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Five Geniuses From the Golden Age of Hollywood

Updated on September 28, 2014

Genius - "An Exceptional Natural Capacity"

The term "genius" is much bandied around and overused these days. The dictionary definition goes:

"an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc.: e.g. the genius of Mozart."

I've been writing articles for my website "Hollywood's Golden Age" for several years now and I've come to appreciate just how good, how exceptionally good many of the performers and directors were. Hard work came into it of course, and talent, they had to have bucketloads of talent, but the very top ones had something else, something intangibe, something practically indescribable - they had genius, pure and simple, undiluted genius.

This lens is my tribute, my homage, to five of them. There is one Producer, one Director, one Dancer, one Actor and one who seemingly could do just about everything.

They helped mould Hollywood. It would not be the same without them. They changed the world around them. They had "an exceptional natural capacity".

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The Actor

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is considered by most critics to be the greatest movie actor of all time. Although a large part of his career was spent in artistically worthless money-making projects, like 'Superman', he was, when at his peak, an undoubted acting genius.

Few people who watched his performance on stage or screen as the boorish Stanley in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in 1951, will ever forget it. He was so magnetic, so intensely compelling, that the director, Elia Kazan, had to move other cast members closer to him whilst speaking their lines, as the audience would continue to watch Brando, even when he was not speaking.

He created an entire school of acting by his talent and force of personality and he revolutionized American acting forever by introducing "The Method" into American consciousness and culture. It was a naturalistic style of performing, making the actor closely identify with the character's emotions.

The irony is that Brando hated acting. He called Hollywood "A small-minded little town in the middle of nowhere," but between 1951-54, when he took it seriously, he singlehandedly redifined the profession he despised. He wasn't an actor acting, he was an actor being.

Brando in 'A Streetcar Named Desire', 1951 - Powerful, masterful acting

The Dancer

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire had the true sign of the genuinely gifted - he made it look absurdly easy. He seemed to float across the floor using no muscle power, and always with a relaxed, happy smile on his face. In reality, of course, it was anything but easy, and the result of relentless hard work.

His genius shows, not just in his sublime dancing, but in the routines themselves, which were masterpieces of inspiration. Who else could think of dancing on the ceiling? Take a look at this marvellous, and justly famous routine from 'Royal Wedding' in 1951.

Fred Dances on the Ceiling

Fred Astaire was a fussy, driven perfectionist who rehearsed his routines time and time again to get the results he wanted. He seemed to get the best out of his partners, whether it be his sister, Adele, his most famous partner Ginger Rogers, or any of the other highly skilled girls with whom he whirled, tapped and pirouetted. His style always seemed to match up with them perfectly.

His partners did not always appreciate the agonising hard work-he said that of all his partners the only one who didn't cry because of his compulsive perfectionism was Ginger Rogers. Let us just take a look at perfection on four legs. Fred with Ginger Rogers in the movie 'Swing Time' from 1936. I can watch this time and again, marvelling as they the jump the barrier not once but three times, not missing a beat. Absolutely fantastic. Absolute genius.

Pure Class - Fred and Ginger at their sublime best

Fred Astaire Poll

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Irving Thalberg
Irving Thalberg

The Producer

Irving Thalberg

Irving Thalberg was one of the true geniuses of movie making with an intuitive grasp of simple storytelling and talent spotting. He was a producer of films for MGM during the early years of Hollywood movies. He died at the cruelly young age of 37 but for most of his working life he had been known as the "Boy Wonder" of Hollywood for his remarkable ability to select the right scripts, attract the right performers, technicians and production staff and blend them all together to make the perfect Hollywood movie package.

Born in 1899, in Brooklyn, New York to German Jewish immigrant parents, Thalberg was a sickly child and doctors warned his mother that he would not live past thirty, due to a congenital heart defect.

After graduating from High School he joined Universal Studios, at the time the largest film studios in the world. In an amazingly short time he assimilated the finer points of movie making and quickly came to understand and control the movie creation process. By the age of 21 he had risen to become the company's top executive in charge of production.

Both at Universal and then at MGM who he joined when he was a "veteran" of 24, he introduced production methods which soon became standard for the industry and he was responsible for hit after hit. Movies such as 'The Big Parade', and 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' in 1925, 'The Broadway Melody of 1929' in 1929, 'The Divorcee' in 1930, 'The Champ' in 1931 and 'Grand Hotel' in 1932 made MGM the premier studio in Hollywood, unmatched in the quality or quantity of its performers, technicians and directors.

Thalberg' was known as a compulsive workaholic and his phenomenal workrate and sickly frame began to take their toll. In1932 he had a heart attack and although he returned to work and produced a number of other top movies such as 'Mutiny on the Bounty' in 1935 he never fully recovered and he died, aged 37 in 1936.

It is incredible that one who died so young should have left such a fantastic legacy of top movies. he was more than just a clever, hard worker. he was a compulsive workaholic who knew his time on earth was limited. And he was a genius.

Billy Wilder'
Billy Wilder'

The Director

Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder was a Hollywood genius. For one thing he was responsible, as director, for some of the most memorable images and dialogue in movie history, such as Marilyn Monroe in that famously billowing white dress in 'The Seven Year Itch', the cross-dressing musicians, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, in 'Some Like It Hot' in 1959 and Fred MacMurray's convincing portrayal of the insurance salesman turned killer in 'Double Indemnity' in 1944. He even made the inscrutable Greta Garbo laugh in her first comedy, 'Ninotchka', in 1939. In addition he was a writer who helped to create some of the funniest lines of dialogue in movie history.

He did not have just occasional successes. During his career he received eight Academy Award nominations for Best Director, winning the Oscar twice. He was also nominated for Best Screenplay awards an amazing twelve times, winning three. He directed 14 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances and three of his directed actors, Ray Milland, William Holden and Walter Matthau won Oscars for their performances. In 1961 Wilder joined an elite group of directors who have won three Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay - for the same film - 'The Apartment' (1960). His Oscar record was only surpassed in 1997, fittingly, by that other great writer/director Woody Allen.

Billy Wilder's HeadstoneWilder consistently pushed the limits of movie censorship with his adult choice of subject matter that included adultery ('Double Indemnity'), alcoholism ('The Lost Weekend'), and the "toyboy", kept man ('Sunset Boulevard') and his films could be recognised by their tightly written plots, smart characters, and clever dialogue. It should also be remebered that he did it all in English, a foreign language to him.

As well as being responsible for two of the film noir era's most important films in 'Double Indemnity' and 'Sunset Boulevard', he wrote the number one movie in the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest Movies: 'Some Like It Hot' (1959) and he has four other entries: 'The Apartment' (1960) at #20, 'The Seven Year Itch' (1955) at #51, 'Ninotchka' (1939) at #52 and 'Ball of Fire' (1941) at #92. Only Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers match him with 5 entries each.

He was indisputably one of the greatest writer/directors Hollywood ever produced. He was a genius.

Some Like It Hot-The Ending

The Man Who Could Do Everything

Charles Chaplin

And so to the genius of geniuses, the brightest of all Hollywood stars. We all know and love him as the Tramp, the single most recognisable character in movie history. Everyone the world over knows him, enjoys him, loves him. This creation alone would put Chaplin into the highest echelons of Hollywood's creative stars. But he was more than just the Tramp. Much more.

Chaplin was born into poverty in London, England, in 1890. After surviving a childhood of abuse, hunger, an alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother he arrived in America as part of Fred Karno's troupe in 1910 and began working on the vaudeville circuit. He was hired by Mack Sennett for the Keystone Film Company and he soon became one of its biggest stars.

His Tramp character made his debut in the Keystone comedy 'Kid Auto Races at Venice' in 1914 and immediately gained enormous popularity. From then on his rise to international fame was rapid and spectacular. By 1917, The Tramp had become the most popular movie character in the world and Chaplin was financially able to build his own studios where he created a number of unique, timeless masterpieces such a 'A Dog's life' in 1918, and 'The Kid' in 1921.

In 1919 he took the next natural step to complete autonomy when he co-founded United Artists along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. He made the classic 'The Gold Rush' in 1925 then in 1927 came 'The Circus', for which he received a special Academy Award "for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing".

Chaplin continued to his full creative flowering with 'City Lights' in 1931, 'Modern Times' in 1936 and 'The Great Dictator' in 1940. His timing, original humor, evocation of emotions through the tiniest of movements, and cinematographic skill push the boundaries of comedy to the limit, while their depiction of class disparity and message of tolerance are still relevant today.

He was astonishingly gifted. He had an athlete's grace and was a trained dancer and acrobat. He was the author of four books, "My Trip Abroad", "A Comedian Sees the World", "My Autobiography", "My Life in Pictures" as well as all of his movie scripts. An accomplished musician, though self-taught, he played a variety of instruments with equal skill and facility (playing violin and cello left-handed) and he was also a composer, having written and published many songs, the earlier ones not so well known now: "Sing a Song"; "With You Dear in Bombay"; and "There's Always One You Can't Forget", but the later ones such as "Smile" and "This Is My Song" are still popular today.

Chaplin was a brilliant businessman and became very wealthy when still a young man. One of the rare performers who not only financed and produced all his films (with the exception of "A Countess from Hong Kong"), but was the author, actor, director and soundtrack composer of them as well. He was a phenomenally gifted human being.

And don't let anyone tell you that "Charlie Chaplin isn't funny". Of course some of the humor has dated and is perhaps too much slapstick and falling over. He was a product of his times after all. But some of the humor is still as funny and as sharp as ever. Take a look at this clip - the boxing match from 'City Lights' made in 1931. The choreography is brilliant, its still genuinely funny and a joy to watch.

The Boxing Match, from 'City Lights', 1931 - I defy you not to laugh!

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The Greatest Genius?

You decide. Is it one of the five I've mentioned here or someone else? Orson Welles? or Laurence Olivier perhaps? Can you think of a female genius to include? The nearest females I can get to are Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Who is the greatest genius?

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Hollywood's Golden Age

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    • Rankography profile image

      Rankography 5 years ago

      I went off your list for Alfred Hitchcock. I think he has been the best director so far.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I'm so happy you showcased my two favorite Hollywood people - Charlie Chaplin and Irving Thalberg. I love Billy Wilder's headstone. Fantastic lens!