Mar 9, 2012

Gone Too Soon Blogathon: Robert Williams

This post is part of Comet Over Hollywood's Gone Too Soon blogathon. Check out the rest of the contributors this weekend.

When I signed on to write about Robert Williams for the Gone Too Soon blogathon, I was excited to learn more about him. I’d always meant to research his life. After searching through loads of books and websites, I’ve ended up knowing only slightly more about him than I did before. That is, in essence, that he was a comic from North Carolina who started to make a break-through when the new talking movies needed performers who had a flair for dialogue.

Williams made only one memorable movie, Platinum Blonde (1931), costarring Jean Harlow and Loretta Young and directed by Frank Capra. Shortly after that, he got appendicitis while on vacation and died of peritonitis as he waited for surgery. Four days after the premiere of the film, he was gone at age 37.

Before Platinum Blonde, Williams appeared in six films: a few silents (two of them shorts) and three talkies in which he played secondary roles. He started to hit his stride with sound films, and Capra’s movie would likely have been the one to set him on his way to a strong career.

Williams’ distinctive blend of sharp humor and sweetness distinguished him from the more abrasive comedians of the day. He wasn’t matinee idol handsome, but with his tousled hair and gently blinking eyes he was attractive, and he had a way of being courtly to a woman that surely led to a few swoons.

The funny thing about Robert Williams is that while he is easy to compare to other actors, his appeal was unique. He was just about a dead ringer for Lee Tracy, though he was better looking. He also had a similar skill for rattling off lines, but in a smoother and less obnoxious style. Williams also had the same sleepy eyes, floppy hair and loose physicality of Robert Mitchum, though he had a sweeter, less rugged demeanor. He pulls his words out like James Cagney, though when he says “is she bee-you-ti-ful?”, it isn’t as snappy. Instead, he touches gently on each syllable.

 Williams’ performance style was also somewhat reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s. It may seem like a stretch, but the more I watch him, the stronger that connection feels. The most satisfying bit of information I was able to drag up in my research was this quote from an interview with Christopher Plummer. The actor said that Williams was: of the most realistic comedians the screen had. He made Cary Grant look like he was overacting....To watch Robert Williams act was like seeing a comic using the Method, long before the Method became famous.

It is this quality that brings Brando to mind. Williams had a similar sense of seeming laidback and natural, while clearly staying in control. He’d throw out lines out like he was tossing cards into a hat, but his timing was precise. His loose manner brought life to the static world of early 30s films, where Hollywood was starting to understand how to make a talkie, but not quite there. It would have been fascinating to see him play opposite Brando in a 1950s drama.

While Williams had all the snap and crackle of a 1930s film actor, he also had several modern qualities. There’s a rebellious tone to his performance in Blonde that would have translated well to modern movies. You could see him as a counter culture hero or a police detective fighting the system in a gritty 1970s flick. With his fast-talking and snappy style, I think he made his mark in the right time, and it would have been interesting to see how he developed throughout the decades to follow.

I have the feeling Robert Williams would have kept at it until the end, no matter how long he lived. Sadly, it wasn't long enough.

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  1. Wow, KC, you really brought Robert Williams and his craft to life here. Really enjoyed it ... wish I'd seen him in more than Platinum Blonde!

  2. You've made me want to learn more and isn't that what we're here for? Fine job! Kay
    I just wrote up Carmen Miranda for Gone Too Soon!

  3. Cilff--Thanks! For all the comparisons I made, Williams was a unique actor. That makes his loss much greater. Who know what he could have done?

    Kay--thanks for the link. I'm hoping to read all of the submissions to the blogathon!

  4. Wow, my Blogathon entry didn't have nearly the insight as yours. I actually discussed Robert Williams recently as I watched Platinum Blonde for my Jean Harlow film retrospective and it's sad he never got the chance to make anything else. Awesome work!

  5. Gak! I hadn't even heard of Robert Williams! But he sounds terrific and I've added "Platinum Blonde" to my list of must-see movies.

  6. Thanks for reading my entry about Olive Thomas. She had indeed a horrible death, but I'´ve learned about worse deaths in this blogathon!
    Even being a huge Jean Harlow fan, I still haven't watched Platinum Blonde. When I do it, I'll make sure to pay attention to Robert Williams.

  7. Such a fine actor and you did him proud - a great tribute!

  8. Thanks for writing about an actor I was not familiar with at all. Now I want to go and dig up Platinum Blonde!

  9. I was so glad to read that you planned to cover Robert Williams. He was so very talented, and he surely would have been a big star. He was such a natural in Platinum Blonde -- just a superb performance. Thanks for this great post!

  10. Journeysinclassicfilm--Thanks for the praise. I really had no idea where I was going with the post. It was just one thought after the other piling up!

    Silverscreenings--I think if Platinum Blonde had been a classic, or even just had a little more pep, you probably would have known about Williams. As it is, the movie is pleasant and Williams does a nice, low-key job. He didn't get a chance to fulfill his potential, but he showed great promise.

    Le--after reading a few posts, I did realize how depressing this blogathon was going to be. I've learned so much though. It's worth it!

    Thanks Flick Chick!

    Jennifromrollamo--Platinum Blonde is a cute flick, it won't change your world, but it has a lot of entertaining moments.

    Karen--I'm glad you are with me on Williams. It seems like so many people have no idea who he is. I guess that shouldn't surprise me!

  11. KC,
    I'm so glad you participated in this Blogathon. Your write up on Robert Williams was touching and so informative.
    I never thought about his resemblance to Lee Tracey until now.
    A wonderful write up on a star I didn't know all that much about!

  12. Thanks Page. I wish I could have found more information about him. Hopefully some day I will.

  13. Just saw him and the movie last night on TCM. Never heard of him before. He was mesmerizing. So much smoother and more natural and appealing than all the other stiff, unnatural actors in that film (including Jean Harlow and Loretta Young). He looked to me like a cross between Jeremy Renner and Tobey Maguire. Such a shame. Such a loss. I looked him up after the movie, and saw that he struggled as an actor his whole life before finally getting his star turn at age 37, only to see it all collapse and fade away with his death. Very sad.

  14. The only film of Robert Williams I'd seen was "Platinum Blonde" many years ago. His performance was a standout to me then and wondered why I hadn't seen any other films with him in the cast. Looked up some information about him and was saddend to see how he died. His acting style was way ahead of time compared to others. It was so natural and his timing was impeccable. Not sure why a movie hasn't been made about him. Jeremy Renner would be a ringer.

  15. u2heads--I agree, Williams never seemed like he was acting. It would have been fascinating to see what he would have done in the films of that era. He might have changed movie acting for a lot of people. I can see the Renner resemblance! On the up side, he did have a big success before he passed. At least he didn't struggle all that time and die without winning that lead.

  16. Just saw COMMON LAW and was astonished by Robert Williams' natural performance. His co-star in the picture, Joel McCrea, also used a similar natural charm in his early comedies; I'm surprised you didn't include him in your comparisons. And I personally would trace the qualities you liken to Mitchum to those of RW's contemporary Robert Montgomery, whose drunken playboy roles relied on the same qualities--if with the addition of Montgomery's trademark moon-face smile. And his death is, of course, as disturbing as another Robert's: Robert Walker, who pleaded with doctors to NOT inject him with a "cure" that he KNEW would kill him! Imagining Williams in a scene together with Cagney is like the famous dance sequence featuring Cagney and Bob Hope on top of a bar. Thank you for providing the degree of info about this wonderful actor that seems unattainable elsewhere on the Web!

  17. I thought I knew all the stars & movies there were as huge fan from California for years. But first I ever heard of Robert williams was in Platinum Blonde. I enjoyed two of my favorites actresses in it, but I was impressed how well Williams supported them. I especially liked the end scene with Williams & Loretta Young where he spoke so tenderly to her--seemed so natural & real to me. Too bad he died so young just as Jean Harlow did.

  18. Yes! I love that last scene with Williams and Young too. It's one of my favorites of all time, for the same reasons you like it. It's such a shame that he didn't live to make more movies, because no one was performing with such natural ease as he did. It was a believable romance because you really saw him open up his heart.