Today is the birthday of Crane Wilbur (1886-1973). Wilbur was a rare beast: successful as a writer, director and actor for screen, radio and the stage, including vaudeville. That pretty much covers all the bases, doesn’t it? Born Erwin Crane Wilber, he was the son of an actress who’d quit to raise a family, and the nephew of actress Edith Crane and her husband Tyrone Power (Sr.) When Wilbur was six years old his father commited suicide, a trauma which no doubt played a role in the darker nature of most of his later writings.
When he was a teenager he was already writing plays and acting. His Broadway debut was in a trilogy of Yeats plays in 1903. He worked in summer stock and repertory theatre most of the time. He had been a stage veteran a dozen years by the time he made his motion picture debut as an actor in 1910 in The Girl From Arizona. He would write, direct and act constantly in Hollywood over the next decade, most notably as the male lead in the famous serial The Perils of Pauline, which launched in 1914. It was at that time he made a tour of the Poli (vaudeville) circuit in order to promote the film.
A series of personal tragedies in 1920-21 drove him back to the stage for a time. Notable Broadway successes from his pen included The Ouijah Board (1920), a modernization of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat, and The Monster (1925), which was later depated into a film directed by Roland West and starring Lon Chaney. He toured in vaudeville for a time in 1923, and enjoyed prominent roles in many Broadway productions including Eugene O’Neill’s The Fountain (1925), the original production of Rope (1928), a stage adaptation of A Farewell to Arms (1930), and Mourning Becomes Electra (1932). His last Broadway role was in 1932; his last directorial credit for the stage was in 1945.
By then he’d long since returned to Hollywood; he’d returned in 1929 at the advent of talkies. While he acted in a few roles through 1936 (Yellow Cargo), his main success during this phase came as a screenwriter and director, specializing in horror, mystery, spy, crime and prison pictures. Among his dozens of credits are the screenplays for House of Wax (1953) and The Mad Magician (1954), and the direction of his adaptation of The Bat (1959). His last directorial credit is in 1962 (House of Women).
And now…Chapter One of The Perils of Pauline!
To find out more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on the early film industry don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc