Centennial Tributes: Broderick Crawford
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In 1949, Columbia Pictures brought Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel All the King’s Men to the big screen in an adaptation that deviated a great deal from the source material (as most films are wont to do) but nevertheless made for a compelling movie about idealism and political corruption in telling the tragic story of the rise and fall of a populist demagogue named Willie Stark. In casting the film, director Robert Rossen first offered the role of Stark to John Wayne who — not surprisingly — turned down the part, thinking the script unpatriotic. Rossen then decided upon Broderick Crawford, a burly character actor whose prolific if undistinguished cinematic career was comprised of playing tough guys and Runyonesque hoods in vehicles such as Tight Shoes (1941) and Butch Minds the Baby (1942). The role of Willie Stark fit Crawford like a glove, however; he won an Oscar for his performance in King’s Men beating out the Duke, who also had been nominated that same year for his starring turn in Sands of Iwo Jima.
Crawford’s triumph for All the King’s Men has often acted as a litmus test where Academy Awards are concerned; many film historians and critics argue that the Best Actor Oscar should not have gone to someone whose movie career, with the exception of King’s Men and Born Yesterday (1950), was marked by admittedly one-note performances in B-pictures, alternately playing heroes and villains. Is the purpose of Academy Awards to single out meritorious individual performances, or are they largely recognition for an entire distinguished body of work? I suppose it matters very little in the final analysis, because there are no mulligans when it comes to Oscars: Crawford won his, and in all honesty I think it was most deserved. The actor, who would become one of Hollywood’s most cantankerous character thespians, was born 100 years ago today, and now is good as time as any to see if his stage, screen and television legacy holds up.
Broderick Crawford was born in Philadelphia in 1911 to a second generation of performers, vaudevillians Lester Crawford and Helen Broderick. The latter name is familiar to many classic film buffs that’ve seen the comedienne in such Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicles as Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936). Before her movie career, she and her husband were a successful comedy duo in vaudeville, with an act that occasionally featured their young son in small roles. Brod graduated from the Dean Academy in Franklin, Mass., (where he was a well-regarded athlete) and was accepted at Harvard but his further academic pursuits came to a halt when he dropped out after three months to find work in New York. He became a jack-of-all-trades (longshoreman, seaman, etc.) though eventually the show business bug consumed him and he landed a number of radio jobs in the 1930s; reportedly appearing from time to time on Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel — the 1932-33 half-hour comedy series starring Groucho and Chico Marx.
With performing in his blood, Broderick made his Broadway debut in 1934 as a football player in She Loves Me Not (he had made his stage debut in the same production in 1932 in London, where his talents attracted the notice of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who in turn introduced him to Noel Coward) and later appeared in such productions as Coward’s Point Verlaine, Sweet Mystery of Life and Of Mice and Men. It was for the latter play that Crawford earned exceptional critical acclaim, though when it came time for Hollywood to do its adaptation Brod was overlooked for the part in favor of Lon Chaney, Jr. By that point in his show business career, Crawford had set stage work aside in favor of the movies; his film debut was in the Samuel Goldwyn-produced Woman Chases Man (1937; with Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea) and he continued to appear in such B-flicks as Submarine D-1, Undercover Doctor and Eternally Yours. On occasion, Broderick would land roles in “A” productions such as Beau Geste, The Real Glory, Seven Sinners and Slightly Honorable but his rough-hewn manner and less-than-matinee-idol looks (in later years he remarked that his cinematic countenance resembled that of “a retired pugilist”) usually relegated him to character parts in scores of shoot-‘em-up Westerns like The Texas Rangers Ride Again and When the Daltons Rode. He did, however, prove versatile and adept at humorous turns in films like The Black Cat (Brod’s actually one of the “heroes” in this horror comedy, teamed with cinematic toothache Hugh Herbert) and Larceny, Inc.; he supported Edward G. Robinson in this last one as the lunkheaded Jug Martin, who assists Eddie and Ed Brophy in their attempts to rob a bank by purchasing and operating a luggage store next to it. (A decade later, Crawford paid homage to Robinson by re-creating a role that Eddie G. had played in the 1938 crime comedy A Slight Case of Murder but unfortunately, Stop, You’re Killing Me can’t quite measure up to the original.)
Crawford’s film career was interrupted briefly by World War II; he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and while in Europe saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. He later was assigned to the Armed Forces Radio Network in 1944, where as Sergeant Crawford he fell back on his previous radio experience to serve as an announcer for Glenn Miller’s band. Back in Hollywood by 1946, Brod returned to the B-picture grind with occasional bright spots such as Black Angel, The Time of Your Life (as a melancholy policeman) and Night unto Night. His gig in All the King’s Men transformed him into a box-office draw and made him the most unlikely leading man since Wallace Beery; signing a contract with Columbia that same year, he also nabbed the plum role of tyrannical junk tycoon Harry Brock opposite Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday — a part that actor Paul Douglas had played to great acclaim on stage.
Crawford’s brilliant comic turn in Yesterday had an unfortunate side effect in that it earned him enmity from critics who have argued that, for the most part, he played variations of Harry Brock in practically every film in its wake. The success of both King’s Men and Yesterday nevertheless earned him considerable cache to appear in “A” productions such as Night People (1954) and Not as a Stranger (1955) —the latter film once described by one critic as “the worst film with the best cast.” His turn as Capt. “Waco” Grimes in Between Heaven and Hell (1956) features some of his best work, and his approach to the character may remind you of Col. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That same year, he surprised critics again by scoring as a petty thief seeking redemption in Federico Fellini’s Il Bidone.
Truth be told, Crawford worked his magic best as a screen heavy; he appeared as a formidable villain against Clark Gable in 1952’s Lone Star, and particularly shone in film noirs such as Big House, U.S.A. and New York Confidential (both 1955). One of his best showcases in that style was in 1952’s Scandal Sheet, a film directed by Phil Karlson (based on a novel by Sam Fuller) in which he plays a tyrannical tabloid editor who assigns his star reporter (John Derek, who had played son Tom Stark in King’s Men) to investigate a sensationalistic murder knowing full well that he is the guilty party. Scandal Sheet bears a strong resemblance to the earlier The Big Clock (1948) — in which powerful magazine magnate Charles Laughton tries to frame editor Ray Milland for a murder Charlie committed — but while Crawford was certainly not in Laughton’s league watching him sweat bullets as the noose tightens around his neck during Derek and girlfriend Donna Reed’s relentless investigation is certainly worth the price of admission.
Crawford also headlined another underrated noir entitled The Mob (1951); as undercover cop Johnny Damico, Crawford sets out to find a hit man while exposing corruption in the waterfront rackets — Mob has some memorably snappy dialogue in addition to its first-rate supporting cast (Richard Kiley, Ernest Borgnine, Neville Brand) though I will admit Brod seems more like the guy who’d be running the waterfront in the first place. Other standout noirs with Crawford include Down Three Dark Streets (1954), in which he plays a stalwart FBI agent, and Human Desire (also 1954), a Fritz Lang-directed remake of Jean Renoir's La Bête Humaine that cast him as the cuckolded husband in a torrid love affair between wife Gloria Grahame and co-worker Glenn Ford. (Crawford’s husband in Desire is a truly pitiful soul who earns the audience’s sympathy because Gloria, not to put too fine a point on it, is a real bitch.)
Ford and Crawford squared off again two years later in an underrated Western that’s been a longtime favorite of mine, The Fastest Gun Alive. Brod is the loathsome Vinnie Harold, a gun-toting bully compelled to challenge any individual who’s acquired a reputation as a fast gun. When he arrives in a town where shopkeeper Ford’s prowess with a firearm is being kept under wraps by the populace (they’re afraid that Glenn’s rep will draw every gunslinger in for miles around…and they were pretty much right), he and his men (John Dehner, Noah Beery, Jr.) threaten to set the burg ablaze unless they identify Ford. A great psychological oater, Fastest Gun stands out among the many Westerns Crawford appeared in at that time, which included such films as Last of the Comanches and The Last Posse (both 1953).
Toward the latter part of the 1950s, Crawford’s film appearances became sporadic (The Decks Ran Red, Goliath and the Dragon) due to his conquering another medium: television. Syndicated TV king Frederic Ziv tabbed Brod to play the lead role in a half-hour crime drama series entitled Highway Patrol, in which the actor played Dan Matthews, head of a state police patrol (the state was never specified). Ziv, who was responsible for such boob tube hits as Sea Hunt and Bat Masterson, scored a bona fide success in Patrol, which ran for four seasons (a total of 156 episodes) and made Crawford a TV icon, brandishing a trademark fedora and barking mile-a-minute orders into a microphone (“10-4, 10-4”). Crawford by this point in his career had finely honed the belligerence (and drinking habits) that made many producers reluctant to work with the volatile star, but Ziv got along well with Brod, though he later admitted: “To be honest, Broderick could be a handful.” Ziv wanted Crawford to do a fifth season of Patrol but Broderick took a pass, later explaining “We ran out of crimes.” However, he did go to work again for the company in 1961, starring as insurance investigator (whose specialty was precious gems) John King in King of Diamonds. The series lasted but a single season, as did a later show entitled The Interns (1970-71).
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Crawford found himself in demand as a frequent guest star in most of the hit dramatic TV shows from that era: The Virginian, Rawhide, Burke’s Law, The Name of the Game, etc. His movie work largely was relegated to foreign films though he turned up in the likes of Convicts 4, A House is Not a Home, The Oscar and Terror in the Wax Museum. His last notable film role was the titular protagonist of Larry Cohen’s 1977 cult curiosity The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover — a part he also had played in a sketch hosting Saturday Night Live in 1977, in which he also appeared in a send-up of Highway Patrol. Crawford also landed a tongue-in-cheek cameo on the first season of the TV series CHiPs, a watered-down version of the show that made him a household name (and he said as much, remarking to star Larry Wilcox: “You know, I was making those Highway Patrol shows long before you guys were born”).
Broderick Crawford rarely had any pretensions about being a great actor (he was famous for remarking “Don’t applaud, just send me the check”) — he took what work he wanted, and wasn’t what one would consider a leading man type in the style of a Cary Grant or James Stewart. Aside from his starring turns in All the King’s Men and Born Yesterday, his greatest legacy in show business was an unassuming little half-hour television cop show that is still around for us to enjoy today (Highway Patrol is frequently rerun on affiliates that carry ThisTV programming, and the first season of the series has been released on manufactured-on-demand DVD). But his performances were never boring, and when given the right material (King’s Men, Yesterday, The Mob, Scandal Sheet), he could be a most mesmerizing presence…and if you don’t believe me, check out Turner Classic Movies for a three-film festival beginning at 8 p.m. EST this evening in honor of his 100th birthday.
I’m serious, you need to sit down and watch.
“Do what I’m tellin’ ya!!!”