The great (small) character actor Donald Meek was born July 14, 1878. Don’t tell me you don’t know who he is! With that enormous chrome dome and his small statue (5’6″) he seemed almost like a cartoon character, say, Droopy. And so many of the movies he appeared in were classics. Statistically, some were bound to be — he made so many movies: over 120 in 16 years of talkies, which averages to almost 8 a year, or a movie every month and a half.
It is surprising to learn that he was born and raised in Glasgow; he became a world travelling trouper at quite a young age and worked to lose the accent. He started out as a child actor in local pantomimes and the like, and the legend of his early career is wonderful if true, although the many tidbits one comes across seem possibly contradictory: 1) that he acted with Sir Henry Irving by age eight; 2) that he toured Australia, India, South Africa and England in the title role in Little Lord Fauntleroy; 3) that, at age 14 he joined a troupe of acrobats called The Marvells as a top mounter; 4) that, when on tour in the U.S. he fell, breaking several bones; and that, when he recovered, he enlisted and fought for the U.S. in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, where he was not only wounded in action, but also caught a disease that caused his hair to fall out.
Much of this may be publicists’ puffery; I merely report it you because it is entertaining, and I would far rather be entertained than trouble to learn the truth of the matter. What is quite clear is that, starting in 1917 he was cast in the Broadway musical Going Up, and he was to work steadily on the Great White Way for the next 15 years. One of these shows Six Cylinder Love (1921-22) was made into a 1923 movie, Meek’s first screen credit and his only silent one. Another of them, The Potters (1923-24) was later made into a silent movie starring W.C. Fields, whom he would later appear in two films with.
When talkies came in, he had a period of overlap, where he both acted on Broadway, and in films at Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone studio in Queens. It was during this period when he starred in a series of shorts called the Dr. Crabtree Mysteries. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood to concentrate solely on acting for films. Some of his well known pictures include: Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) with Zasu Pitts and W.C. Fields; Top Hat (1935) with Fred and Ginger; Barbary Coast (1935) with Joel McCrea and Edward G. Robinson; Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi; John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939); with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935); Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938); My Little Chickadee (1940) with W.C. Fields and Mae West; Jesse James (1939) and its sequel The Return of Frank James (1940); Air Raid Wardens (1943) with Laurel and Hardy; DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) with Red Skelton and others; and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945) among, scores of others.
As you can see, he made himself useful in EVERY genre. Ordinarily, he played shy, nervous, bookish or officious types: ministers, book-keepers, robbery victims and the like, although it was occasionally effective when he went against type to be a villain, as in the Jesse James films or Air Raid Wardens. His character names tell the tale: “Mr. Frisbee”, “Justice of the Peace”, “Dr. Zimmer”, “Iradius P. Oglethorpe”, “Willoughby Wendling”, “Samuel Peacock”, “Adelbert Thistlebottom”, “Mittelmeyer”, “Professor Birdo”, “Captain Makepeace Liveright”, “Henry Cadwallader”, “Mr. Twiddle”. His last film, William Wellman’s Magic Town was released posthumously in 1947. Meek had passed away the previous year.
For everything you need to to know about early show business, including possible former child acrobats like Donald Meek, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.