Frank Craven: More Than a Stage Manager

A tribute today to Frank Craven (1875-1945), best known for playing the Stage Manager in both the the stage (1938) and screen (1940) versions of Our Town, but a true jack-of-all-trades of stage and screen: actor, director, producer, playwright, screenwriter. He also has a surprising number of connections to many of the great classic comedians.

Craven was born in Boston to a pair of theatrical parents, John T. and Ella Mayer Craven. His first acting credits were as a child in Boston and on tour in the provinces. In 1907 he was cast in George Ade’s Artie on Broadway, launching his career in earnest. He was involved in close to three dozen Broadway shows over the next three decades. Too Many Cooks (1914) was the first vehicle he wrote, directed and starred in — not for the last time. Other notable shows included the original production of Seven Chances (1916), later to become a Buster Keaton movie; the smash Joe E. Brown vehicle Twinkle, Twinkle (1926-27), which Craven directed; the direction of the original production of Whistling in the Dark (1933), later turned into a successful film series starring Red Skelton. 

In 1914, he married actress Mazie B. Daly, twice married to and divorced from Arnold Daly.

In 1925, the movie industry came into his life when his 1924 Broadway show New Brooms (which he’d written, directed and starred in) was made into a film by William C. de Mille, featuring Bessie Love and Phyllis Haver. His 1922 play The First Year was adapted into movies in 1926 and 1932. Craven was said to have been a fan of Harold Lloyd and hoped to write for him given their similar fascinations with small town America. But a session in the cut-throat gag-writers’ room disabused him of that notion.  Craven’s debut as a film actor was an uncredited appearance in the 1928 film We Americans. The following year he directed and starred in an adaptation of the William Le Baron comedy The Very Idea. Too Many Cooks was made into a film in 1931. Handle with Care (1932) starring James Dunn and El Brendel was his first original screenplay. He was one of the writers on the original screen version of State Fair in 1933. His 1929 play Salt Water was adapted into a film starring Zasu Pitts called Her First Mate in 1933. Also that year, perhaps his best known credit: he wrote the story for Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert. That is undoubtedly as close as he got to his dream of writing for Lloyd! In 1934, Craven wrote, directed and starred in the screen version of his 1932 Broadway play That’s Gratitude. This early experiment in total auteurism was not repeated by Craven though, and was probably too exhausting, too unprofitable, or both.

In ensuing years he worked more as an actor in Hollywood than a writer. You can see him in Barbary Coast (1935), Penrod and Sam (1937) and its sequel Penrod and His Twin Brother (1938), Tod Browning’s last film Miracles for Sale (1939), Our Town (1940, for which he also did the screenplay adaptation), and the racy campfest In This Our Life (1942) with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, and numerous other comedies and melodramas suited to his folksy New England mein. His last film was Colonel Effingham’s Raid (1946).

For more on many of the classic comedians we wrote about here please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube