Today is the birthday of the actor Chester Morris (John Chester Brook Morris, 1901-1970).
Many people know Morris primarily as the star of the Boston Blackie serials from the 1940s. I discovered him via another route — he was one of the major Hollywood stars of the Pre-code era of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Morris had an interesting and thus memorable mein, at once good-looking, dark, brooding, and yet somehow goofy. Thus he was well suited for the gritty world of Pre-Code where ordinary people often had dark motives and secrets and made grown-up mistakes. Morris could play the likable young man whose slight frown let you know he was worried about what else was going on beneath the surface. Murder mysteries, gangster pictures, and racy illicit love dramas were his stock in trade.
Morris was the son of the successful Broadway actors William Morris and Etta Hawkins. He dropped out of school to take a role in the Broadway show The Copperhead with Lionel Barrymore in 1918. He made two silent movies with the Thanhouser Film Corporation and did about a half dozen more Broadway shows before he teamed up with parents and his three siblings in the big time vaudeville family act “The Horrors of Home”. The family toured the circuits for two years (1924 and 1925), before they all went back to their separate careers. Morris starred on Broadway through 1928 before heading out to Hollywood with the advent of talkies.
The first fruit of this new phase of his film career was the Prohibition gangster picture Alibi (1929), directed by Roland West, and released in both silent and sound versions. He’s in the early musical revue The Show of Shows (1929); the Winnie Lightner vehicle She Couldn’t Say No (1930); the infidelity romance The Divorcee (1930) with Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery and Conrad Nagel; The Bat Whispers (1930), Roland West’s remake of Mary Roberts’ Rineharts’ The Bat; a remake of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man (1932), directed by Norman McLeod and co-starring Sylvia Sidney, Ned Sparks and Boris Karloff (the original silent version of this strange tale had starred Lon Chaney); Red-Headed Woman (1932) opposite Jean Harlow; the western Three Godfathers (1936) with Walter Brennan (also made in earlier and later versions by John Ford); and the amazing cannibalism/disaster picture Five Came Back (1939), with Lucille Ball, John Carradine and C. Aubrey Smith.
The forties were mostly a time for B movies for Morris, with the Boston Blackie series, based on the popular radio show, as his bread and butter for the entire decade, and the occasional other picture sprinkled in. In the 1950s and 60s he mostly did television, with three notable exceptions: the prison picture Unchained (1955), AIP’s The She-Creature (1956), in which he plays a hypnotist who takes his lady subject into a past-life regression…into her life as a sea monster! And his touching, symbolic swan song, as a fight manager in The Great White Hope (1970, released posthumously). He was dying of stomach cancer (an especially painful way to go) when he OD’d on barbituates at the age of 70.
For more on vaudeville history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.