Monday, February 16, 2009

They Had Faces Then

While we're on the subject of Baby Face (1933)... one of the most alluring images in the film is a close-up of a sloe-eyed hunk in a railroad car, the first of many (many, many) conquests for Barbara Stanwyck in her Nietzschean quest to use men before they use her. It's a small role, but of course, we're suckers for pretty faces around here, and we had to learn more.

James Murray and Eleanor Boardman in King Vidor's The Crowd (1928)

Turns out the sloe-eyed he-vamp in question is James Murray, one of the sadder tales of Hollywood; discovered by King Vidor, he appeared in the great director's classic silent film, The Crowd (1928). The downbeat story wasn't a box office success, but Murray was hailed as one of the great acting finds, and quickly given the star-making build-up. Ill-equipped to deal with the sudden pressures of fame, Murray's career as a star was over nearly as quickly as it began; despite prominent roles in such vehicles as Rose-Marie (1928), co-starring an up-and-coming Joan Crawford, and Thunder (1929), with the biggest star of the day, Lon Chaney, Murray soon fell into such excessive drinking that he was deemed unfit to work. Within three years, he plummeted from star billing to supporting player to, finally, uncredited bit actor.

James Murray and Joan Crawford in Rose-Marie (1928)

In 1934, a year after his all-too-brief (and uncredited) turn in Baby Face, James Murray was officially through in Hollywood, reduced to panhandling on the streets. In a scene that even the most melodramatic of screenwriters would have deemed unbelievable, one of the men Murray wound up begging for change from was King Vidor. Saddened and touched by Murray's decline, Vidor offered the down and out actor a role in his next film; Murray declined, refusing to accept a role offered out of pity. Two years later, he was dead, drowned in the Hudson River.

But, oh, that face.

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