Harry Davenport: Distinguished for Decades

Modern audiences probably know Harry Davenport (1866-1949) best from his role as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind, not just one of his biggest roles during the sound era, but one of his best performances. But I learned a tidal wave more, and I’ve wanted to share it for months.

Davenport was descended from long lines of stage actors on both his father’s and mother’s sides. His father Edward Loomis Davenport had deep New England roots and had acted with Junius Brutus Booth, Anna Cora Mowatt (author of the play Fashion), and William Charles Macready. Harry’s mother Fanny Vining was the daughter of the manager of the Haymarket Theatre, Frederick Vining.  Harry was raised in Philadelphia and made his stage debut at the age of five. A brother and two sisters were also actors: Edgar, May and Fanny.

In 1893 he married Alice Sheppard, who took his name, becoming the silent movie performer Alice Davenport. The pair were only married three years but they did have a child Dorothy Davenport, who married Wallace Reid, and became a movie star, producer, director and screenwriter in her own right. In 1896, Harry married Phyllis Rankin, which brings a whole ‘nother theatrical dynasty into the story (read abut them here).

Between 1894 and 1935, Harry Davenport appeared in three dozen Broadway plays. Among them were the first theatrical adaptation of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1895) and the American premiere of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever (1925).

From 1913 through 1921 he made dozens of silent films. He starred in a series of Jarr Family comedies for Vitagraph in 1915, many of which he directed. In the late teens he appeared in close to a dozen dramatic features. He returned to the stage for most of the 1920s, then returned to Hollywood in 1930 as talkies were getting a firm footing. This is the work he is best known for today. His earliest talking films weren’t very distinguished, but in 1935 his wife passed away. He quit Broadway at that stage and put all of his energy into film roles, and he appears in many a classic from that point on.  Some of the better known talkies he appeared in include The Life of Emil Zola (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Meet John Doe (1941), Kings Row (1942), Tales of Manhattan (1942), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1947), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947), That Lady in Ermine (1948), and the 1949 version of Little Women. In the final tally, Davenport appeared in over 160 films.