didn’t think Miller was 5 foot tall and IMdB confirms it as 5 foot 5 inches.

A look at actor Alan Napier’s career before the 1966 ‘Batman’ series shows a number of horror films. I saw him in ‘Dark Waters’ a few months ago and it was interesting seeing him play against type as you don’t expect him to be villainous.

At the back of the book, is a decent filmography list of all the films covered and you’ll probably rely on this to check on their availability on DVD and any omissions. On top of that is his book source list, several of which I’ve reviewed here but, these days, it’s the only way to gather information.

I spaced myself out when reading this book, simply because there is so much to absorb but still found it an immensely rewarding read. If I had to be critical, then there’s little info on the actors careers before and after but I suspect had Raw included that, this book would be very large. What it does do is point out the films you want to see these actors in and if you’re stuck for a name, you’ll be able to find it.

GF Willmetts

December 2016

(pub: McFarland.2012. 224 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £48.50 (UK), $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4474-8)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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