Monday, May 6, 2013

The 100th Anniversary of Stewart Granger's Birth

During the Golden Age of Film it was often the case that Hollywood did not make the best use of English leading men.  Although there were exceptions, it was often the case that English actors would find themselves consistently cast in "stiff upper lip" roles, regardless of what they had played in their native Britain. A notable exception to this rule was Stewart Granger. Mr. Granger first made his name in Gainsborough melodramas in his native Britain. Even after his career shifted towards Hollywood, he continued to appear in "man of action" roles rather than the standard "stiff upper lip" roles often given to English actors. Stewart Granger was born James Lablache Stewart 100 years ago today in West London.

In some respects it should come as no surprise that Stewart Granger would spend much of his career playing action heroes. His father was a military man, Major James Stewart, who had been awarded an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his service to the United Kingdom. It should also come as no surprise that he would take up acting. His great great grandfather on his mother's side was notable opera singer Luigi Lablache. Mr. Granger attended Epsom College in Surrey with the goal of getting a medical degree, but abandoned the idea when he took up acting. He then attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. While he would continue to use his given name in his private life, he took the stage name "Stewart Granger" to avoid confusion with the American actor James (often called "Jimmy") Stewart.

Stewart Granger was a part of Hull Repertory Theatre for a time before going to Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He made his film debut in an uncredited role in A Southern Maid in 1933. The next few years he appeared in small roles in such films as Over the Garden Wall (1934), I Spy (1934), Give Her a Ring (1936), and Under Secret Orders (1937). In 1938 he appeared on the West End in the role of Captain Hamilton in The Sun Never Sets at the Drury Lane Theatre. This would be followed by a role opposite Vivien Leigh in Serena Blandish. Mr. Granger made enough of an impact in these roles that he received a screen test and as a result appeared in his first major (although still only supporting) role in So This is London in 1938. He went on to appear in 1940 in Convoy.

Mr. Granger's career would be interrupted very briefly by World War II. In 1940 he enlisted in the Gordon Highlanders, a British infantry regiment. He transferred to the Black Watch. Unfortunately, he suffered from stomach ulcers and would be invalided out of the military in 1942. Mr. Granger resumed his film career with Secret Mission in 1942, but it would be his second film after returning from the military that would make his career. Stewart Granger was cast in the Gainsborough melodrama The Man in Grey alongside Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, and James Mason. The Man in Grey proved to be a hit. It not only established Stewart Granger's career, but it lead Gainsborough to produce even more period dramas. Quite simply, the era of the Gainsborough melodrama had begun.

Over the next several years Stewart Granger appeared in both historical romances and action films for both Gainsborough and Rank, including Fanny by Gaslight (1943), Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944), Caravan (1946), Blanche Fury (1947), and Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948). A notable role set in modern times was Waterloo Road (1945), in which Stewart Granger played the villain, a womaniser who had evaded the draft during World War II. Another notable role for Mr. Granger during this period was the 1945 film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra in which he played Apollodorus.

Despite his success in his native Britain, Stewart Granger was largely dissatisfied with the sort of roles he was receiving from the Rank Organisation. When Mr. Granger had his chance to star in his first Hollywood film, then, he took it. Stewart Granger played Allan Quatermain in the 1950 adaptation of King Solomon's Mines. Mr. Granger's performance as the legendary hero Allan Quatermain led MGM to cast him in an entire series of swashbucklers and action films. He appeared in such classic swashbucklers and historical dramas as The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), Scaramouche (1952), Young Bess (1953), Beau Brummell (1954), and Moonfleet (1955). Here it must be pointed out that Stewart Granger was unique among the major leading men in Hollywood swashbucklers in that he actually was British--Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Tyrone Power Jr. were all Americans, while Errol Flynn was Australian! In the period during which he was starring in swashbucklers Mr. Granger would also receive another honour. In Scaramouche he participated in what is the longest, continuous sword duel on film. What makes this remarkable is that it is entirely Stewart Granger during the sword fight--no stunt doubles were used.

Not only did Stewart Granger become one of the foremost stars of swashbucklers in the Fifties, but he also accomplished something few British actors have done convincingly--he starred in a Western. In Gun Glory (1957), he played Tom Early, the "fastest gun alive (as advertisements for the film described him). Gun Glory would not be the last Western in which Stewart Granger starred. He appeared in the John Wayne film North to Alaska (1960) and then as "Old Surehand" in three films based on German novelist Karl May's Westerns:  Frontier Hellcat (1964), Rampage at Apache Wells (1965), and Flaming Frontier (1965).

Stewart Granger's career went into decline in the late Fifties, and the Sixties would see him making films in Europe as opposed to Hollywood. The Karl May adaptations were made in Germany. He also starred in the Italian swashbuckler Swordsman of Siena (1962), the Italian crime film Killer's Carnival (1966), the Italian spy film Requiem for a Secret Agent (1966). In the late Sixties his career shifted towards television, where he would once more find himself starring in a Western. He starred as Col. Alan MacKenzie, owner of the Shiloh Ranch, in The Men from Shiloh (the title of The Virginian in its final season) from 1970 to 1971. He later played Sherlock Holmes in a television adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1972 and guest starred on such shows as Murder She WroteThe Love Boat, and Hotel. He continued to occasionally appear in films, including Wild Geese (1978), Hell Hunters (1985), and Fine Gold (1989--his final appearance on film).

Stewart Granger died on 16 August 1993 at the age of 80. The cause was prostate and bones cancer.

Strangely enough given his success, Stewart Granger never thought of himself as a great actor. In a 1970 interview he said, "Stewart Granger was quite a successful film star, but I don't think he was an actor's actor." In fact, only he was only pleased with one film he made, Waterloo Road. While Stewart Granger did not think much of himself as an actor, it is rather safe to say that he has many fans who would disagree with him. It is not simply a case that he was convincing in the many Gainsborough melodramas and Hollywood swashbucklers he made, but that he was impressive in other films he made as well. Although he was an Englishman, Stewart Granger was quite good in Gun Glory, as well as the Karl May Westerns. I do not think he could have been any better had he been born in the American West. And while Stewart Granger usually played the hero, he could be quite effect as a villain. Mr. Granger was right to be proud of his performance in Waterloo Road, but he could also be proud of his performances in Footsteps in the Fog (in which he played a serial wife killer), and The Wild Geese (in which he played an unscrupulous banker apparently plotting the overthrow of an African nation). While Stewart Granger may not have thought of himself as a versatile actor, then, it would seem he truly was.

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