Friday, February 4, 2011

John Dall is the Cafe's Underrated Performer of the Month

He received an Oscar nomination opposite Bette Davis, played a key role in a Hitchcock picture, and starred in a famous cult film. And yet, John Dall never achieved stardom and, in fact, appeared in only eight films during a 15-year acting career.

Born John Jenner Thompson in New York City in 1918, he studied acting at the Theodora Irvine School of the Theatre, whose alumni include Anne Baxter, Marsha Hunt, and Cornel Wilde. (Note: The school is erroneously listed as Theodore Irvine in some sources; it's also known as the Theodora Irvine Studio of the Theatre and the Theodora Irvine Drama School).

Dall made his Broadway debut in 1941 and got his first lead role in Dear Ruth, which ran from 1944 to 1946. When Paramount made the play into a 1947 film, William Holden was cast in Dall's Broadway role as Lieutenant William Seacroft.

Dall with Bette Davis in The
Corn is Green.
In the meantime, Warner Bros. signed Dall for The Corn Is Green, which starred Bette Davis as a schoolteacher in a small Welsh mining town in 1895. Dall plays Morgan Evans, a young man in whom Davis' Miss Moffat sees the potential to earn a college degree. Dall earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, but lost the Oscar to James Dunn for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Dall's follow-up was Something in the Wind, a Deanna Durbin musical in which he played the romantic leading man. He got a juicier part as a Civil War veteran in Another Part of the Forest, Lillian Hellman's prequel to The Little Foxes. Dall's star seemed to be on the rise when he was offered Rope in 1948.

He and Farley Granger played
murderers in Hitchcock's Rope.
Rope was based on a 1929 play, which was inspired by the chilling Loeb-Leopold "thrill murder" of 1924. Dall and Farley Granger played a pair of upper-class intellectuals who believe they can commit the perfect murder--and then host a dinner party with the corpse hidden in a trunk. With Hitchcock at the helm and James Stewart as the star, Rope has all the makings of a big hit--but it was a boxoffice disappointment. It has since become required viewing for film buffs due to Hitchcock's self-confessed "stunt" of using ten-minute takes to make the film look like one continuous shot.

Rope marked the end of Dall's Hollywood career. After a two-year hiatus, he appeared in the "B" film Deadly Is the Female (better known by its alternate title Gun Crazy). Dall stars as a young man fascinated with guns from childhood. When he meets Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a carnival sharpshooter, it's love at first sight. The only problem is that Annie's desire to lead the good life leads to a crime spree that leaves a few dead bodies in its wake. As the doomed lovers, Dall and Cummins generated plenty of sparks, but Gun Crazy flopped. It would take a couple of decades for it to be recognized as a classic film noir.

Dall and Peggy Cummins play newlyweds
pondering a life of crime in Gun Crazy.

Sadly, Dall's career stalled after Gun Crazy. He made just three more films: The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950); Spartacus (1960); and Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961). On Broadway, he starred in a revival of The Heiress in 1950 and the farce Champage Complex in 1955, although neither play lasted for longer than a month. He guest-starred on television sporadically, including four appearances on Perry Mason with Raymond Burr.

By 1965, his acting career was over. He died seven years later, age 52, from either a punctured lung or a heart attack (the accounts vary).

A talented actor with good looks, Dall seemed destined to become a star. Instead, he leaves us with three memorable performances and a reminder that acting is a fickle business where success can often be attributed to being in the right movies at the right time.


  1. Thank you for posting an appreciation of John Dall, whose sometimes daring career choices may have made it more difficult for him to find a niche in the acting business. He contributed skilled, sometimes flamboyant performances to films that made them memorable, and his work in Gun Crazy (1950) with Peggy Cummins was outstanding. His roles, such as his Nietzschean murderer in Rope (1948) sometimes had an implied homo-erotic subtext that was too daring for mainstream entertainment in the '50s, though looking back from the present, his work seems both honest and skilled.

    I would love to see Another Part of the Forest (1948) again, though it seems to be one of those films that has disappeared.

  2. Rick, this is a very insightful look into the work of John Dall. I thought he was quite good in "Gun Crazy" and "Rope." It has been too long since I have seen "Spartacus" and I don't think I have seen "Another Part of the Forest." This is a great selection for Underrated Performer. Thanks for all of your excellent posts over the last several days.

  3. Only eight films? Wow. I had no idea there were so few. Very nice appreciation of Mr. Dall. I always liked him. Nobody sneered quite like John Dall did.

  4. Great profile, I loved him in The Corn is Green and especially Rope.

  5. Great pick, Rick. You are so right, acting profession is luck and timing, and apparently John just didn't have it. I remember him well in Spartacus, playing the ambitious but rather stupid Roman commander who blundered so badly he had to leave Rome. The Corn is Green shows him as such a different character than he ended up playing later - an eager young man, no sneering. He was excellent in that. Like Kevin, I too am surprised he made so few films. And, as Toto said, I'd like to see Another Part of the Forest again, which I saw a while back but not for a long time. I think Moira has a good point - perhaps it was the wrong time in our culture to come across as he did in Rope. That's a shame.

  6. Dall and Peggy Cummings were electric in GUN CAZY, a fantastic little B noir. The shooting contest scene was sexually charged. Amazing what could get passed the censors.

  7. I think it is sad we did not get to see a lot more of John Dall as a movie actor. He certainly had from what I’ve seen especially in his two memorable performances in ‘Rope’ and ‘Gun Crazy’ more to give.

    Some have commented already he made difficult film choices but he was also it is worth noting a homosexual man in a very prejudiced society and film industry at that time. Not all gay men were able to have their personal life choices hidden and enjoy a thriving career. I suspect John Dall was one of the unlucky ones.

  8. Rick, I realize I'm coming late to the John Dall party, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed and appreciated your focus on Dall, one of my favorite character actors. It's a shame he seemed to have found himself in the wrong role at the wrong time when it came to ROPE, and that he died younger than he should have. Great post!

  9. Truly Underrated Artist!! Always look forward to see him steal the scenes! Just watching Perry Mason episode where Dall in a minor role demands attention especially while on the witness stand .Had no idea he died so young ! Do not care what his sexual preference was but that he was a gifted actor that left way too few movies due to the nuances of his days in Hollywood. Thank You John RIP

  10. Thanks much for the info. I've never seen "Gun Crazy" and "Another Part of the Forest" but I'll be looking for them. I do remember John Dall's strong performance in "Rope," which now has cult hit status. The internet gives under-appreciated actors from classic films and TV shows a chance to get the credit due them. Thank you for giving John Dall the proper spotlight for his talents.

  11. Great post! Thank you for a great talent who suffered the fickleness of Hollywood. Timing and luck have a lot to do with success, and his was a little off (through no fault of his own) which contributed to a far to brief film career.