Today is the birthday of Douglas MacLean (1890-1967). I’ve been at sixes and sevens this morning trying to decide whether to put in my Hall of Hams or Stars of Slapstick series; his career has aspects of both. I ducked it by not trying to put him in a box. Walter Kerr called MacLean a Demiclown; one of several silent picture actors who appeared in silent comedy but weren’t out and out slapstick artists. I think of him (and many others) as being in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks — light comedians, the heroes of romantic high comedy, the drawing room comedy we associate with the stage. He was billed as “The Man with the Million Dollar Smile”
Much like Fairbanks, Philadelphia native MacLean started out in business (he was a bond trader) so he thoroughly understood the well-groomed, well’off, well’mannered young men he was hired to play. After studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he got a little stage experience under his belt and went into films in 1914, appearing with Alice Brady and Johnny Hines in As Ye Sow. By 1922 he was starring in his own features, 14 in all through the end of the silent era, including The Yankee Consul (1924) and George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1925). His last was a talkie for Christie called Divorce Made Easy, with Marie Prevost, Dot Farley, Johnny Arthur and Jack Duffy.
When he stopped acting he didn’t let the grass grow under his feet. He put that business background to good use by becoming a producer from 1931 and 1937 (he’d actually had some experience; he’s produced several of his own features during the silent days). He started out as associate producer on Wheeler and Woolsey pictures for RKO, then moved over to Paramount where he hand in several pictures harnessing the talents of W.C. Fields and others, including Tillie and Gus, Six of a Kind and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.
Here he is with Wallace Beery in a short clip from The Rookie’s Return (1921) a,k.a. The Battler. Maclean is of course the young hero who scales the wall and climbs through a window to save the day:
For more about silent comedy and the early movie business check out 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
For more on the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.