Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Leo Genn -- A Movie Staple

I watched John Huston’s marvelous movie Moby Dick (1956) today, and feel that a tribute to actor Leo Genn is in order. Genn played first mate Starbuck, about whom the narrator Ishmael said “He was one of the great staples of the ship, like beef or flour, there when needed and not to be foolishly wasted.”

This description of this character applies in a special way to Leo Genn as an actor. He was indeed a great staple of the movies in which he appeared. Genn’s career included many movies and TV appearances in later years, but his real place in movie history comes from three important movies – The Snake Pit (1948), Quo Vadis (1941), and Moby Dick (1956). His dignified good looks, presence, and mesmerizing voice with British accent were a large part of his success on stage and screen. Born in England in 1905, Genn first attended law school and became a barrister. Fortunately for us, he turned to the stage and eventually movies as an actor.

The Snake Pit features Genn as a psychiatrist who treats patient Olivia deHavilland in a mental institution. Lauded for its portrayal of mental illness, The Snake Pit was a movie that has taken its place as one of the important classic films. Genn plays Dr. Kik, dubbed so because his full name is too long for anyone to pronounce. As deHavilland’s doctor, he is kind, probing and determined to be allowed enough time to get to the root of the patient’s problem, a difficult goal in the crowded, under-funded hospital. As many patients do, deHavilland has feelings of love for her doctor during treatment, and indeed, who wouldn’t? Genn is the calming hand of care and reasoning in the midst of madness, and plays his part to perfection.


In his next major movie, Genn plays Petronius in Quo Vadis, a major epic of Rome and the mad emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov). His character, the unwilling but interested courtier of Nero, looks upon the corruption of tyranny with a cool, removed sense of irony. In contrast to Robert Taylor’s testosterone-loaded hero, Genn is the symbol of intelligence and prophecy about the future of Rome. His humor is biting, and goes right over the head of the arrogant Nero who believes that Petronius is his admiring follower. Genn’s final scene, in which he writes a note to Nero expressing his true feelings about the tyrant, is unforgettable, as is Nero’s reaction to the note. In a movie which I believe to be somewhat pompous and flawed, Genn stands out in his part.

The third major movie in which Genn plays a central character is Moby Dick. Huston’s extraordinary screenplay, in which he collaborated with writer Ray Bradbury, brings to full life the character of Starbuck. In contrast to the obsessed, unswerving desire for revenge of Ahab (Gregory Peck), Starbuck tries without success to bring his mad Captain back to reality and clarity of thought. In his loyalty and habit of obedience to his Captain, Starbuck reflects upon his dilemma – “Oh I see plainly my miserable office, to obey rebelling.” Starbuck is a beloved character, and his fate difficult to accept.

In all three of these movies, Genn plays the character who is the conscience of the stories. His physical presence and the soothing tone of his voice made him a natural for this type of role. Even in a later role in a TV version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Jack Palance in the title role, Genn plays Dr. Lanyon, the friend and conscience of the tortured doctor. This was the character type he played so flawlessly.

Leo Genn deserves to be remembered as a significant element in movies that continue to be watched and admired so many years after their initial release. His movies, particularly the three discussed above, would not have been as good as they were without him.

19 comments:

  1. nice salute to one of the many "little people" who have made classic movies so great..he was fantastic in QUO VADIS opposite the raving NERO!!

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  2. Becky, What a wonderful post on a very talented actor. My favorite Leo Genn movie are: The Longest Day and two Gene Tierney movies: Personal Affair and Plymouth Adventure.

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  4. “Oh I see plainly my miserable office, to obey rebelling.” How true that line resonates to many in the working world today. You have convinced me to see "Quo Vadis". Who wouldn't want their analyst to share the same qualities of Leo Genn. Anyone who has a great analyst can certainly identify with Havilland's infatuation for her doctor. Unfortunately, there are too few therapists like Dr. Kik who understand that patience and probing is necessary to get to the root of their patients' issues. Just an aside observation. haha. Great Post, again.

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  5. Pat, I absolutely LOVE your analogy of Starbuck's thought to the working world! Very clever and very true! I had a doctor one time that I fell madly in love with when I was 21, and he was 67 years old. A true example of what psychiatrists call transference. LOL

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  6. Great start to your series on the great character/supporting actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Genn was also very good in The Velvet Touch with Roz Ruseell

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  7. Becky, nice post on an underrated actor! My favorite of Genn's performances is in GREEN FOR DANGER, a spiffy murder mystery set in a rural English hospital during World War II. Leo plays one of the surgeons, who competes with a young Trevor Howard for the affections of Sally Gray...while a terrific Alastair Sim finds the murderer.

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  8. Thanks Rick and Gilby! You have both mentioned movies that I have not seen -- it always amazes me that I find so many I have not seen, I who have loved classic films since I was a kid. I'm going to try to find Green for Danger and The Velvet Touch.

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  9. Enjoyed reading your salute to Genn. His is not a name easily recognized, but he was in some really good films. As Rick mentioned, Green for Danger provided him with another good role.

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  10. Genn is also excellent in "The Wooden Horse", a suspenseful drama set in a German prison camp. I think Leo Genn had the most beautiful eyes of any screen actor so far--and that includes George Clooney.

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  11. I have to agree with everything said above about Leo Genn. He has been largely under-rated and under-appreciated. I love the way he always seems calm and sophisticated yet has a mischievious twinkle in his eye even when he plays the villain! My favourites are Green for Danger, Snake Pit, Velvet Touch, Quo Vadis and Personal Affair. People shouldn't leave out Era notte a Roma, too! I think Leo is definitely one of the most beautiful actors of his generation and a good one.

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  12. Leo Genn was definitely one of the greats.

    I was watching his fabulous performance in Quo Vadis this afternoon -- that matnificent parting shot to Nero -- and for some reason it suddenly struck me that at certain angles he has a tremendous resemblance to Mr. Bean.

    I know that's almost sacrilegious, but check his Quo Vadis photo on IMDB, and look closely the next time you see Quo Vadis. DOn't know if the resemblance is notable in other works, since it has never struck me before.

    Or I may be approaching senility. Either way, Leo is always a treat onscreen, and should be better known.

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  13. Mr. Bean!!!!??? Oh dear - I don't think I could bear to look at that photo on IMBD. LOL! I think Genn is so handsome, especially in The Snake Pit, and that marvelous voice..... No offense intended, but I would rather think you are approaching senility than that he looks like Mr. Bean! Thanks for your funny comment. I love that part of Quo Vadis too!

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  14. Oh my God, Anonymous -- I couldn't help it, I had to look at IMBD. That picture from Quo Vadis -- what an unfortunate angle! You know what you have done, don't you? Howo am I going to watch Quo Vadis again without thinking of Mr. Bean? ACK!!!

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  15. Hi there! I`m really glad that I have finally found a site that celebrates actors and actresses of the Golden Age in a proper way! Leo Genn is sadly one of the underrated greats of that age- I completely fell in love with him when I was about five years old when his Petronius simply mesmerized me... then came Mr Eden in "Green for Danger" and from then on, I was completely hooked! Sad that so many of his movies are no longer available to me, at least not over here in Germany!

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  16. Hello, Anonymous! I am so tickled to see that I have gone international -- LOL! It's great to have someone from Germany find my site. The internet can be amazing. Of course, I completely agree with you about Leo Genn. He enriches every movie he is in. Thank you so much for your lovely compliment about my writing. It means a great deal. Be sure to keep visiting! I'll look forward to your input.

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  17. Gosh yes- what would I be doing without the Internet??? Germany`s certainly not a cultural desert, but when you like what I like in terms of movies and all that, one is completely lost without Youtube and all that...! I`ll certainly be returning to this page very often... apart from Leo Genn, any site that posts pictures of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is going to have my undivided attention!!!
    Argh- what am I going to watch tonight???

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  18. I had a crush on Leo Genn when I was a teenager and young adult.I sent away for a photo which I received with his autograph They did that sixty years ago, no internet!! I always try to see any movie of his which is shown on TCM. etc. Wonderful, wonderful actor

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  19. How nice to see you here at one of my earlier posts, Anon! I always thought Genn was just a darling. How great to have an autographed photo. Things were indeed different then, weren't they?

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