I was chatting with an actor friend recently and as we discussed a couple of his choicest roles in successful pictures, he remarked, “I was a pretty hot actor at that time!” His statement resonated with me. Actors, are like baseball players, gamblers and any number of other professions. They are all prone to hot streaks. Some performers begin like supernovas and remain overheated for their entire careers; Burt Lancaster’s jump start in The Killers (1946) comes to mind.These fortunate few are usually called “stars”. The vast majority of working actors, then and now, try to better their craft while making a living. I wondered though who had the hottest streak of any screen actor in terms of appearing in the best films over the shortest period of time. What was the cinematic equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game consecutive hitting streak?
Back in the days when Hollywood manufactured movies like General Motors used to roll out new cars, “hot” meant a lot more than just working steady. It meant you were a relatively fresh commodity in a town constantly looking for original faces. You were also a damn good actor and, if you were lucky enough not to be shackled by the ubiquitous seven year contract to a studio overseer, work was available all over town. You were in demand, you landed the choice parts and the movies themselves turned out to be good… if not sometimes great.
1939 is universally accepted as Hollywood’s finest year for movies. This singular epoch has been getting a lot of visibility lately. The Motion Picture Academy is screening all of their Best Picture nominees for 1939 this summer and Turner Classic Movies will be showing “39 from 39” next month, a retrospective that coincides with (surprise!) the release of a Warner Home Video DVD about this historic year of film. Bouquets to 1939 notwithstanding, this piece is about the incredible twelve month run of film roles by the great character actor, Thomas Mitchell.