David Landau: A Dame Got Even with That Stiff in the End

“Smith”, indeed.

It gives me no end of delight to celebrate character actor David Landau (David H. Magee, 1878-1935) today.

Classic comedy fans know Landau as characters like Jennings in The Marx Brothers Horse Feathers (1932), a crook named Flynn in Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933), and a villain in Judge Priest (1934) with Will Rogers. Landau ranked with Charles Middleton in being as wooden as a cigar store Indian, and was often cast in the same kind of roles, usually nasty, colorless guys without an ounce of humor in them, which made them perfect as comedy foils and out-and-out villains.

I am heartily amused to learn that David Landau was his screen name, that he changed his name TO David Landau for the purposes of show business. Normally in show biz, actors changed their names to sound LESS ethnic. His real name was Magee; he was Irish through-and-through. Usually one’s instinct was to do like Jack Feeney and become John Ford.  Anyway, I dunno , “David Landau” is a pretty Jewish sounding name; it’s not exactly a course correction in the direction of Anglo. Whatever his reasons, that’s what he did.

Magee was born in Philly; he studied for the law at UPenn and took drama classes to improve his speech. It led him down the primrose path! He was already appearing with stock companies around the country by 1902. He had a supporting role in the 1915 film Bondwomen, starring Maude Fealy; it was his only silent film. His first Broadway role was in The Challenge (1919). He appeared in a total of a dozen Broadway plays through 1929: they included Abraham Lincoln (1919-20), Robert E. Lee (1923), and a revival of The Octoroon (1929).

In 1931 Landau started his career in talkies, which was prolific; 33 movies over four years. In addition to those named, some memorable ones included Street Scene (1931) in which he played the murderous jealous husband, Arrowsmith (1931), Polly of the Circus (1932), The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1933), Gabriel Over the White House (1933) and The Nuisance (1933). Landau’s death in 1935 at age 56, cut short this auspicious beginning.

Amusingly, upon his death it turned out that Landau had been played for a chump in a manner not unlike his character in She Done Him Wrong. It turns out that a woman named Delight Howell had come into his life and convinced him that his marriage to his wife, an actress named Frances Newhall, was not valid because she could not produce proof of her divorce from her previous husband. Newhall was pushed out of Landau’s life (they’d separated in 1922) and Howell ensconced herself in his abode as a live-in partner, or as a census calls her, a “lodger”. Landau called Delight “the best friend I ever had”. Landau’s will stipulated that Newhall be given peanuts if she couldn’t produce the divorce papers, and that the bulk of his money should go to Howell. Unfortunately for Howell, Newhall was able to show proof. She had been legally married to Landau right along.

For much more about Landau’s career, as well as his life and loves, see this great post on Immortal Ephemera.