Willard Mack: Mogul of Melodrama

Willard Mack (Charles Willard McLaughlin, 1873-1934) was a writer, actor, director, and producer of stage, screen and vaudeville in the great age of melodrama. Mack was technically Canadian (born in Ontario) but grew up in Brooklyn and Iowa, and attended Georgetown University, where he discovered his love of theatre. He acted in stock companies around the turn of the century, performing Shakespeare and other works. His first success as a playwright was In Wyoming, which later became the basis of the 1916 film Nanette of the Wilds. 

Mack was enormously prolific on several fronts, and it all seemed to break at once. We’ll just hit some highlights and direct you to his pages on IMDB and IBDB. In 1913, he got his first role as a film actor, as the title character in Wild Man for a Day, released by the Lubin Studio. Mack acted in about a dozen films, most of them in the silent era, a few of which he either wrote or directed, as well.

In 1914, he got his first play on Broadway, Kick-In, which ran for six months and was later made into films in 1917 and 1931. Mack was to have nearly 30 of his plays produced on Broadway, many of which he either acted in, or directed and produced himself. Notable ones included The Dragnet, later made into films in 1916 and 1936; Tiger Rose (1917, filmed in 1923 and 1929); Blind Youth (1917, filmed in 1920); The Dove (1925, filmed by Roland West in 1927); Hangman’s House (1926, filmed that same year); The Noose (1926, filmed in 1928 and later in 1936 as I’d Give My Life); A Free Soul (1928, filmed in 1931 and again in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything); Spring 3100 (1928, filmed in 1934 as Jealousy). Of these The Noose may be the best known today, for it was the play in which young chorus girl Ruby Stevens was elevated to actress status, with much cultivation by Mack. Stevens of course became Barbara Stanwyck. Mae Clarke was also in this production.

During his Broadway years, Mack also supplied sketches to the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, and, according to the Sobels’ Illustrated History, occasionally toured with one act plays in vaudeville. The Sobels shared this photo, which Mack had signed “God loves the Irish, no matter what the English tell you:

In addition to adapting his own plays for the screen, Mack also wrote original scenarios and screenplays for the medium. Dozens and dozens of them from 1916 until his death. As with his plays, many of them have a Canadian or western theme. Among them were some Jackie Coogan vehicles, Little Robinson Crusoe (1924) and Old Clothes (1925). He worked on the scenario for Roland West’s The Monster (1925) starring Lon Chaney.

When talkies came in, Mack dropped Broadway entirely, and concentrated solely on writing for the screen. In his last years he was something of a screen auteur at MGM: He wrote, directed and acted in Voice of the City (1929), What Price Innocence? (1933) and Together We Live (1935, released posthumously), and co-wrote and directed the all-star vaudeville film Broadway to Hollywood (1933). Mack’s death in 1934 seems oddly merciful. He specialized in racy Pre-Code stuff. The strict enforcement of the code would have meant a lot of frustration for him.

Mack was married to four different actresses over the course of his life: Maude Leone, Marjorie Rambeau, Pauline Frederick, and Beatrice Banyard. 

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,