Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Robert Armstrong

Robert Armstrong was the kind of character actor who left an impression. He seemed to invent types, rather than play them. Carl Denham, the pushy, greedy, but always imaginative impresario who dragged King Kong back from the South Pacific to exploit as entertainment, and Max O’Hara, who tried to work similar magic with “Mighty Joe Young” were fellows acutely identified with the nimble talking Armstrong.

A much less enterprising, but still out for number one kind of guy was his character in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932). The brother of the character played by Fay Wray, who later played his discovery Ann Darrow in “King Kong,” Martin Trowbridge was killed off early in the movie but still managed to stand out as one of the highlights of the film. He is a drunken fool, who disgusts the disciplined if utterly crazy host Count Zaroff with his dissolute ways and casual attitude toward hunting. He invites Zaroff, played memorably by Leslie Banks (see entry March 29th ) to go hunting in the Catskills, where the guides “will make the deers behave.”

Mr. Armstrong’s acting career began when left college for vaudeville and a touring stock company, and eventually made it to Hollywood just in time for the waning days of silent film. His smart aleck snappy delivery and comic timing was perfect for sound film and he made the transition easily, though “King Kong” was probably the most notable role he had. He never got out of B-movie parts, though he played a role against James Cagney in “Blood On the Sun” (1945), an interesting look at Japanese military in the days just before Pearl Harbor. Armstrong improbably played Colonel Hideki Tojo, but through this and other roles, and his eventual TV guest spots, one gets the feeling that the intrepid and exasperating spirit of Carl Denham never left him, and was always somehow just under the surface. It was a role he was born to play.

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