Louis Calhern: Slick Like Ice

AsphaltJung 17

A nod today to actor Louis Calhern (Carl Vogt, 1895-1956).

Those who know his film performances are familiar with Calhern’s air of suave polish, a sheen he acquired from his years of apprenticeship and early stardom on the stage. Starting out as a bit player and prop man in touring stock and burlesque companies, his first break came in silent films in 1921, when he was cast in several dramas by pathbreaking female auteur Lois Weber.

In 1923, he shifted to Broadway, scoring an early hit in Cobra opposite Judith Anderson. Calhern was to remain a star of Broadway for the next 30 years, starring in over dozen plays in between film appearances until the end of his life.

His return to films came in 1931. With his smooth manners and pencil thin mustache he was a natural for talkies, excelling at superficially charming but duplicitous diplomats, breezy businessmen, and crooked mouthpieces in pinstriped suits. Early memorable appearances include Night After Night (1932) with George Raft and Mae WestDiplomaniacs (1933) with Wheeler and Woolsey, and Duck Soup (1933) with the Marx Brothers.

And dozens more over the next 20+ years, notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Annie Get Your Gun (1950, cast WAY against type as Buffalo Bill as a replacement for Frank Morgan who died during production), the eponymous role in Julius Caesar (1953), and High Society (1956, his last completed performance. He died while on location in Tokyo to shoot Teahouse of the August Moon (his part was taken over by Paul Ford).

He was married four times, the third time to Natale Schafer, best known as Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. 

To learn more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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