As with female roles, often the most interesting or memorable characters in a movie are not its stars. Actors in supporting roles can be family, friends, enemies, or indifferent to the main characters, but they often add spice and interest to the stories on the screen. Supporting actors sometimes play a particular “type” so well that it becomes part of their identity – perhaps being “typecast” is artistically tedious, but it can also be a guarantee of steady work, so long as that “type” stays in fashion. Some of them are able to excel even within the confines of a redundant character type, and these are the actors we look for in this category.
Buster Keaton is remembered today for his starring roles, but in 1917 he started out his career as a supporting actor in Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s company. In “The Rough House,” he actually played two characters – one a throwaway bearded gardener, the other a delivery boy who becomes a classic Keystone-style cop. It’s this second performance that won him the nomination this year. Eric Campbell was one of Charlie Chaplin’s favorite foils – a big man with heavy eyebrows who tragically died in a car crash in December, 1917. He’s especially memorable in “Easy Street” as the man who bends a lamp post to show his strength. Conrad Veidt is remembered by silent fans today mostly for his supporting role in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and he plays a similarly menacing role in “Fear,” an earlier film by Robert Wiene. Here, as the mysterious “Buddha Priest,” his close-up defines the unknown dangers of a curse upon the protagonist. René Poyen was a favorite child actor of director Louis Feuillade, and had starred in many “Bout-de-Zan” short films before being brought in for an important role in the “Judex” serial. The episode called “The Licorice Kid” places his character at the center f the action, and gives him a chance to display his surprising range and talent. Tully Marshall takes on the thankless role of the sidekick to Douglas Fairbanks in “A Modern Musketeer,” but he is able to warn Fairbanks’s character of the impending abduction of the romantic lead. More significantly, a revenge subplot against Doug’s romantic rival centers around Marshall, whose character has been wronged in a cowardly financial scam, and this gives him a chance to display a range of emotions.
The nominees for best actor in a supporting role for 1917 are:
- Buster Keaton in the Rough House
- Eric Campbell in Easy Street
- Conrad Veidt in Fear
- René Poyen in The Licorice Kid (Judex)
- Tully Marshall in A Modern Musketeer
And the winner is…René Poyen!
As a child actor, Poyen was able to be gruff and lovable, without being annoying. His character is one of the best parts of the “Judex” serial, which I found a bit too wholesome, compared with Feuillade’s earlier crime serials. The Licorice Kid provides a pleasant contrast to the rest of the characters, being street smart and used to poverty, but not a scheming criminal. In this episode, he gets tricked by the villains but is able to rescue his friend, Le Petit Jean, by having him leap off of a balcony into a blanket held by their allies below. Even though he was quite young and the time, René Poyen was a highly poised and professional supporting actor.