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I remember an interview with Gregory Peck when in recalling his early pre-film career days in New York City as a starving actor how great it was when he had enough money to buy, as a treat, a box of pancake mix and how good they tasted. This to me says something about the nature of Peck the man who remembered this even after many better treats had come his way.
If you read John Huston's excellent autobiography, An Open Book, Huston, who directed Moby Dick, loved Peck and thought he was one of the great good people in the business, but then something went wrong with their relationship, possibly something involving some offense Huston gave to Peck's wife. Peck, without warning, stopped the friendship, and Huston never knew what went wrong. Later on Peck tried to resume the friendship, but Huston said too much time had passed. I wonder if the two men ever spoke about what happened or made up. There is no record anywhere that they did.
At any rate, that's the closest thing to something bad you're likely to read about Gregory Peck as a person.
I suppose being stalwart, or stiff as some critics called him from time to time, is what Peck came to stand for. This is true in the best sense of the word, and certainly his Oscar-winning, and AFI-winning role in To Kill a Mockingbird exemplifies perhaps the perfect type of role Gregory Peck will remain known for. It's one of those perfect films, and he is great in it.
Of course the media has created a handle to attach to Peck in order to simplify his career, but reducing his career to what his screen persona became is selling him short. He, in fact, resisted the long-term studio contracts that were the way Hollywood was run at the time. I think this allowed him to try many types of roles, and he was good and or great in just as many of them even though the critics at large will continue to embrace, as they always do, only what they themselves created and so love most.
Feel free to see To Kill a Mockingbird and The Guns of Navarone again or for the first time if you haven't seen them, but I urge you to see some of the Peck films you haven't seen or haven't seen lately as you think about his career.
For instance:
The Valley of Decision. This film was obviously made to cash in on the success of How Green was My Valley, but Peck and Greer Garson have great chemistry, and the film is in some ways a warmer version of The Magnificent Ambersons.
The Yearling. A wonderful children's film with Peck as an ideal father figure. The film is one of the best of the child and their pets type of films like Old Yeller. This was in a time before E.T. came out teaching kids the dubious lesson that, no, death isn't really an issue you have to worry about or deal with. I'm not urging you to hate E.T., but I am urging you to see The Yearling.
Twelve O'Clock High. Peck should have won the Academy Award he was nominated for for his role in this film. He plays a commanding WWII flight officer who ultimately cares too much for his men and memorably cracks up under the pressures when he tries to assume all the responsibility on his own shoulders: a surprisingly undated view of war.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro. One of the best of the bunch of what are generally considered to be flawed film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's works. Peck is critically wounded on a safari and spends a night, which could be his last, reflecting on his life in flashbacks and searching for the meaning of life, which is tied up in the riddle of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Peck's sweaty dark-night-of-the-soul performance along with those of his romantic co-stars Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner make this film work along with Peck's frequent director Henry King and composer Bernhard Herrmann. Successful at the time of its release, this film is ripe for restoration and revival. It was edited down from a longer running time before release and is currently available on DVD only in full screen, bootleggy-looking versions. Though dated technically, this film deserves another look and features one of Peck's most surprising and explosive moments as an actor, judged by some to be over the top, in a key wartime flashback sequence.
The Big Country. Though really best enjoyed on the big screen rather than on DVD or television, Peck's character here is I think most true to Peck's own personality. He plays a sea captain who moves to the West and encounters the passions, prejudices and negative bravado of the American cowboy. He is constantly challenged to prove himself a "real man" publicly, but is only interested in proving this to himself when by himself and not grandstanding openly when it's expected of him. Because this means that his character seems openly and publicly weak, this would seem to be an almost unplayable character trait for a star to play, but Peck pulls it off in outstanding fashion. James McKay is a great role model, and The Big Country is one of Peck's best films.
Cape Fear. The original version not the remake. Robert Mitchum plays one of filmdom's most memorable villains, and Peck as the hero makes the "No, I won't kill you." ending work despite what the audience might expect. Later films of this type, and there have been many imitators since, perhaps the most successful being Death Wish, always end immorally with the hero becoming a killer, too. Mitchum and Peck's extended fight and chase sequence at the end of the film is still memorable. The DVD has an interview with Peck who talks about his no nonsense approach to what could be dangerous physical action required in a film role like this one. (The other Peck DVD with an interview with him on it is the excellent The Guns of Navarone).
Billy Two Hats. This is the film to see if you think that Peck was in any way limited or unable to play a part other than his well known and justly famous screen image.
MacArthur. An underrated film because it is not as good as its model film, Patton, but Peck is excellent and the film itself tells an interesting and important story, relevant now more than ever, of MacArthur's victories and shortcomings during and after WWII. It, of course, also allows Peck to read several of MacArthur's own wonderful speeches. There was a horrible expanded network television version of this film that is to be avoided, but the original version is available on DVD.
As you'll see in these and many other of his films, Peck looked and acted just as much at home in many fine westerns and war films as he did in many contemporary urban ones. For one thing, he remained convincing as a leading man, frequently as the romantic leading man, in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s.
Several years ago, a friend attended the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's yearly silent film night. Peck was supposed to be the host. For health reasons he could not attend, instead sending an apologetic message saying that at his age the inconveniences, which kept him from coming, were too numerous to mention. He had said the message should be read with humor. It signaled that the end might be nearing for Gregory Peck, but it did so with typical and undue modesty.
Peck's films, some of which he had a hand in producing, remain as his legacy. The 1940s created the Hollywood film and Hollywood star. When Gregory Peck's long life ended, one of the most enduring and human of that era's gifts belongs to the ages.


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