David Manners: Lived Up To His Name

To those in the know, the name “Turner Classic Movies” is a bit of a misnomer, but in a good way. If the network only showed true classics they’d have a hard time filling a 24/7/365 schedule. Personally, I’m pretty conservative in what I’m willing to bestow the label “classic” upon. Most old movies are merely just that: old movies. One loves watching them nearly as much as better remembered ones (at least I do), but if they were truly classics they’d have been cherished by the public right along from their own day to this one, and that’s only true of a relative handful of films, a few score at most. The vast majority of these older films have been forgotten by the broader public. The real joy of watching them is not about reconnecting with something we already know and love, but about discovery. 

David Manners (Rauff de Ryther Duan Acklom, 1900-1998) is one of several stars of the early years I’ve really enjoyed acquainting myself with, one of a class I’d put with certain others, like Chester Morris, Mae Clarke, Lyle Talbot, or Robert Montgomery, people who were on top in the ’30s and got swallowed up by time (most of them pretty quickly; Montgomery lasted until the 50s, then went into politics). Manners is best remembered today perhaps for his three horror films (Dracula [1931], The Mummy [1932], and The Black Cat [1934]) but his whole body of work has something to commend itself. More even than acting ability, he had tremendous charm. In his day, he was an enormous heart throb with female audiences. Like Cary Grant or Laurence Olivier, he’s one of a handful of male stars about whom I’ll admit, “H’m, I fully understand what the ladies see in him!” He wasn’t just good looking, but sensitive, possessing not just a grace, but a graciousness. He seemed like what he was: a product of good breeding, a gentleman. He reminds me a good deal of the character Ralph Fiennes plays in The Grand Budapest Hotel; it would not floor me to learn Fiennes or Wes Anderson were thinking of Manners when they crafted that concierge character. It would be an overstatement to say that they don’t make people like Manners any more, but in any case it’s much rarer now than it was then.

“If I weren’t a gentleman, I’d give you a sound drubbing, Count Dracula!” Manners, Chandler, Lugosi

His given name, Rauff de Ryther Duan Acklom, is so British it’s Medieval, and it tells something about the character of his family and upbringing. His father George Moreby Acklom was born in India to British Colonials, graduated from Cambridge, and went on to be a major editor with E.P. Dutton. His uncle was Cecil Ryther Acklom, C.B.E., a big wheel in the British navy. At the time Manners was born, his family was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia where his father was headmaster of a posh boarding school. He spent a good part of his youth there before the family moved to New York City when his father got the publishing job. As a young man Manners first worked in the book game alongside his father, then went to the University of Toronto to study forestry.

But theatre emerged as his true love. He toured with Basil Sydney and belonged to Eva La Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Company, learning the ropes at the feet of these two masters. It is everywhere written that he co-starred with Helen Hayes in Dancing Mothers on Broadway in 1924, but his name does not appear in the IBDB entry for that play. I can only assume he used another pseudonym at that stage. (He began to use “Manners” professionally so as not to embarrass the family. It was his mother’s maiden name). The stage manager on Dancing Mothers was young George Cukor; the two became friends and would later work together in Hollywood.

With Hepburn in “A Bill of Divorcement” in a characteristically romantic pose

Manners went to Hollywood in 1927. His first part was a bit role in The Sky Hawk (1929), the star of which, Helen Chandler, he would often appear with in later pictures. Director James Whale, who’d come to Hollywood to make the film version of his stage hit Journey’s End, was enchanted with Manners, and cast him in the 1930 movie, elevating him to stardom. Ironically, though Manners played Harker, the hero role in Dracula (1931), Whale didn’t use him in Frankenstein. But Manners was incredibly busy, making close to 40 films in six years. Among the others were Kismet (1930) with Otis Skinner and Loretta Young; Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931), a thinly veiled take-down of Aimee Semple McPherson starring Barbara Stanwyck in one of her first big roles; Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement (1931) with John Barrymore, Billie Burke and Katharine Hepburn in her very first film role; The Mummy (1932); Torch Singer (1933) with Claudette Colbert, Ricardo Cortez and Lyda Roberti; Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals (1933); The Black Cat with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (1934); an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1934); an adaptation of Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935); and the Civil War epic Hearts in Bondage (1936) with James Dunn and Mae Clarke (1936). His last Hollywood film was Lucky Fugitives (1936).

He left Hollywood after that, he later said, because he was “bored” and because all his friends and contacts were back east. Given what we know of Manners’ personality, background, and intelligence, these all sound accurate, but another factor may have been the fact that was gay. He had been briefly married (for a year) in 1929, which seems pretty clearly a calculated gesture to discourage gossip. The timing of his leaving, two years after heavy enforcement of the “Code”, seems significant. He may well have tired of pretending to be someone he wasn’t offscreen as well as on. At any rate, on account of the timing, he will always be thought of in the public mind as a “Pre-Code actor”.

Yet another factor in his early retirement may have been the quality of his roles and the films he was getting. None of the movies he appeared in during the last half of his Hollywood career could be said to merit the elusive honorific we began with: “classic”. In this excellent interview, he also spoke of preferring the experience of being in plays, where you live the entire narrative thread as a whole, rather than movie-making, where you do little slivers and snippets at a time, all done out of sequence. That still seems unfathomable to many of us. “How could anyone give up being a movie star?!,” we wonder. But as we’ll shortly see, Manners was something of a Holy man, detached, and dismissive of both ego and the importance we often give to life’s vanities.

In 1933, Manners bought (and self-designed) a ranch in the Mojave desert, which he called Rancho Yucca Loma. After Hollywood, he spent his time there making home movies, and writing two novels, Convenient Season (1941) and Under Running Laughter (1943), both of which sold moderately well. (They were published by Dutton — no surprise there.) In 1946, he returned to Broadway to appear in Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Cafe, directed by Harold Clurman, featuring such up-and-comers as Marlon Brando and Karl Malden. There followed two more Broadway shows, the short-lived Hidden Horizon (1946), and a very successful revival of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1946-47). In 1948 he formed a relationship with playwright Bill Mercer, who became his longtime companion.

In 1953 Manners retired completely from acting. He sold his ranch 3 years later, moved back to the L.A. area (Pacific Palisades) and began his spiritual path. In his twilight years he wrote the esoteric books Look Through: An Evidence of Self Discovery (1971), and Awakening from the Dream of Me (1987). His journal writings were published posthumously as The Wonder Within You in 2006. Manners lived to be 98 years old, and was lucid right until the end.

Here are two highly rewarding sources for learning more about this fascinating guy. One is the official David Manners website, maintained by his personal friend John Norris. The other is this terrific 1997 interview with Rick McKay, originally published in the film magazine Scarlet Street. Here, Manners is so close to the end of his long life, and so philosophical about it, that he is practically the Buddha. At the same time, he retains the same erudite charm, good grace, and humor he always radiated on the big screen. Once a star himself, he was now about to embark on a journey more literally celestial.