July 4 is the birthday of George Murphy (1902-1992). Previous generations would be nonplussed to know how quickly and thoroughly this prominent American cultural figure (both theatrical and political) would be swallowed up by time. Sometimes it’s a lazy stream; sometimes whitewater. Murphy retired in 1971 and afterwards it was as though he’d gone over the falls. But he’s both notable and worth remembering for numerous reasons.
Murphy grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Michael Murphy, a college track coach, and the coach of the 1912 U.S. Olympic team which Jim Thorpe led to victory. The younger Murphy attended Yale for a time but dropped out in order to become a professional dancer — a rare choice in that or any era. New Haven as of course where Broadway rehearsed and workshopped shows for out-of-town tryouts. Murphy picked up dancing skills (including tap) at the local rehearsal halls. He formed a team, onstage and off with Julie Johnson in 1926; she became both his dance partner and wife. Johnson and Murphy rose rapidly, performing in nightclubs, society parties and vaudeville. In 1931 the pair made it Broadway in the show Shoot the Works. This led to Murphy being cast in the hit shows Of Thee I Sing (1931-1933) and Roberta (1933). Johnson retired from performing but the couple remained married until her death in 1973.
Hollywood called next. His first picture was Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor. Other notable films included Broadway Melody of 1938, Broadway Melody of 1940, For Me and My Gal (1942), and Broadway Rhythm (1944). He co-starred with Shirley Temple in Little Miss Broadway (1938), with Judy Garland in George M. Cohan’s Little Nellie Kelly (1940), and with Ann Sothern in Ringside Maisie (1941) and Up Goes Maisie (1946).
From 1944 to 1946 he served as President of the Screen Actors Guild and this proved the beginning of his transition away from acting and into politics. His last proper role was the espionage thriller Walk East on Beacon in 1952. Having switched from the Democratic to the Republican party in 1939, he began to take a more active role circa 1952, becoming a leader in the California Republican Party and directing the entertainment for Eisenhower’s inaugural gala. At the same time, Murphy accepted executive positions at Desilu Studios and the Technicolor Corporation. In 1966, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, serving a single term (until 1971). He was hampered in his re-election by a 1968 operations for throat cancer, which took away his ability to speak above a whisper.
Murphy was a pioneer in the not-always-fortunate innovation of show biz people entering politics as actual candidates. By contrast, Ronald Reagan, with whom he had appeared in the 1943 film This is the Army, and to whom he was to be a kind of political mentor, did not officially join the Republican Party until 1962. At the time, the idea of Murphy serving in the Senate was considered such an absurdity that Tom Lehrer wrote a satirical song about it — and it was much more about him being a dancer than being a conservative. Thanks to Reagan and Murphy, for a time there was a peculiar Hollywood conservative actor domination of California politics. (Another Murphy co-star, Shirley Temple ran for Congress as a Republican in 1967, as well, but lost). Oddly now, despite the fact that Murphy came before him, most people think of Reagan as the pioneer of the doleful trend of show biz people in office. Reagan one referred to Murphy as his “John the Baptist”, which I guess makes Reagan the Messiah. That can’t be right.
For more on show business history, vaudeville and hoofers like George Murphy, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.