Saturday, October 15, 2011

Great Screen Teams That Never Were

Today, I'm going to jump into my What If Machine and ask the Matchmaker's Question: What are the great screen teams that never happened? Two talented actors who never paired up, two great tastes that seem like they would have tasted great together, but were never given a real chance. I know that acting chemistry is hard to predict (Who would have guessed that a nervous nineteen-year-old model would become Humphrey Bogart's perfect match?), but it's still fun to speculate. And so, I present to you, a list of Eight Great What Ifs.

1. William Powell and Claudette Colbert

When you think about it, these two had a lot in common. Both of them hit their peak in 1934 (Colbert with It Happened One Night, Powell with The Thin Man). They had two of the most knowing glances in all of '30s cinema, Powell with his arched brows, and Colbert with her sidelong smile. They wore their elegance like it was some grand joke on themselves and the audience. They were clever, they were amazingly classy, but nobody could ever resent them for it; it was just too much fun to be around them. While it's impossible to beat the team of William Powell and Myrna Loy, it's a real shame that Claudette Colbert never got the chance to try.

2. James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck

These were two of the toughest customers in cinema. While Cagney was pumping his enemies full of lead, Stanwyck was lying and cheating her way to the top. Watch the moment in Baby Face when Stanwyck hits a guy with a beer bottle before casually taking a swig from it; no way would Cagney get away with pushing grapefruit into her face. But Stanwyck and Cagney had more in common than onscreen violence. Both of them had made their way into show business as vaudeville hoofers, dancing in clubs and revues. They were sharp, strong New Yorkers who'd been working their whole lives. And yet Hollywood ignored this potential partnering right up until 1956. Cagney and Stanwyck were finally teamed up for These Wilder Years, which was...a sentimental drama about a millionaire and an adoption agency worker. Way to miss your big chance, casting directors. For what it's worth, Stanwyck and Cagney got along well offscreen and even entertained the film crew with an impromptu dance number.

3. Clifton Webb and Thelma Ritter

Like the previous pair, Ritter and Webb did share time in one film, the 1953 version of Titanic.  But their interaction wasn't played for its full comic potential and I think that's a crying shame. I've always wanted to see these two square off. Could Webb's talent for the poisonous one-liner compete with Ritter's homespun put downs? I don't know, but I think it would be one hell of a match. A true collision of matter and antimatter.

4. Lena Horne and Paul Robeson

It's always a shock to me to look back and realize just how few films Paul Robeson and Lena Horne made. The extreme racial strictures of Hollywood meant that these two enormously talented performers had to find most of their applause off, rather than on, the screen. But just imagine if these two had ever gotten a chance to be together in a film. Their star power, their confidence, and their tremendous musical gifts would have made them into one hell of a pairing. Unfortunately for us, it never happened. In real life though, the two were great friends and Lena Horne credited Paul Robeson with being a mentor to her. In an interview, she said, "Paul taught me about being proud because I was Negro ... he sat down for hours, and he told me about Negro people…. And he didn’t talk to me as a symbol of a pretty Negro chick singing in a club. He talked to me about my heritage. And that’s why I always loved him."

5. Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy

Hollywood has a painfully long history of ignoring female friendship. The very fact that Thelma and Louise is still cited as the female buddy movie, twenty years after its release...yeah, that pretty much sums it up. But let's ignore Hollywood's bad record on this subject and imagine an alternate universe where Loy and Lombard were paired together.  Loy had the dry-humored poise, Lombard had the dizzy energy; together they would have been unstoppable. They would have been like Redford and Newman, except in satin gowns and heels. We may have missed our chance to see these ladies together, but I'm sure they're up there in Heaven, making the joint a whole lot more fun.

6. Robert Mitchum and Veronica Lake

Ladd and Lake may be tops but the temptation to pair the sleepy talents of Lake and Mitchum is just irresistible. It would be like a contest to see who could act more unconcerned and detached (Mitchum would win of course, Lake never could stay on her pedestal for long).  They were like the two opposing sides of film noir. Mitchum embodied the rough-hewn masculinity and stoic silence of the noir genre, while Lake was the most playful and stylized of femme fatales. Neither of them seemed very real. But when they were onscreen, it was hard to look away.

7. Laird Cregar and Dan Duryea

I love villainous team-ups. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing-- these were men who combined vile deeds with effortless panache. I thought for a while about pairing Laird Cregar with Vincent Price but quickly decided those two were too similar. What better match for the looming, beautifully-spoken Cregar than the rail-bodied, nasally Duryea? Cregar had the courtly manners, Duryea had the streetwise sneer. Their unusual looks and sinister talents relegated them to the ranks of villainy (Cregar would eventually destroy himself in his quest to become a romantic leading man), but few actors could make it all look so enjoyable.

8. Barbara Stanwyck and James Stewart

As I've said before on this site, Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress and Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor. They were two of the most talented and versatile performers of all time and anyone who wants to argue with me on that point can just go home and collect their dueling pistols. So why oh why didn't these two ever make a movie together? Barbara Stanwyck spent half her career seducing good guys (Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda seemed particularly susceptible) so the omission of Stewart is really baffling. They could have done a comedy, they could have done drama, they could have done romance. In the end, they did it all but not together.


  1. Oh my goodness! This is one of the best post ideas I've ever seen! I agree with all of the people you mentioned. Especially Babs Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart (my favorites) - I have a feeling they never got paired up because the casting directors knew the pure awesomeness probably would have killed anyone within miles of them. ;) ha! Anyway, GREAT post.

  2. Holy mother, Mitchum and Lake would have been the hottest pair ever. Yowza.

    Both Horne and Robeson got the royal shaft something awful from the studios. Much love to Ava and Jeanne, but Horne would have been spectacular as the lead in Showboat and Pinkie.

    I always thought Vivien Leigh and George Sanders would have made a fun film pair. And even though I joked about an Audrey Hepburn-Marilyn Monroe version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, I genuinely would have liked seeing the two vastly different beauty icons in a glamourous Odd Couple buddy film. Mostly for the novelty.

    Thought-provoking post, as always!

  3. StanwyckFan: Glad you liked it. My own personal theory is that the film directors knew that if they ever snagged these two for a movie, the other directors would have killed them out of sheer jealousy. In addition to their acting brilliance, Stewart and Stanwyck were fantastically easy to work with.

    Laura: I pretty much agree with all your ideas. I'm especially intrigued by Leigh and Sanders together. And Lena Horne getting the shaft on those roles is just inexcusable. Considering all she and Robeson had to go through, I'm completely in awe of their courage.

  4. I agree with Stanwyckfan - a great idea for a post made even better by some inspired suggested couplings, esp Cagney & Stanwyck, Lombard & Loy, and Mitchum & Lake. I'd pay good money to see a movie with any of those knockout combos!

  5. Martin Turnbull: Thank you for your kind words. While I didn't bring it up in the post, I'm particularly in love with the idea of casting Lombard and Loy in a '30s style Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Just think how Carole Lombard would tackle the role of Lorelei Lee.

  6. Agreed that Barbara Stanwyck never got the co-stars she deserved. She and Cagney, in the early 30s, would have been total dynamite!Clifton Webb and Thelma Ritter? Mr. & Mrs. Belvedere? A delightful post on all counts. It's fun to dream!

  7. What a great idea for a post.. I agree, Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy, would have been great in a funny/spy movie.

    I would have liked to see Gene Tierney co- star with Gary Copper or even Cary Grant.

  8. FlickChick: Well, Stanwyck did get some of the heavyweights: Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, William Holden. She even got to star with Humphrey Bogart once, in The Two Mrs. Carrolls, although by all accounts it was a pretty miscast film (Bogart as a wife-killer and Stanwyck as the frightened victim).

    Dawn: Hey, if anyone else feels inspired to write up their what-if dream teams, I'm all for it. I love Gene Tierney so I'm on board with your pairings.

  9. I never thought of James Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck not being together but they really should have been! Same as Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert.

    I wonder if one reason Veronica Lake and Robert Mitchum didn't work together is because she was so difficult to work with. I don't think he would have it with her haha.

  10. Comet: Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert? How did I miss that one? They would have been great.

    Well, with my Mitchum/Lake pairing, I did ignore the fact that Lake's career had already imploded just as Mitchum's was taking off. It's my fantasy list after all. But I think you're right, I can't see him having much patience with her. He got along best with tough women like Jane Russell or Deborah Kerr (who won his heart by swearing at John Huston).

  11. My dream team that never was is Stanwyck with Cary Grant - in a movie made by Billy Wilder. Sigh! I guess she was too busy with Fred MacMurray, Joel McCrea and George Brent.

  12. Caftan Woman: I'm sure Billy Wilder had the same fantasy. So many times he tried to get Grant.

    Your mention of George Brent reminded me again of Baby Face, which also had John Wayne in a bit part. Just imagine her taking on Wayne in a proper Western!

  13. Some years ago, I suggested a film that would have been a good vehicle for Lombard and Loy, and ironically it also features a comedic actress from Fort Wayne (though in this movie, she portrays the Loy-type role):

  14. Vincent: Excellent post, thanks for the link. In addition to Loy, I would have liked seeing Lombard with Colbert or Hepburn as well (as long as they weren't just fighting over a man). Maybe in a '30s-style 9 to 5.

  15. What a great idea for a post. I would have loved to see Stanwyck with Cagney or Stewart!

  16. Craig: Thanks! In hindsight, the pairings seem pretty obvious. Not that I don't love some of the actual Stanwyck pairings (her and MacMurrray in particular). But still, missed opportunity.

  17. Cagney and Stanwyck. Now THAT'S a duo that should have worked together.

  18. MovieNut: Welcome! Well, they did work together in These Wilder Years. But damnit, an adoption drama isn't good enough for me. I want gangsters and molls and mile-a-minute Brooklyn accents and dancing!

  19. @Rachel Y'know, I can picture that should-have-been picture of theirs. Cagney is a gangster trying to go clean after a stint in prison. He meets Stanwyck, who is a dancer with a mean streak. Sort of like a Pre-Code Gun Crazy.

  20. MovieNut: I would so watch your movie. Pre-Code Gun Crazy, sigh.

  21. Cregar & Duryea: now THAT'S a team! I can just see Cregar lolling in an armchair, puffing on a pipe, while Duryea buzzes around him like a mosquito.

    Bette Davis & Spencer Tracy made one movie together early in their careers, 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING. They were both terrific in it, and I rather wish that they had made more together - Tracy's laid-back calm combined with Davis' intensity would have been a great match-up.

  22. Stanwyck and Cagney in a pre-code gangster movie? (shudder of pure pleasure)

    But it almost happened- Wellman's Night Nurse initially cast Cagney as the chauffeur. Then C. hit stardom... and Gable got the role (and he is - to be fair - terrific in the movie).

    But I agree with FlickChick: Stanwyck never had much competition from her co-stars (to your list, add Sterling Hayden and Ray Milland) and she walks over all of them. But in her movies, mostly you have George Brent or Wendell Corey, cropping up with alarming regularity- acting carefully within the confines of quotation marks.

  23. Grandoldmovies: I hadn't thought much about Tracy and Davis, but it sounds like an interesting match-up. Two indomitable wills facing off.

    Shamus: I've yet to see Night Nurse, even though it's been on my list for years. I think Gable and Stanywck could have some serious heat together.

    And in regards to Stanwyck and her men (hey, Dennis Morgan, can't forget him!), I've never had much sympathy for the old studio position of letting one star do all the acting while you have John Boles/George Brent/John Lund standing there like a cardboard cutout.

    And gah, Wendell Corey. He seriously dented my enjoyment of The File on Thelma Jordan.

  24. And we've forgotten Val Helfin in Strange Love of Martha Ivers, an exception to the stupid old studio rule you mentioned. And W.C. (what perfectly evocative initials) didn't entirely ruin Thelma Jordon for me- though not for lack of trying.

    I think you'll like Night Nurse: murder, bootlegging, child abuse, alcoholism and, heaven help me, (off-screen) rape: all in the best pre-code tradition. And while Stanwyck is my absolute favorite actress, Joan Blondell is (somehow) even sexier in that movie- they spend a great deal of time getting in and out of (negligible) night-clothes. Recommendation enough?

  25. Shamus: The Stanwyck/Van Heflin/Douglas triangle in Martha Ivers, is one of the more fascinating (and sadomasochistic) love triangles in noir, I'm thinking. I give Van Heflin props for a convincing performance as a guy who isn't scared off by the sight of Stanwyck coming at him with a flaming torch! I think that clip is obligatory for any Stanwyck tribute video.

    For what it's worth, I thought Wendell Corey was perfectly cast as the spoilsport Lt. Doyle in Rear Window, with a memorable closeup and a truly pitiable attempt at downing brandy.

    Okay, you've sold me on Night Nurse.

  26. Hope it isn't too late to say what a swell theme. I love the thought of Powell and Colbert and Ritter and Webb. I fancy Greer Garson and Cary Grant!

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood

  27. I recently found your site. And I opened this blog looking for #8 as Stanwyck is my favorite actress and Stewart is my favorite actor.
    It's a shame that they never appeared in the same film especially since both had long extensive careers simultaneously.

    As you mentioned, I enjoy them both as they were both diverse and talented enough to play any role given to them.