The Apotheosis of Donald Phelps (and David Wayne)

For those of you who might be wondering what has become lately of film critic Donald Phelps — the most gifted and exacting of Manny Farber’s disciples, especially when it comes to low-key acting and pictorial nuance — you should proceed at once to the web site of Comics Journal, where he’s been flourishing in his recent commentaries on movies, prose fiction (ranging from the science fiction of Henry Kuttner and Theodore Sturgeon to the mysteries of Fredric Brown to Calder Willingham’s first novel), and comic strips. I’m especially impressed by parts one and two of his majestic “Like a Mechanical Bird: The Peculiar Stoicism of David Wayne,” posted earlier this month — a detailed and rather astonishing appreciation of one of the most overlooked of Hollywood and TV actors, whose special qualities seemed to flourish in such relatively unsung and/or out-of-reach works as Joseph Losey’s remake of M (1951), a couple of black and white sketch films at Fox in 1952  (O. Henry’s Full House and We’re Not Married, where he costars respectively with Charles Laughton and Marilyn Monroe), Henry King’s Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952), which inspires some of Phelps’ best prose, and Down Among the Sheltering Palms (“an amiable bargain-counter South Pacific,” 1953). It’s symptomatic that I can’t even provide you with stills from these movies apart from We’re Not Married (below) — the one above comes from the trailer of Adam’s Rib (a 1949 film not discussed by Phelps, where Wayne might be said to play a kind of surrogate or stand-in for Cole Porter ) — but Phelps does such a superb job of describing and evoking these films that I don’t really need to. [3/6/10]

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