Chances are, if you’ve ever drifted into the dark city of Noir, you’ll recognize the unmistakable face of Charles McGraw. He appeared in some of the most archetypal films of the noir era. But even more interesting was his life when the cameras were off. In his new book, Charles McGraw – Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, author Alan K. Rode examines the life and career of the rugged character actor. McGraw was born Charles Butters on May 10, 1914. He enjoyed a close relationship with his father Frank, but eventually distanced from his mother who seemed to place religious guilt on him. He graduated as the country was still broken from the Great Depression; and like many others, found any work that was available. But Charlie wanted adventure and a greater thrill than bumming around his hometown. He and two friends signed up to board a freighter that would take them around the world. Charlie continued on a similar pace for a couple of years before his boredom got the better of him. He set off for New York City in the mid-1930s. While in the city, he took odd jobs to pay his bills. He was even rumored to have taken up boxing in addition to his random brawls on the street. But his real passion seemed to fall on the stage. He landed a role in The Jazz Age in 1937, dropping his last name and replacing it with “Crisp”. He would go on to secure roles in other productions, notably Golden Boy, a play intended for John Garfield. Traveling to England, Charlie met and fell in love with Freda Choy Kitt. The two were married and expecting their first child soon after. This prompted Charlie, now in his late 20s, to take a shot at the big time in Hollywood. Rode has taken on a somewhat difficult subject in McGraw. Like many actors in the sub-superstar realm, his tale hasn’t been documented a million times over, which generally makes for a more tedious research process. Rode tackles the job with extreme precision. Very little, if anything, seems to be left out. One major point of interest is the assessment of the McGraws’ marriage in the wake of World War II. With high tension between the United States and Japan, Charlie’s marriage to a woman with a distinct Asian appearance was suspect. The pressure seemed to blow over, however, and Charlie was back to work in the early 1940s on The Undying Monster. In addition to being his debut film, it was also the only time he acted under the name Charles Crisp. He chose the surname “McGraw”, though the change wasn’t technically legal until years later in 1955.
As things began to roll, Charlie re-routed for a stretch in the U.S. Army but would only serve less than a year. His brush with noir came in 1946’s The Killers with Burt Lancaster, Ava Garder and Edmund O’Brien. The film threw such a spotlight on Charlie that a few press reports noted it as his debut, when of course, it wasn’t. 1947 was McGraw’s playground. He appeared in another Burt Lancaster noir, Brute Force, as a convict, as well as in many other smaller roles that allowed him to stretch his character muscles. His acceptance into the noir whirlwind became evident with his performances in 1949’s Border Incident, 1950’s Side Street and Armed Car Robbery, 1951’s His Kind of Woman and Roadblock, and 1952’s The Narrow Margin. A definite asset to the book is Rode’s full grip on the eras in which these films were made. He not only provides the requisite production information and history behind the stories, but also the mind state of the country. In an effort not to spoil the rollercoaster ride of McGraw’s private life (including his tragic death), suffice it to say Hollywood drama had nothing on him. He was somewhat of a prototype for his own body of work. McGraw was the “every man” that noir delighted in chewing up and spitting out. So often the plots were laced with prominent stars that they tended to lose authenticity with the audience. McGraw was a representation of the thousands of nameless faces in the world – some of whom could have easily become tangled in noir’s web of insanity. Charles McGraw – Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy is a testament to the many actors who never received enough credit for their contribution to film history. It’s a highly enjoyable trip down memory lane and an incredible history lesson for movie enthusiasts. The reader is also treated to a foreword by Jim Steranko, noted for his work in the 1960s on Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. McGraw’s daughter, Jill Julia McGraw, contributes a great deal to the biography. The only thing that confuses us is how Rode managed to fit such a wealth of information in just under 230 pages. We chalk it up to great writing! You can order Charles McGraw – Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy from McFarland Publishing by visiting their website at www.mcfarlandpub.com or by calling their order line toll-free at 1-800-253-2187. You can also purchase the book through Amazon.com using the link below.