Never Steal Anything Small

— I nominate the actor in this film clip as the greatest scene-stealer in Hollywood history:

No, I don’t mean Wallace Beery. I mean the parrot.

I can’t watch this clip (from 1934’s Treasure Island) without shrieking with laughter. That parrot kills me. It sits calmly on Beery’s shoulder and with no effort steals the whole scene. I’d compare its theft to the one done by Vincenzo Perugia, who in 1911 took the Mona Lisa out of its frame and blithely walked out of the Louvre with the painting stashed under his smock. Look, Ma, no hands! Likewise, our parrot does it easily, not even using its wings. Just a wink of two of its eyes, and a few lists of the head. You hear of actors frantically trying every trick in the book to upstage their fellow artists; but all this parrot has to do is yawn and your eyes are riveted. Sheer genius.

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Though when it came to scene-stealing, it seems Beery himself was no piker. He was notorious, especially in relation to children, for his upstaging antics. Margaret O’Brien, who co-starred with Beery in Bad Bascomb, has been quoted saying that “all they had to do was tell me that Wallace Beery was going to steal the scene” to get her to cry. Jane Powell writes in her autobiography that “they practically had to nail Beery into a box to keep him from maneuvering [O’Brien] out of camera range.” Powell, who co-starred with Beery in A Date With Judy (his next-to-last film), further notes that Beery was “my least favorite” movie dad. His upstaging proclivities, she says, were “common knowledge.”

I’m getting a sense of cognitive dissonance here. What, are they all talking about lovable old Wally Beery?

Yes, they are, and you can take it from one who probably suffered the most from this Beerytive dissonance. Jackie Cooper had formed a famous screen partnership with Beery in five films, and he bluntly states in his autobiography, “I really disliked him.” He adds for good measure that there was “no warmth to the man. He always made me feel uncomfortable.” Cooper tells how King Vidor, director of The Champ, for which Beery won his Oscar, had to reprimand the adult star for upstaging Cooper (“damned if [he] didn’t upstage me very often,” wrote Cooper on viewing the film many years later), and that Beery rebuffed all off Cooper’s “affectionate advances.” Moreover, film crews, per Cooper, also disliked Beery, applauding the child star when, during the making of Treasure Island, he shot Beery in the foot. Accidentally. So he says.

“He never even bought me an ice cream cone,” Cooper concludes.

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It’s all fake, folks.

Are you depressed yet? I sympathize. Classic-film fans love Wallace Beery. Gosh, I love Wallace Beery. How can you not? He’s so scruffily adorable. Onscreen, that is. And Cooper acknowledged this spectator love in his book, noting how he later went through life pleasing admirers who asked him what Beery was like (“swell guy,” he would lie through his teeth). When his family first learned that Cooper was to work with Beery, there was “great elation,” particularly from his grandmother, who was a big fan. It was a joy of which they were quickly disabused. Like Cooper, they learned that the “Beery Mystique” was mysteriously nowhere to be found in the man himself. (After hearing of Jackie’s ordeals, Grandma would refer to Beery as “that fat Polish prick.”)

Cooper gives readers some background on MGM’s Treasure Island production. When the film had finished shooting, Louis B. Mayer decided that it needed a Happy Ending, as well as a scene of Cooper crying, which Mayer knew “the public would like.” So he ordered a reshoot of the finalé, with Cooper and Beery, to satisfy both requirements. The new script was brief, only 2 1/2 pages, said Cooper; it should have taken only a day to shoot. It ended up taking a week. Beery would blow lines, interrupt takes, delay filming—doing “everything in his power to ruin the scene,” Cooper notes. All because the actor was enraged that his juvenile partner would get to emote with tears.

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Cooper doesn’t specify what exactly was rewritten for that scene, but I have a feeling the above clip comprises part of it. Not only due to its content—Long John Silver persuading soft-hearted Jim Hawkins to let him go free, to save him from a hanging—but from how it’s cut, so that Cooper and Beery do not share screen space. Each actor gets to play to his strengths: Cooper looks moist of eye and trembling of lip; while Beery mugs shamelessly as he details the experience of being hanged with a near-sadistic relish. No doubt the screenwriter understood just what qualities Beery could bring to his new lines.

But for all that Beery was trying to focus attention on himself—grimacing, blinking, squinting, alternately squeezing and stretching his features like a Ray Harryhausen clay puppet—I wonder if he had any idea what that parrot perched next to his ear was doing.

The uncanniness of it all is how the bird’s actions seem to react to, or even mirror, the content of Beery’s lines. It’s almost as if the parrot understands. Such as when Jim announces Silver’s imminent hanging, and, in response, Silver’s eyes draw inward, trying to think of his next move. Note how the parrot’s own eyes close, as if in imitative contemplation:

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Then Silver plays on the boy’s affection. “Well, Jim,” he says with just the right touch of manly regret in his voice, “I guess you’ll just have to stand on deck and watch me swing”; and damn if that bird doesn’t incline its head toward its master with an almost rueful tilt:

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“You just dies, and that’s that,” says Silver, warming up to his subject; and now his bird dips its head in silent sorrow:

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Then as Silver describes how, when a man is hanged, his head snaps to the side, so does the bird turn its own head sideways, graphically echoing Silver’s illustration:

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But the oddest, eeriest bit is when, as Silver imagines what will happen to him during his hanging—“Slowly strangle and choke”—, the bird extends and lengthens its neck sideways, as if it’s also being stretched by the rope:

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By this point I’m usually about to fall out of my chair, I’m in such a state of disbelief. Was there a bird wrangler just out of camera range directing the parrot to do this? Was it some kind of natural simpatico with Beery? Or was it mere coincidence? Whatever. It’s the greatest piece of avian acting I’ve ever seen. And it may be the only time Beery was upstaged by a co-star who had no ego awareness of doing so.

You just gotta love that feathered little SOB for pulling it off.

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