Today is the birthday of the much beloved character actor Charles Coburn (1877-1961). How perfect that it happens to fall on Father’s Day this year, for the first role that comes into mind when I think about Coburn is Barbara Stanwyck’s father in The Lady Eve (1941), at once affectionate and doting…and roguish and larcenous. One is quite convinced that Preston Sturges devised the role especially for Coburn (although now I think on it, earlier in his career, W.C. Fields might have been good in it).
Originally from Georgia, Coburn fell in love with the theatre as a teenager working at a Savannah theatre, as usher, doorman, and ticket taker. He studied the stars who came through, actors like John Drew, De Wolf Hopper, Richard Mansfield and Henry Irving. Coburn was often thought to be English, an impression reinforced by the monacle he usually wore, not as an affectation he claimed, but because he literally had trouble seeing out of one eye. His first Broadway play was Up York State (1901).
In 1905 he formed a repertory company with actress Ivah Wills; the two married the following year and became a famous Broadway acting couple. By the late teens and 20s they were among the principle stars of Broadway. Among Coburn’s more notable stage parts was Old Bill in the first American production of The Better ‘Ole (1918-1919), a part later played by Sydney Chaplin in the film version. It was during these years that the Coburns played in Big Time Vaudeville, including its primary showcase the Palace.
By 1928, Coburn was so successful he built his own theatre, the Coburn Theatre, on 63rd Street, but the Depression which followed killed its fortunes and it closed its doors in 1932. When Mrs. Coburn died in 1937, Coburn (now aged 60) began his second career in movies. Listing the classic films he appears in seems silly. There are too many of them. But you can peruse the list here if the spirit moves you.
To learn 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.