That man above, pictured departing a Brown Derby restaurant, is Sydney Greenstreet, perhaps the greatest character actor in Hollywood history and, Frank argues in this blog, one of the Hollywood’s greatest actors, period. (How many of you out there agree?)
Greenstreet was born in England (Sandwich, Kent) in 1879, one of eight children of a leather merchant. At 18, he went abroad to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to try his hand at running a tea plantation.
Back in England Greenstreet tried managing a brewery and other jobs before hitting on the idea of attending acting school. He made his London stage debut in 1902, assaying the role of a villain in “Sherlock Homes.”
By the time he showed up on Huston’s The Maltese Falcon set at Warner Bros. at the age of 61, Greenstreet had logged 40 years as a stage actor on both side of the pond. In his 1980 memoir, An Open Book,”Huston wrote: The English actor Sydney Greenstreet had worked on Broadway but this was, I believe, his first film.
“There’s always talk about the difficulty of making the transition from stage to screen, but you wouldn’t know it to watch Greenstreet; he was perfect from the word go, the Fat Man, inside out. I had only to sit back and take delight in him and his performance.”
Author-critic David Thomson regards Greenstreet’s screen debut in broader perspective: “It has always been the convention of the film industry to ‘introduce’ potent new players. But few introductions have been as dramatic as that of Greenstreet: monstrous, over sixty, hostile and so clearly familiar with every wrinkle in the world’s corruption.
“Where could such bulk have been hiding? How would audiences feel less than cheated that he had been withheld for so long?”
Greenstreet was nominated for an Academy Award in the best supporting actor category for his screen debut as “the fat man.” (Remember who he lost to that year?)
To its credit, Warner’s knew what it had in the 300-pound-plus Greenstreet, and as Thomson puts it “worked him hard over the next eight years — 25 features from 1951 through 1950, averaging more than two pictures per year – forgetting perhaps that he was an old man who needed to sit down for as much of a film as possible.
It’s true that Greenstreet’s girth became something of his signature. As the slender Sam Spade, Humphrey Bogart wore his own clothes in character. Greenstreet‘s outfits, on the other hand, had to be specially tailored by the studio costume department. Nothing less would fit.
Greenstreet used size to great advantage, playing erudite spies, a sleazy tycoons, Nazi agents, a corrupt Southern sheriff, among other juicy roles. He always executed his parts with panache and a delicious appreciation of evil that often aced the histrionics of the top-billed star.
In Casablanca, Greenstreet made an indelible cameo appearance as Bogie’s genial rival, a seen-it-all cabaret owner who languorously swats flies for amusement. (That’s Greenstreet in the above above with Ingrid Bergman.)
In 1942’s Across the Pacific, also from Warners and also starring Bogart, Greenstreet found himself portraying a Japanese-speaking academic, a specialist in Philippine economics who holds “the chair of sociology at the university there.”
The general plot line of Across the Pacific had the Japanese secretly planning to pull of a Pearl Harbor-style attack on the Panama Canal. Greenstreet’s character was no academic, of course, but a master spy bent on violently undermining Bogey. The picture was directed for the most part by Huston, who bowed out before the film was completed in order to begin military service. The studio commissioned Vincent Sherman to step in and shoot the ending.
As the cigar-puffing bon vivant, Greenstreet tosses off with great aplomb such politically incorrect lines as “Japanese make great servants… wonderful little people,” and “the Oriental life holds great appeal for me.”
In 1943’s Backround to Danger, director Raoul Walsh’s treatment of a spy thriller from the reliable novelist Eric Ambler, the mustache-sporting Greenstreet has to cope with star George Raft and a daffy plot about Nazis supposedly enticing the then USSR to invade Turkey in order to destabilize the region.
Greenstreet oozes evil in the role of “Colonel Robinson,” another Nazi mastermind in disguise. It’s all great fun abetted by the appearance of Peter Lorre.
Greenstreet and Lorre appeared together in at least four other films, the best of which probably is 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios, directed by Jean Negulesco and also based on an Eric Ambler novel. The pair delivered entertaining performances in Negulesco’s 1946 mystery Three Strangers, costarring Geraldine Fitzgerald. As in The Maltese Falcon, Greenstreet’s character finds himself within an inch of realizing a fortune that, alas, slips from his reach.
Greenstreet and Lorre are justifiably regarded today by classic movie fans as one of the screen’s great actor duos. Critic Thomson refers to them as “Lear and the Fool.”
As the corrupt sheriff and tyrannical town boss in his penultimate picture –1949’s “Flamingo Road,” the Joan Crawford melodrama directed by Michael Curtiz — Greenstreet consumes several servings of pie washed down with milk by the pitcher, gets slapped twice by Crawford, and defuses adversaries with such lines as “you know how I’ve always been, just an easy-going, friendly fat old man.”
The fat man’s last screen performance as a character called simply “the Dutchman” was in MGM’s 1949 title “Malaya,” Richard Thorpe’s adventure outing about pirating rubber from the Japanese. Greenstreet was in good company. The stars were Spencer Tracy and James Stewart.
Greenstreet died in 1954, at the age of 74, felled by kidney disease and diabetes among other ailments. His career was short and fruitful. As long as there are those who prize classic movies, he will never be forgotten.
By the way, the candid shot at the beginning of today’s blog — showing Greenstreet exiting the Brown Derby — was taken from our Donald Gordon Collection, named for our late friend, who as a young actor who found himself under contract at Columbia Pictures during World War II. The collection was bequeathed to us after his death. In fact. Donald had a tiny, non-speaking role in at least one of Greenstreet’s pictures.)