Cyril Cusack: 1910-1993
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The name Cyril Cusack was familiar to me long before I'd seen any of his films. He was a venerated actor from the classic era, I knew, and his name conjured for me an image of one of those distinguished Shakespearean actors the mere utterance of whose name elicits standing ovations and must certainly be preceded by "Sir."

His name figured prominently in the credits of the 1951 film Soldiers Three, which I had recorded because so did the name of one of my all-time favorite actors: Robert Newton, who, in 1950, had given the definitive performance as Long John Silver in Walt Disney's Treasure Island. I have always been enthralled by charismatic character actors--those with a talent for creating memorable supporting characters, colorful antiheroes, multifaceted villains, taking them slightly over the top while keeping them believable; classically trained; veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company; and often obscure (to American audiences)--never the bland, predictable leading-man type who always gets the girl.

Everything I had read about Soldiers Three had made the film out to be such a dud (it had nothing to do with Rudyard Kipling's original tale by the same title, grumbled Kipling biographer Philip Leibfried; even stars Stewart Granger and David Niven spoke of it as an embarrassment--an adventure story that audiences misinterpreted as a comedy) that I had put off watching it for some time. But, as a loyal Robert Newton fan and dutiful webmaster, I was obliged to view it at least once. I consoled myself that it boasted an illustrious cast.

While it was indeed hardly a great cinematic work, with such low expectations, I found it hard to be disappointed. Robert Newton figured prominently as one of three titular buddies. Playing the token dimwit of the group, Private Jock "Bill" Sykes, he was in full larger-than-life form, hamming as only Robert Newton could and echoing the dialect he'd made famous in the role of Long John Silver, right down to the "arr"s. (Also of note was his character's name: Bill Sykes was another memorable character he'd brought to life in 1948's Oliver Twist.) The dashing Stewart Granger (speaking with a Cockney accent) was, of course, the "leading man" of the group, Private Archibald Aykroyd. And Private Dennis Malloy, a diminutive (by comparison with his colleagues, both of whom stood at least 6 feet tall), wisecracking Irishman played by someone I didn't recognize, rounded out the trio. I naturally recognized Newton's friend David Niven as their persnickety leader, Captain Pindenny, while Walter Pidgeon was another of those distinguished-sounding names I would expect to take the role of stodgy Colonel Brunswick.

While the script was a bit silly (with scenes featuring men dressed in women's lingerie and mooing like cows plus lots of visual humor, it's hard to believe it wasn't intended as a comedy), the actors' performances made the film surprisingly enjoyable. The three main actors had a particular chemistry together, especially Robert Newton and the actor playing Malloy, who seemed to be a charming and gifted comedian. By the time I'd finished my first viewing, I wanted to watch it again.

Rarely able to take my eyes off Newton whenever he is onscreen, I found myself paying more attention to his character's interaction with Malloy the second time through. I noticed some humorous activity between the two of them that suggested some offscreen chemistry as well. When the three drunken mischiefmakers are being held in a tent awaiting their captain's reprimand, Malloy and Sykes lean against each other. Some of the dialog in this scene and the one preceding it is so inane, I wondered whether it was improvised. What I noticed this time was that, while Sykes speaks, the still-inebriated Malloy is tugging mischievously on his hair. This prompts Sykes to slap the air about his head and complain of the "flies." When some friendly roughhousing ensues, Malloy continues his assault on Sykes's locks. I could imagine the director yelling "Cut!" and Newton turning to his prankish costar with feigned indignance: "Hey, that hurt! I'll get you!" In fact, Sykes later gets his "revenge" when he nearly drowns crossing a river but is "saved from a watery grave" by Malloy and Aykroyd. His feet now obviously firmly planted on the riverbottom but still clinging to his friend, Sykes seems to take an inordinate amount of glee in mercilessly yanking the chuckling Malloy's drenched curls with one hand and nearly choking him with the other. It's hard to imagine that this subtle detail was scripted. At any rate, the two seemed to be having a good time, and it was contagious.

Focusing now on Malloy I noticed that he was, in fact, getting most of the best lines--or they seemed that way delivered with his exaggerated Irish whimsy--and that the hapless Sykes was really his sidekick. On my third and subsequent viewings, I also became aware of the actor's ability to show rage and melancholy just as believably.

Who was this impish charmer who'd managed to pry my attention away from the consummate scene-stealer himself? I checked the captions of some promotional photos from the film and was surprised to find that the delightful comedian with the twinkling eye was none other than the mysterious Cyril Cusack! (In fact, his first major film role had been in another Robert Newton film, Odd Man Out, but they'd shared no scenes together.)

Soldiers Three has since become one of my favorite films--a fun diversion I can watch again and again to cheer myself up when I'm down and keep me company on a sleepless night. And Cyril Cusack has joined my pantheon of favorite actors. I now find my eyes glued to him whenever he's onscreen the way Robert Newton commands my attention in other films.

Another Cusack performance that has since captured my heart was in 1950's Gone to Earth. As the gentle country preacher, Edward Marston, he falls in love with the free-spirited, half-gypsy heroine, Hazel (Jennifer Jones). Although she accepts his marriage proposal, she is also pursued by a lascivious squire (David Farrar), who simultaneously attracts and repels her. Though Edward is misguided in his attempts to make her happy, his love for her is selfless and genuine, ultimately bringing out his inner strength. I found his subtle performance sympathetic and touching, entirely in keeping with Mary Webb's original novel. (Unfortunately, in the Americanized version of the film, which was re-edited, partially reshot, and re-released in 1952 by David O. Selznick as The Wild Heart, I was disappointed that Edward's gentleness is reinterpreted by the filmmakers as weakness and that the squire, who by today's standards would be considered a stalker, is portrayed as the one who truly deserves Hazel's affection, a pseudo Rhett Butler.)

Of course, I had to know more about my new hero and did several searches on the Web. There was more information about Cyril Cusack than I had originally found about Robert Newton (before I determined it was my duty to create a website about him), consisting of brief articles or obituaries with the occasional tiny photo, but, to my dismay, no one had done a comprehensive fansite about this classic actor either. I decided that this was another deficiency I would have to rectify.

As with Robert Newton, I originally meant to create a simple one-page summary of Cusack's life and work with a few representative photos. But as I strove to avoid simply paraphrasing what had already been written and succumbed to the urge to know more about him, my research turned into a mild obsession. I began collecting photos of him and enjoying as much of his work through video and audio recordings as I could get a hold of. Although a full-fledged biography of Cyril Cusack has yet to be published, he candidly shared a great deal about himself with interviewers and through his own writings as well, and I find him to be a very interesting person as well as a talented performer.

Coincidentally, I had been studying the Irish language for over two years and was excited to discover that Cusack was a fluent speaker. I mentioned my interest in him to my Irish teacher, Brian Clancy, who, it turns out, is a long-time fan of the actor himself. We began sharing and discussing Cusack's movies, and he enlightened me on some Abbey Theatre history as well. I now have him to thank for inspiring this site--and Cyril Cusack to thank for inspiring a friendship between two people who had known each other for years but just needed something, in the words of C. S. Lewis, "to be friends about." It is to Brian that I dedicate this site.

I'm also very grateful to my good friend at Cinéphilia for her assistance, feedback, and encouragement in this endeavor.

The more I learn about Cyril Cusack, the more I admire him. He was not merely a gifted and versatile actor, but a talented writer, poet, storyteller, and pioneer of the Irish theatre. He was intelligent, witty, hard-working, spiritual, and highly respected. It is my hope that this site will honor his memory, in addition to serving as a resource and "meeting place" for other fans, and sharing my enthusiasm for his work with a new generation of fans.

  Susan Dauenhauer Ciriello


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