07 September 2008

Mr. Debonair Himself, Herbert Marshall


His voice, his manner, his movements positively exuded class.

When you hear Herbert Marshall speak in one of the 73 films in which he appeared you can hear the sophistication. Let's get some more adjectives out: suave, elegant, dapper, urbane, gracious and most important of all, charming. Marshall always came off as educated and classy, but never pretentious. So let's get out these adjectives too: affable, likable and even comfortable.

Marshal always seemed like he'd been to the best schools, read all the classics, knew which were the good wines and had never ever burped. I defy you to not enjoy Marshall's company, even when he's playing a rogue (especially?) or a double crossing spy.

In Foreign Correspondent (1940) his character, Stephen Fisher is a Nazi spy masquerading as a peace advocate. Fisher has fooled everyone, including his own daughter. But in the end, after his exposure, Fisher gives his own life to save his captors. What a guy!

Perhaps the quintessential Marshall role was as Gaston Monescu, the international jewel thief and scam artist in Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932). Countless other actors have played high class thieves to great success but I'd put Marshall up against any of them. You like him, admire him and root him on with all your heart.

Born in London, Marshall served England in the first World War where he lost a leg (it was never found). Fit with a wooden leg he nonetheless pursued a career in acting. Did Marshall ever amble around in his films like a guy who could use his own leg to knock on wood? He did not. Marshall may never have played a sprinter but his walk was as jaunty as his characters.

Marshall's first big film role was as Marlene Dietrich's dutiful husband in Joseph von Sternberg's brilliant film, Blonde Venus (1932). While Dietrich stole the show, as usual, Marshall was heart-breaking as the spouse who has to leave wife and child in New York to seek the only possible cure to the poisoning he's suffered. He returns fully cured to find his wife and child gone and pursues them to the ends of the earth. A great dad and devoted husband!

Marshall also got to enjoy a screen marriage to Greta Garbo, in The Painted Veil (1934). Only to have to play the cuckold again. As if that was enough, Marshall was betrayed yet again in The Letter (1940). This time Bette Davis was the adulteress, committing murder in the process. Again Marshall won our hearts as the earnest and faithful hubby gullible but loyal to the end.

Who else could be played for such a sap but never seem like a sap? While other actors would have seemed like dupes, Marshall just ill used and deserving a better fate.

Marshall had better luck in other films such as with Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise and Jean Arthur in If You Could Only Cook (1935). Of course, in neither case was he married to the dames -- yet. Not exactly a testimony to the institution of marriage. Off screen Marshall was married four times and is rumored to have had affairs with Hopkins, Kay Francis and Gloria Swanson. Not bad.

I dare say (as a Marshall character would intone in that lovely baritone) I can think of no one in film today who resembles Marshall. This is high praise indeed. It suggests an actor who was one of a kind. One of the higher aspiration of any performer. Marshall was distinctive, his performances were without affect, just genuine and original.

Ya know, real class.

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