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Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby Professional Tourist » December 6th, 2015, 1:05 am

Thank you, Mr. Bigwood, for the additional radio information. I will look into those programs. I'm glad to know a full recording of the 12 June 1944 war bond broadcast has been preserved. If your copy is digitized and could be uploaded, I'd love to hear it. If it's a physical medium then I'll pass but do thank you for the offer.

Now that it is officially Agnes Moorehead's birthday, I have to ask this. :D The more I read about Alan Napier this weekend, the more I see in common between him and AM. Gifted vocal characterization, love of interpreting great writers on the stage, a great television success in the 1960s that tended to overshadow prior accomplishments, and even some friends, such as Brian Aherne. The two of them worked together in radio at least twice, and in one motion picture Johnny Belinda. So Mr. B., do you know of any comment made by Mr. Napier about AM, personally and/or professionally?

Thank you for all your time.

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby BiggieB » December 6th, 2015, 9:26 am

Professional Tourist - Not a word about Aggie, I'm afraid. Given the Orson Welles connection, there should have been!

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby BiggieB » December 6th, 2015, 9:38 am

Professional Tourist - One other known radio credit for Alan, which is maddeningly lost, is a Theatre Guild production of Oliver Twist (starring Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff), which was broadcast on February 24th, 1952.

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby JackFavell » December 6th, 2015, 10:01 am

Thank you for those splendid replies, Mr. Bigwood! And for the lovely picture, PT.

I can definitely see how DuMaurier's acting style influenced Alan's own light, very natural and understated acting. From what I've read about Napier's contemporaries - Gielgud, Richardson, and Olivier - they all came up in the theatre under actor/managers. Was this the case in Alan's time at the Oxford Players?

I was looking at Alan's theatrical career, and he played in what looks like hundreds of plays! Did he have a favorite playwright, as DuMaurier preferred Barrie, or say, Wendy Hiller preferred Shaw?

I imagine he was not much of a complainer, but for someone who relished diversity of roles, was it hard for him in Hollywood, where they cast to type?

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby BiggieB » December 6th, 2015, 10:37 am

Jack - The main force behind the Oxford Players was not an actor manager, but a playwright/director (although he had acted in his early days). J.B. Fagan was a good friend of fellow-Irishman George Bernard Shaw and directed the London premiere of "Heartbreak House" in 1919 (the world premiere had been in New York). His best known play was "And So To Bed", based on the life of Samuel Pepys, in which Alan appeared. Alan had a great love and respect for the actor/managers and felt that they were always superior directors to those who had never performed on stage. In addition to Gerald du Maurier, he worked several times with Leon M. Lion (including a successful tour of two Galsworthy plays, "Justice" and "Loyalties" (which led him to being cast in both "Bitter Sweet" and the film version of "Loyalties").

Alan loved Shaw. When he appeared in "Heartbreak House" for the last time in 1985, he wrote an essay for the cast on how to act Shaw, which is included in the book as an Appendix.

As to type casting, here is the amazing thing. Alan was never type-cast until he did "Batman". Alan was a chameleon and I argue in the book that that was why he was not more successful. Take somebody like Edward Everett Horton, who played variations on the same role all his life (brilliantly, of course). Alan could be a Lancashire coal minor, a New England postman, a French nobleman, an alcoholic criminal mastermind... . The only thing his characters had in common is that they were tall!

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As a result, he didn't leap to mind when people were casting. He probably would have been more successful if he HAD been typed.

Until "Batman"...

Alan never played a butler before "Batman". In the nineteen television roles he played in the twenty years between the end of "Batman" and his death, three were butlers.
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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby moira finnie » December 6th, 2015, 10:44 am

Thank you for returning today, Mr. B.

Professional Tourist & JackFavell (Wendy), I really hope that you read the Napier book, since I believe both of you would love the actor's rhapsodic account of his joys, difficulties, and encounters during his theatrical adventures. His words (and Jim Bigwood's vital annotations and asides) leap off the page.

Jim, could you please touch on the fact that, despite his beautiful speaking voice, Alan Napier appears to have struggled with a stammer throughout his life? Do you think that the discipline and focus needed for acting helped him to cope?

Image
Above: Alan Napier as an adventurous Scotsman in Across the Wide Missouri (1951).

Could you please comment on one of the more surprising details revealed in the book--the greylisting of Alan Napier after a seemingly innocent comment he made while filming Across the Wide Missouri (1951)? I thought it was ironic that one of Napier's follow-up films, Big Jim McLain (1953) with John Wayne, who seemed to like and admire Napier, held considerable promise for Alan's future.

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Above: Alan Napier, being a smooth-talking subversive in Big Jim McLain (1953).
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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby JackFavell » December 6th, 2015, 11:59 am

Moira, I am definitely getting the book!

Mr. Bigwood, you mentioned earlier that Napier felt he was not a complete person before he met his wife. Can you elaborate on his early years, and also on how he met his wife?

I think a few other actors have started their careers in order to overcome speech impediments.

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby Professional Tourist » December 6th, 2015, 12:06 pm

A follow-up on those additional radio roles:

The 1939 "Pygmalion" can be heard here: https://archive.org/details/OTRR_Lux_Radio_Theatre_Season_06_Singles

The 1941 "Algiers" is here: https://archive.org/details/OTRR_Lux_Radio_Theatre_Season_07_Singles

Regarding the lost Theater Guild on the Air episode of "Oliver Twist," I understand the frustration. That particular series has several missing gems, including AM's production of "The Little Foxes" and Maurice Evans' "Romeo and Juliet," both from 1948. The Paley Center is supposed to have a copy of the Evans play; perhaps others will surface over time. The Internet Archive is a great repository, so they just might pop up there one day. :)

Regarding:
Not a word about Aggie, I'm afraid.

Alan reunited with Houseman, who was by then working as Welles' producer in the Mercury Theater, when he came to the States.
Alan loved Shaw.

In this case, there is reason to believe that Mr. Napier might have seen AM on stage in "Don Juan in Hell," perhaps in the 1972-73 revival tour directed by his old friend. :wink: :P

Image

If Mr. Napier had seen this production or Charles Laughton's tour by the First Drama Quartette in the early 1950s, I'd be interested to know what he thought of it. Although it was very well received by the public and critics, not all fellow-artists were so enamored of it (such as John Gielgud). Well, we may never know, but it's one more potential connection. :)

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby Professional Tourist » December 6th, 2015, 12:12 pm

JackFavell wrote:I think a few other actors have started their careers in order to overcome speech impediments.

Yes -- another such is James Earl Jones! It shouldn't be so surprising, but :shock:

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby BiggieB » December 6th, 2015, 1:13 pm

Moira - Happy to be back for Day 2! There's been some great challenging questions!

Alan always said that he was the most unlikely candidate for success as an actor. "A woefully inhibited, stammering, skinny, 6 foot 5 inch, hopelessly myopic beanpole" was how he described himself. However, what he soon learned was that when he was acting, he didn't stammer, "because when I was being someone else I did not stammer". As he grew older and gained more self-confidence, the stammer receded somewhat, but when he was acting in "The Green Pack" with Gerald du Maurier, he started getting unexpected nosebleeds which strained his concentration. "When making up before a performance - and I never left myself any margin of time - an attack might come on and I would lie on my back on the dressing room floor praying for it to stop. Improperly bearded, perhaps, I would get on the stage only just in time; fear of a recurrence of bleeding preventing me from assuming Mark’s character. Suddenly I was not Mark - I was Alan, with a bloody nose; and Alan was liable to stammer. The whole performance became a nightmare."

In one of his early British films, "In a Monastery Garden", one of the infamous low-budget "Quota Quickies" being made in England in the 30's to boost the local film industry, Alan plays an Italian count, very articulate and smooth talking. Suddenly, in one closeup, he gets caught on a word, and his stammer remains in the released film, retakes being rare luxuries.

Alan's stammer never left him completely. You can hear traces of it in Jeffrey Vance's interview clips, when he was 83 and--more importantly--not playing a character, but being himself. But, as he noted himself, it was not uncommon among actors. The concept of becoming somebody else to mask the deficiencies of his own personality was not unique to Alan.

The road to Alan's greylisting can be traced to his arrival in the United States and his friendship with John Houseman, Orson Welles, and especially with Houseman's then assistant, Annie Taylor, later Howard Koch's assistant at Warner Bros. Prior to that he had been middle of the road, if he thought about politics at all. As a cousin of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, he had been raised as a member of the upper class (a "poor relation", but upper class nonetheless). Now he was interacting with people who challenged his way of looking at things.

"I remember one night at a well known Italian restaurant on the Strip, after a couple of martinis, finding myself completely opposed to an ideological position Annie was advocating. Our minestrone was cooling before us and, in the best English-gentlemen tradition, I terminated, as I thought, an awkward conversation by saying, “I'm afraid, Annie, we must agree to differ.” Thumping the table, with eyes flashing, Annie screamed, “I will not agree to differ!” I was thunder-struck. But Annie liked me, thought I was intelligent but mistaken due to an unfortunately conservative background, and was damn well going to convince me of the rightness of her stand to the Left! I guess she did. After thirty years we are the best of friends and now see eye to eye on everything important."

Alan's new political views were reinforced by Gip, his second wife, and although never inclined to Communism, he knew a couple of the Hollywood Ten socially. While waiting for a lighting setup on "Across the Wide Missouri", he ignored Gip's parting warning "not to talk politics with Adolphe Menjou" by commenting, after Menjou's rant that "the Hollywood Ten should all be lined up against a wall and shot!", "But Adolphe, wouldn't that be rather un-American?"

That's all it took.

Ironically, as you note, his next film was John Wayne's first independent production "Big Jim McLain", which purported to show the Communist infiltration of Honolulu. Alan was the head Commie in the movie and quite willingly sneered out his propaganda laced lines (like all propaganda, Left or Right, the script was painfully stilted). This didn't help him. John Wayne liked Alan and even talked about casting him in his next independent film (playing a Mexican grandee, another indication of the lack of type casting in Alan's Hollywood career) but unfortunately, he liked Ward Bond better. And Ward Bond had been listening to Adolphe Menjou...

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby BiggieB » December 6th, 2015, 1:29 pm

Wendy (if I may) - Glad to hear you are planning on getting the book!

Alan was married twice. His first wife was Lesbian, a fact that he knew when they married, but which, in the ignorance of the times, they both thought they could overcome. They had a daughter, Jennifer, who eventually came to live with Alan and Gip in California. Gip had a daughter as well from a previous marriage, (also named Jennifer!) who had a brief acting career under the name of Jennifer Raine (Alan acted with her in couple of plays in Los Angeles). Alan eventually had two grandchildren (Christie and David) and one step-grandson (Brian Forster, who was the second actor to play Chris, the youngest member of the Partridge family). Gip's Jennifer died in 1993, but Alan's Jennifer, Christie, David and Brian all cooperated on the book (Jennifer Nichols shares the copyright).

Alan met his first wife when they were both cast in "Bitter Sweet" in 1929. He actually met Gip's daughter before he met Gip. He was lying on the beach, and she came by looking for her dog. Eventually he met her mother...

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby BiggieB » December 6th, 2015, 1:38 pm

Professional Tourist - There is every likelihood that Alan saw Agnes Moorehead in that production. He was always going to the theater in Los Angeles and he was directed by John Houseman in four plays:

Coriolanus at the Phoenix Theater in New York in 1954

and then three of Houseman's Group Theater UCLA productions in the early sixties:

Murder in the Cathedral (1960)
The Three Sisters (1960)
Measure For Measure (1962)

Of course he would have gone to see his production of "Don Juan in Hell"!

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby JackFavell » December 6th, 2015, 2:20 pm

I've just watched a ripping good episode of FOUR STAR PLAYHOUSE with Alan and David Niven, not to mention Rhys Williams and a few other Brits. Was Napier a part of the British ex-pats "club" in Hollywood, mainly socializing among themselves? I'm pretty sure Aherne was, and Nigel Bruce and Gladys Cooper. Or perhaps he liked to step out of that group when given the chance? Was he a social creature or did he, like Ronald Colman, prefer a nice quiet evening at home?

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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby moira finnie » December 6th, 2015, 3:09 pm

There are hints in Alan Napier's autobiography that he once entertained hope to be regarded as a leading man, on stage, at least. However, his experiences over time seem to reveal to him that being an employed, supporting player had some distinct advantages. After he settled in Hollywood, he seems to have seen enough of the stresses and attitudes toward leading actors to count his blessings. Did this become more evident after he was happily married to Gip?

There is one story that Alan tells about his friend and co-star Gladys Cooper during his work behind the camera while making This Above All (1942) that seemed enlightening about the way that management really saw actors--even those once considered stars. Could you please reflect on how this instance, and his own casting call experiences might have affected his perspective on his career?

I really appreciate your incisive answers here!
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Re: Q & A with James Bigwood about Alan Napier's Autobiography

Postby mongoII » December 6th, 2015, 3:29 pm

HI Mr. Bigwood and welcome to the Silver Screen Oasis.
Surprisingly when I usually hear the name of Alan Napier I think of him as the caustic newspaper critic
in "House of Horrors" (1946) with Rondo Hatton. He was perfect in the role.
Did Mr. Napier have a favorite movie role? Did he get along with his costars?
Thank you
Mongo aka Joe
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