English actor Frederick Kerr (Frederick Keen, 1858-1933) was born this day. Kerr had a long theatrical career, but only appeared in 19 films, with one performance so iconic and memorable we make it our lede: he played Colin Clive’s father, old Baron von Frankenstein in Universal’s Frankenstein (1931). He is the comic relief in that film, and brilliantly funny as the scatterbrained but charming old lord. Fans of James Whale have seen him in an almost identical role in the original Waterloo Bridge (1931). Admiring him in both, I wanted to know more.
Surprisingly, his theatrical career got started in the States. A Londoner and a Cambridge graduate, he started out as a visual artist and was living in New York in 1882 when he learned that English actors were being sought for a production of The School for Scandal. He took the part on a lark and remained in the business another half century. (Did he perhaps change his name so it would be less like Kean, a name with a lot of freight in the English speaking theatre?) Kerr divided his time between the London and New York stages through most of his career. He was also valued as a theatrical manager; he ran London’s Vaudeville Theatre starting in 1895, and later ran the Royal Court Theatre. His best known stage role may be the title character in the original 1906 London production of Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion.
Kerr began appearing in silent films in 1916. Beyond the two films I named initially, another well known film he appeared in is the murder mystery Raffles (1930). His last credit was the comedy Lord of the Manor (1933). Kerr’s son was the actor Geoffrey Kerr; his grandson was the actor John Kerr.