Dear Reader, we wish to unburden ourselves with a confession.
We (as in, yours truly) tend to be dismissive of typecast television actors. We may admire them in their particular TV role, but we may not appreciate – or care about – their full acting potential.
So imagine our chagrin when we screened The Houston Story starring two actors who became typecast in later years, and boy oh boy! Do we have egg on our face! Someone pass the moist towelettes, please.
The Houston Story is a thrifty 1956 film noir that stars Gene Barry as a self-centered, scheming oilworker who devises a plan to steal oil from Texas oilfields. Edward Arnold (in his final screen role) stars as an organized crime boss who provides the manpower and resources needed for this caper.
Now, don’t let this film’s economical budget put you off. Some of the dialogue seems abrupt and underdeveloped, and we’re well aware of how much mileage the filmmakers are getting out of the sets. Also: nobody talks like they’re from Texas.
However, we don’t care about that. The story is engrossing, the characters are interesting and the acting is really, really good. Especially when it comes to the two main female characters played by Jeanne Cooper and Barbara Hale.
Cooper was previously known to us only as the calculating, ultra-rich Katherine Chancellor from the daytime drama The Young and the Restless. Likewise, Hale, to us, was best known as the reliable, uber-efficient Della Street in the Perry Mason series/re-boots.
What we (as in, yours truly) refused to see, is that these women can ACT. The Houston Story shows us what these women are capable of.
Cooper plays Barry’s girlfriend before he makes millions siphoning off oil wells. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but she still gives us a likable, hard-working woman for whom we instantly cheer. Her character is smart, funny and energetic. Cooper never once lets us see her “acting”; she embraces her blue-collar character and we love her for it.
Hale plays the-rich-gangster girlfriend, because only rich men can afford Hale’s company. Hale is beautiful, spoiled and drenched in jewels. We first see her as a nightclub singer, performing Put the Blame on Mame. She growls the lyrics with such intensity, it makes the Rita Hayworth’s singing seem almost timid by comparison.
At the movie’s conclusion we sat, almost dumbfounded. Who were these women? Where did all that talent come from?
Then we realized that it must take talent to become typecast in the first place; that it can’t be easy to play the same character year after year in a television series; that it must be frustrating to know you had the chops to be great, but never had the chance.
The Houston Story has a script that moves along quickly, but director William Castle never hurries Cooper or Hale in their pivotal moments. He gives them the space they need to convey what the character is thinking. Because both these women are crucial to the plot, we need to see why they act the way they do.
There are many reasons to enjoy The Houston Story, but we encourage you to see two under-appreciated actresses dominate the screen – and make it look so easy.
Thanks to the lovely and talented Kristina at Speakeasy for putting this movie in our hands.
The Houston Story: starring Gene Barry, Barbara Hale, Edward Arnold, Jeanne Cooper. Directed by William Castle. Written by Irve Tunick. Columbia Pictures Corp., B&W, 1956, 80 mins.