My grandmother was not much of a moviegoer, but when I mentioned Lew Ayres in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), her face lit up with recognition. “I saw that picture! At the end, doesn’t he reach out for a butterfly?” Her hand reached out, and she mimed the famous last scene. I nodded. “I can’t believe I remember that!” she said. “I can see it in my head, just what it looked like.” A whole generation was haunted by Lew Ayres reaching out for that butterfly in the final scene of one of the worthier Best Picture Oscar winners, but Ayres himself suffered for taking the lesson of that anti-World War One movie to heart. At the onset of World War Two, Ayres declared himself a conscientious objector and suffered savage criticism from all sides. He served honorably in the war as a medic, but refused to put himself in any situation where he would have to kill another human being.
After the war, Ayres’ film career petered out, and he made most of his living from television guest appearances. As an older man, he devoted himself to a labor of love, a documentary about Eastern religion called Altars of the East (1955), which eventually grew into Altars of the World (1976), an intelligent, judicious look at faith of all kinds. In that engrossing film, Ayres shows that all religions are based around the precept that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, do unto others as you would have done unto you, and so forth. He spends a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of each faith; by the end, Buddhism wins out as the best and most challenging of disciplines. Ayres emphasizes Buddhism for a reason: he wants nothing less than to make us ask ourselves why there are still wars, and he sees religious enlightenment as the best way out of perpetual slaughter. This was a man so touchingly sensitive that the infamously grudge-holding Joan Crawford ended a book of interviews with Roy Newquist on a pained mea culpa for yelling at Ayres when he was late to the set of a movie they were making. More than a fine and under-used actor, Ayres was an exceptional person, a model pacifist in a world that still cannot conceive of such an option.
1. The Kiss (1929): While working as a musician, Ayres was discovered by MGM producer Paul Bern, and he was personally selected by Greta Garbo to play her adolescent admirer in this late silent directed by Jacques Feyder. Garbo sensually responds to Ayres’ youthful intensity, cupping his face with her hand and tenderly inspecting his boyish prettiness. Young as Ayres is here (all of twenty-one years old), he seems like an adult presence, meeting his imposing co-star more than halfway at all times; there’s something furtive and obstinate about Ayres that kills the “puppy love” clichés of his role. He looks like someone who always gets his own way, and he’s almost ruthless in his desires until confronted with Garbo’s jealous husband, who badly beats and almost kills him. Reportedly Garbo named Ayres as her favorite leading man, and you can see why; he holds the screen with her as an equal in beauty and depth, a major accomplishment for someone just starting out in movies.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front: The film that would define Ayres and determine his life is a bit creaky today, with visual techniques more suitable to the silent screen. And there are several moments where Ayres betrays his inexperience as an actor, especially during some long and now corny speeches to God and to his fellow soldiers. But he lands the big emotions when they count, like a scene where he wearily tells off a jingoistic teacher, and the moment when he passionately kisses a French girl’s hand only to have his ardor go unappreciated. Though his performance is flawed, and the film unwieldy, there’s no getting around the impact of the essential anti-war message, carried non-stop by Ayres until the last scene, where he reaches out for a butterfly that’s so much more than a butterfly.
3. Holiday (1938): After his breakthrough in All Quiet, Ayres’ career didn’t quite work out. He was badly miscast as a gangster in Doorway to Hell (1930) and a boxer in Iron Man (1931), and by the mid-thirties he had descended to Z movies at small studios (being married to rising star Ginger Rogers from 1934 to 1940 couldn’t have been easy). But George Cukor came to his rescue with the role of Ned, the drunk brother of Katharine Hepburn in this canonical film. Hepburn and Cary Grant are so dazzling here that Ayres’ uncanny performance has been overlooked, but he’s the soul of the movie. A thwarted composer of Gershwin-style music, Ned is so deeply unhappy with himself that he has retreated into a kind of Zen alcoholism, but he’s alert enough to know just how shallow his sister Julia (Doris Nolan) is, and his love for Hepburn’s black sheep Linda lets us love her more. It’s an exquisitely judged study of the self-pity that Ayres would not indulge in himself. The part led to a contract with MGM and commercial success in their Dr. Kildare movie series, where he tolerated Lionel Barrymore and delighted all with his sly, almost smirky but cuddly bedside manner. When World War Two came, he stood up for his beliefs and paid the requisite penalty without flinching.
4. Johnny Belinda (1948): Something of a comeback, this effective melodrama brought Ayres his only Oscar nomination for Best Actor. His boyish looks eroded and hidden under a mustache, a careworn Ayres makes his saintly doctor role work by making us see that trying to be kind in this world means hard work; his good deeds do not lead to narcissistic self-satisfaction but a sort of harried irritability. Ayres’ thoughtful quality has deepened, his reedy voice is at its most expressive, and he’s very subtle: watch his reaction in church when he realizes who raped Jane Wyman’s deaf-mute Belinda. Ayres isn’t outraged, just slightly amazed that he still has the capacity to be even mildly shocked by the cruelty of some human beings. Wyman fell in love with Ayres on the set, which hastened the end of her marriage to Ronald Reagan.
5. Advise & Consent (1962): In Otto Preminger’s inventively cast political film, Ayres plays the Vice President, a charming, self-effacing man who jokes when other people don’t listen to him. Over the course of the movie, Ayres will have to bear up to the idea of becoming President, and it’s clear that he’ll make a good one, a better one, even, than the country deserves. This VP makes it known that he’s not willing to sacrifice a man’s life for any reason, a reflection of the real Ayres. We have only to imagine Ayres as President instead of Ronald Reagan to see how often the movies improve on life. His roles were seldom worthy of him, but Ayres’ example as both actor and human being should not be forgotten.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.