VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
WRITTEN BY: Sammie Purcell
Even iconic actors have overlooked performances. Welcome to MsMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the most underrated, overlooked, or relatively unknown performances from old Hollywood stars. Our countdown includes “The More the Merrier,” “Written on the Wind,” “The Lusty Men,” and more!
Top 10 Old Performances from Iconic Actors You've Never Seen
Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the most underrated, overlooked, or relatively unknown performances from old Hollywood stars.
#10: Barbara Stanwyck
“Remember the Night” (1940)
You’ve likely seen Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray burn up the screen in “Double Indemnity.” But four years before, the iconic pair starred in a lesser seen film called “Remember the Night.” The romantic comedy follows a thief, played by Stanwyck, and the lawyer tasked with putting her away, portrayed by MacMurray. Both actors are amazing in the movie, but Stanwyck is particularly unbelievable. Her comedic energy with MacMurray foreshadows the sexual chemistry the two would have years later in their more famous motion picture. The differences between the films also serve to showcase just what a versatile actress Stanwyck was.
#9: Joan Fontaine
“Letter from an Unknown Woman” (1948)
Though recently screened at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, “Letter from an Unknown Woman” wasn’t as well thought of as it is now during its initial release. Even with its retrospective popularity today, the central performance from Joan Fontaine still doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. Far better known for her performances in films like “Rebecca” and “Suspicion,” Fontaine shows off her period piece skills in Max Ophüls’ masterpiece. Her dramatic chops are a sight to behold, and it’s a wonder she didn’t receive another Oscar win or nomination for the wonderful performance.
#8: Robert Mitchum
“The Lusty Men” (1952)
Famous for embodying the persona of the antihero, Robert Mitchum was one of the most well-known film noir stars of his era. So when most people are exploring his filmography today, they probably aren’t focusing on the time he took the role of a down and out rodeo star in 1952’s “The Lusty Men.” Just as he did in his noir films, Mitchum threw himself wholeheartedly into the role, and it shows on camera. As Jeff McCloud, he feels like a true blue Western star. He doesn’t leave the antihero stuff completely behind, but there’s also an uprightness to his performance that gets a chance to shine.
#7: Rock Hudson
“Written on the Wind” (1956)
Rock Hudson was respected for his partnership with director Douglas Sirk. The pair made multiple films together, arguably the most well-regarded of which is “All That Heaven Allows.” But today, we’d like to focus on a different collaboration, “Written on the Wind.” It was wildly popular at the time, and still has its fans today. But compared to some of Hudson and Sirk’s other movies, it’s not quite as remembered. Hudson portrays a man who ends up mixed up in a love rectangle of sorts and mired in the troubles of a Texas oil family. It’s Southern Gothic at its finest, and Hudson plays it perfectly.
#6: Ginger Rogers
“Kitty Foyle” (1940)
Today, Ginger Rogers is best remembered for her number of collaborations with Fred Astaire. The pairing of Astaire and Rogers is almost synonymous with classic Hollywood. But Rogers’ one Oscar wasn’t won for her skills in her tap shoes. She actually snagged the lauded award for her role in the now often forgotten drama, and notably not musical, “Kitty Foyle.” Rogers plays the titular role, a woman stuck between two men, one rich and one not. She has an astounding amount of honor in the role, and it's a joy to watch her show off what a wonderful actor she is even when the music stops.
#5: Cary Grant
“Penny Serenade” (1941)
Cary Grant is one of the most well-regarded actors of the classic era. The man made so many movies, it’s practically impossible for anyone to have seen them all. When it comes to ticking a Grant movie off your list, however, might we recommend “Penny Serenade?” Back in the 1940s, the actor was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. But today, when we think of him, we often think of movies like “The Philadelphia Story” and “Bringing Up Baby.” While we love those collaborations with Katharine Hepburn, Grant’s dramatic partnership with Irene Dunne was just as bright. Indeed, the pair excel in this melodrama about a couple struggling to raise their child.
#4: Gregory Peck
“The Boys from Brazil” (1978)
Throughout the 1940s, ‘50s, and even into the ‘60s, you couldn’t get much more famous than Gregory Peck. The actor was well-known for playing morally righteous heroes, such as those in films like “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But in 1978, an older Peck decided to play against type and genre. “The Boys from Brazil” is a science fiction film where Peck plays the role of none other than Josef Mengele. For those of you who don’t know, Mengele was a Nazi who did terrible experiments on those imprisoned at Auschwitz. Despite the massive play against type, Peck delivers a truly harrowing performance.
#3: Vivien Leigh
“Waterloo Bridge” (1940)
Today, Vivien Leigh is so synonymous with her role as Scarlett O’Hara it’s almost hard to imagine her in any other role. But throughout her career, Leigh took on a number of other roles that all deserve their due. “Waterloo Bridge” is perhaps the project of hers that deserves the most flowers it doesn’t usually receive today. Starring opposite Robert Taylor, Leigh is absolutely magnetic in this romantic drama. This was the star’s first movie released after “Gone With the Wind,” and she’s clearly out to prove her prowess in that epic was no mistake. Watching her command the screen, it’s easy to see why it was one of her favorites of her own movies.
#2: Jean Arthur
“The More the Merrier” (1943)
When it comes to comedy, Jean Arthur practically had the market cornered during the classic Hollywood era. The actress successfully made the transition from silent films to talkies, and some of her movies have gone down in history as being among the best. Funnily enough, of all of her works that we know today, one that isn’t quite as remembered is also the one that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. In “The More the Merrier,” Arthur plays Connie Milligan, a woman who finds herself rooming with a retired millionaire and a military man. Naturally, Arthur is fantastic in the role of a woman thrown into a hilariously impossible situation.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
Andy Griffith, “A Face in the Crowd” (1957)
That’s Not the Andy Taylor We Know!
Myrna Loy, “Libeled Lady” (1936)
An Oft-Forgotten Myrna Loy & William Powell Collaboration
Lauren Bacall, “Key Largo” (1948)
The Most Underrated of the Bogie & Bacall Films
Eleanor Parker, “Caged” (1950)
The Baroness From “The Sound of Music” Proves What She Can Do
Lana Turner, “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952)
Turner Shines in One of Vincente Minnelli’s Non-Musicals
#1: Donna Reed
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945)
If you’re talking about Donna Reed today, you’re likely talking about her sitcom or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You’re probably not discussing the 1945 movie “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” But maybe you should be! Reed is Gladys, a love interest for the titular Dorian Gray. While her character may not be as important as some of the other roles on this list, what she does with the screen time she has is absolutely amazing. She plays romance and tragedy with a deft hand. “It’s a Wonderful Life” came out roughly a year later, proving that Reed was an actress at the top of her game.
Which of these performances are you most intrigued by? Let us know in the comments!