Music Box Robert Ryan Event Review - A Multifaceted Personality

The Music Box Theatre hosted a double event on Sunday, May 31, 2015; there was a screening of The Set-Up, a film-noir classic first released in 1949, starring Robert Ryan, a Chicago native, followed by a discussion with author J. R. Jones, whose book, The Lives of Robert Ryan, published by Wesleyan University Press, came out May 11, 2015. The theatre, at 3733 N. Southport, Chicago, opened In 1929, reopened in 1983, and since 2007, has shown “ fine foreign and domestic films”. It hosts 300 movies a year and the main theatre sports a blue- starred ceiling where white clouds appear to float…a second smaller theatre was constructed in 1991. The special screening and discussion was also joined by the actor’s daughter, Lisa Ryan, who, in 2009 found a 20-page letter written by her deceased father to her and her two brothers. Lisa gave the letter to a friend in Chicago, who in turn gave it to a colleague of JR Jones at The Reader, Chicago; later that year, Jones published a lengthy article about the actor in the Reader, with the full text of the letter, and thus the idea for the book was born.

 

"Bob and Jessica (his wife) in Stratford, Connecticut. 'He was dependent on her for her critical attitudes,' director Arvin Brown observed. 'He admired a great deal what she had to say about him in performances, and he took her very seriously.' Courtesy of Robert Ryan Family"

 

The Setup has been extensively reviewed, and has been regularly hailed as the greatest boxing film ever made. What is not so well known, but was discovered by Jones and noted in his meticulously researched biography, is that this drama was based on a little known poem, “ the set-up”, by Joseph Moncure March, and the poem had been a favorite of Robert Ryan's since his college days at Dartmouth. The narrative poem, which made the New York Times bestseller list in 1928- (those were very different times!)- features a washed-up black fighter whose manager cuts a deal with a local gangster, behind his back, to throw a fight; he rallies and wins, but is ultimately harried to his death by the thug’s minions. The poem’s hero, Pansy Jones was an unsuccessful, unknown, man whom Ryan admired for his decency and he pushed for the part, securing an Oscar nomination for his sympathetic portrayal…vastly different from most of the celluloid characters Ryan usually portrayed, who were often embittered, vicious and conflicted.

  

Photo credit:"Film Noir Foundation"

JR Jones is a gently spoken, gifted and thoughtful writer who holds both Bachelors and Masters degrees in Creative Writing, from Knox College and The University of Alabama, respectively, and has been on staff at The Reader since 1997, editing movie listings, spending 5 years in music writing, and specializing in movie reviews since 2002.  He chose the Wesleyan Press because of their scholarly series “Wesleyan Film”, and used up all his vacation and sabbatical time on research trips and writing binges; the resulting book is a marvel of scholarship and sheer reportage, but is much more than that.  Jones cautions the reader. and this reviewer, not to make assumptions about an actor’s intentions solely from the choice of roles…early studio thralldom also played a part.  Jones delves deeply into Ryan's life choices, his family relationships, his background, and the full range of his 70 films, multiple theatre venues and roles, and his lifelong commitment to social issues. Jones also developed good working relationships with Ryan's children and the family of the author of the only other major work on the actor.

 

  

Photo credit:"Film Noir Foundation"

Ryan emerges in this deftly written fact-filled volume as a fully realized human being. His 3+decades long career reveals a man who worked with some of the finest artists in the craft. His face, in such films as The Dirty Dozen, is strikingly handsome and instantly recognizable. Yet, despite living near and working in Hollywood, he was not a participant in the party-land culture, he entered into no “scenes” after the filming was done. This was an intensely private individual, happily married for 30 years to Jessica Cadwalader, an artist- actress and writer- herself, with whom he shared a life and three children, who all appear to have turned out well. Robert and Jessica together researched, sought consultations on, founded and continuously funded the Oakwood School, an indepent, progressive  and well regarded school, grades K through 8 inclusive, to which they sent their children and which is still operational and well known today.

 

Ryan was able to protest the McCarthy era Communist hunts without getting burned. Indeed, while he can't be said to have been a model of decorum- who can? his life appears to have been well balanced, and he has obviously left behind an important legacy beyond his impressive body of work.

 

 

 

 

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