No account of American film history of the 40s and 50s would be complete without a mention of Chuck Barrett, so shut up. A hard-drinking, hard-living, skirt-chasing Irishman, Chuck’s the man they mean when they say “They don’t make ‘em like ‘ey(?) used to”. In an era when a typical leading man is a slim-waisted, soft-lipped sensitive type like Orlando Bloom, Ryan Gosling, or Cate Blanchett, Barrett represents a time when “acting” meant showing up on set drunk from the night before, berating the director, tearing out pages of his script, making up his own dialogue and maybe even getting in a violent brawl with a crew member (he did this with great regularity, mostly with the women in the make-up department). While this held up shooting and cost productions thousands every day, it was nonetheless tolerated, as Barrett represented the sort of rugged, unchecked masculinity and raw acting talent that could sometimes be mistaken for truly obnoxious behaviour when actually it wasn’t, it was all those other things. This is not a typical actor’s hagiography. This is warts and all stuff, although I feel I should point out at this juncture that any flaws of Chuck’s are what made him such a great artist as opposed to him just being a twat.
Barrett was born in 1901 in a Dublin slum to a family of 27 boys and one girl, who regretted her choice almost instantly. His father was by all accounts a colourful character, suffering from a hideous pigmentation that made his skin either dark purple, fluorescent yellow or a flashing orange, depending on the time of day. Barrett Sr was a workshy layabout, and on those rare occasions he found employment he was sure to drink away any earnings, a complicated and highly illegal process involving the fermenting of money. Whenever he returned home intoxicated he would beat his wife, but only in sprints as she had a much better pace over cross country.
Chuck’s mother, Mary, was a home-maker who spent her days caring for her always-expanding brood. Chuck idolised her, which would go some way to explaining his future relationships with women (stop rolling your eyes. This is a valid point. A valid point). Barrett’s biographer David Pfaeffle describes Mary as “the typical Irish mother: religious, unquestioning, and devoted to her sons to a fault” and that “her overbearing nature more than likely caused a deep-rooted hatred of all women that lingered in Barrett’s subconscious for the rest of his life”. The fact that he described her this way while giving a reading at her funeral is wildly inappropriate, but an interesting point nonetheless.
From a young age Chuck worshipped his older brother, Eamon. It was Eamon who instilled a love of cinema in him and they would often sneak into the local “flickerpalace” as it was called then, to see the latest western, comedy or gritty reboot. They were usually the only ones in the screenings, as films had been denounced by the Catholic Church as being “sinful”, “immoral”, propagating “lustful thoughts” and having “not enough bits in space”. Chuck found himself wanting to be up there onscreen, and would spend his days in school daydreaming about rescuing damsels in distress from moustachioed banditos, hurtling through a castle to swordfight with the evil duke, or even getting to finally kiss a girl! (mother issues??)
Eamon was a wild, free-spirited, charismatic lad who somewhat resembled a movie star himself, specifically Bette Davis, which made him incredibly popular with his father’s and brothers’ friends. Chuck was left shaken when his much-adored brother was claimed by the sea, or more specifically by a departing Maltese ship’s captain. Having his hero ripped from his life at such an early age was almost certainly a Defining Point in Chuck’s life, and I’m sure I can come up with some way to link it with his desire to perform. It’s almost as if the cinema audiences represented Eamon, and their accepting of Chuck onscreen brought his brother back, in a way (yes, that will do nicely).
In his teens, Chuck opted not to follow his father and brothers into the family trade (kissing tiny mice) and instead hightailed it to the Abbey Theatre to audition for a part in playwright Fionán O’Protestant’s biting, rage-filled anti-war play Kiss Mammy Goodbye For Me (!). In order to prove he was serious about the role of Seán Óg, a young, doomed volunteer in the Easter Rising, he conducted a series of petrol bomb attacks on the home of the director, who eventually recognised that spark of raw talent in the young, untamed working-class actor. Chuck threw himself into the role and garnered rave reviews, one critic calling him “believable” which is all he needed to be, really.
As he entered adulthood, Chuck began to cultivate his life-long reputation as a rogue, a womaniser, and a scoundrel, in that he got married and began to cheat on his wife constantly. In other men this would be deemed a negative, but Chuck was possessed with an artist’s soul, and he needed to experience all of what life had to offer. Which mainly meant cheating on his wife constantly. The wife in question was Mary (his mother’s name!!) Quinn, a pretty local lass who caught his eye from a young age and they quickly became childhood sweethearts and eventually adulthood ones. When they began courting, her father insisted on accompanying them everywhere as a chaperone, which led to his tragic death following a grotesque accident on a two-person bobsleigh ride.
It was his death that brought Chuck and Mary closer, both figuratively (Chuck was there to comfort her in her grief) and literally (they were both impaled by the same jagged piece of metal that took her father’s life, albeit in non-fatal areas). But once they were married Chuck realised the boring life of a responsible husband wasn’t for him, and he began dividing his time between his duties at home and a notorious whorehouse down by the quays where rumour had it Arthur Griffiths had once told a prostitute that he “didn’t normally do this kind of thing”. These scarlet ladies introduced Chuck to a world of sensual delights he had never experienced up till this point (though absolutely no arse stuff). Contrast this with his wife, who would literally go into what doctors at the time deemed a “sex coma” whenever she and Chuck engaged in their conjugal duties. And his growing stature in the theatrical world led to many offers of sex from female audience members, who would go into ecstasy at the sight of this “rough-hewn, barrel-chested uncut diamond” (ref. In My Own Words: The Autobiography of Chuck Barrett) emoting pure masculinity onstage.
At the peak of his success onstage, Chuck uprooted his family to America to do a screen test for Turgid Studios. His test so impressed studio head Herb Turgid that he was cast then and there (other sources claim it was there and then) as the lead in the now-classic western Two Guns For The Rio Grande (1940), playing the part of haunted, hard-bitten gunslinger Chester Kensington III. The film is most remembered today for its slyly playful homoerotic subtext that slipped under the nose of the censors at the time, such as the scene where the two main characters admire each other’s “pistols”, and that other scene where he tongues the face off Robert Mitchum.
The film was a smash hit, and was dubbed Turgid’s answer to Gone With The Wind, in that it’s fondly remembered but actually extremely racist. Chuck followed it up with similar two-fisted cowboy roles in such movies as Last Stage To Boot Hill, Gunfight At Dawn, The Rifles Of Gonzalez, Bury My Knees At Blood Gulch, The Two-Fisted Cowboy and even gently spoofed his persona starring opposite perennial children’s favourite Ernie The Singin’ Mule in Women And Children Die First.
In an effort to break out from typecasting and broaden his choice of roles offered he set up a production company, TaxDodge Films. His first role outside of his wheelhouse was in romantic comedy No Means No!, which saw him play a suave advertising executive competing with a handsome architect for the affections of a working girl played by perky blonde comedienne Jenny Closet. The film is a forgettable trifle with its only memorable moments provided by Chuck’s notes as a producer, for example the ending which sees his character gun his romantic rival down into the dust before riding out of town. He embarked on a torrid affair with Closet during shooting, a habit he had with almost all his leading ladies, though they were rarely aware of it. His drinking had also gotten out of hand, and it was all too familiar on the Turgid backlot to see a drunken, semi-conscious Chuck held up and operated by strings as though a puppet while a sound-alike mouthed his lines off-camera. He would stay out all night and crawl sheepishly home as the sun came up, covered in lipstick and stinking of booze, only to find that Mary had changed the locks again (he admitted in later years he regretted ever enrolling her in those locksmith courses).
Chuck Barrett & HUAC
The fifties would be a tumultuous time in Hollywood with the arrival of the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose incredibly vague name hid a cabal of paranoid red-baiters determined to rid the film industry of communism. The witch hunts that followed saw many a good artist unemployable or worse, having to flee to Europe to find work. It was HUAC that Chuck stood up to defiantly and refused point blank to name names, opting instead to silently point to various publicity headshots and wink broadly (coincidentally, many of them were actors up against him for roles at the time, and others people he “just didn’t like”). Many years later, when Chuck received his lifetime achievement awards, while most of the auditorium gave a standing ovation there were those who remained seated and one particularly bitter audience member staged a dirty protest then and there (the audience member may or may not have been Mickey Rooney and the protest may or may not have been accidental). Nonetheless, ever the gracious winner, the aged Chuck made a touching speech where he simply listed those whose names he’d given up all those years ago, before laughing long and hard, a sure sign that he had moved on and that they should too.
The Final Years
The following years after the witch hunts were less kind to Chuck. He was deemed a pariah in Hollywood, which he was delighted with at first, believing it to be a type of Arabian prince and demanded that Bob Hope’s head be brought to him on a plate. It was at this time that Mary, sick of his constant cheating and drinking and the disgusting odour emanating from his ears at all times demanded a divorce. Chuck granted her one and would selflessly continue to support her for the rest of her life, which tragically wasn’t all that long as she died a week later after throwing herself from a hotel window. It was an open and shut case, though police were suspicious of the suicide note being particularly complimentary towards the acting and lovemaking talents of her much-hated ex-husband. Chuck would later joke that the suicide note contained some of the best notices he ever got, before the music started to swell indicating he should wrap it up and leave the stage.
By the end of the decade TaxDodge Films was in liquidation and Chuck was declared bankrupt after he pumped all his money into A Most Very Important Day, an ill-advised three hour vanity project he wrote, directed and starred in about the life of Dr. Anton Perinsky, the man who discovered that sticking your fingers far enough down your throat makes you get sick. With the shoot spanning continents, including some countries that hadn’t been discovered yet, thousands of extras with very specific physical requirements (their soft palates had to be inspected daily) and only three allocated shooting days, production on the film quickly spiralled wildly out of control. Monument Valley stood in for Algiers, Algiers stood in for downtown Manhattan and a pleasant suburb just outside Krakow stood in for Chuck’s co-star Lana Turner for the wides. Afterwards Chuck would brag that the two had embarked on one of his trademark torrid affairs over the course of the shoot, but the suburb vehemently denied it (though it could not account for the small cul-de-sac through it that had Chuck’s nose). Chuck kept a diary throughout the shoot, which documented the barely-controlled chaos that was the production. This excerpt, from the end of the first day of filming, hints at the internal struggle raging within the actor:
I’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.
Despite all the setbacks Chuck managed to finish the film on time and under-budget, which meant that it was even worse than originally expected. Chuck immediately destroyed all prints but one, which he kept in a safe for years until the CIA paid an obscene amount of money for it to screen at Guantanamo Bay, though why that place has “movie night” is beyond this author. Chuck would go on to distance himself from the flop, even go so far as deny its existence, as seen in this excerpt from the Johnny Pucket Show, which he was ostensibly on promoting the picture.
JOHNNY: So Chuck, what’s this movie about?
CHUCK: What movie’s that, Johnny?
JOHNNY: Why, A Most Very Imp—
CHUCK: *high-pitched squeak for several minutes*
Chuck made one last attempt at salvaging his career with a role in the television show McBurnigan, where he played the titular character of Det. Jack O’Donnell. The series lasted one series before being cancelled, the episodes lowered into a pit of molten steel and the cast and crew executed by firing squad. Realising that he was through as an actor, Chuck was dragged gracefully out of the limelight. He retired to his homeland, where he wiled away his remaining minutes in the tax haven of County Laois. He died aged 25 and was buried in a pauper’s grave, which the pauper’s family were none too happy about.