Warner Baxter: Came Back a Star

If I’d known that Warner Baxter (1889-1951) had some background in vaudeville, I might have done a profile on him earlier, as I’ve had many an occasion here to mention him. Baxter’s unmistakable visage with his pencil thin mustache graced many a pivotal Hollywood film of the silent and early talkie eras.

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Baxter also spent part of his youth in New York City and also in San Francisco, where he and his mother were living at the time of the 1906 Earthquake. Baxter became interested in dramatics when still in school.  “I discovered a boy a block away who would eat worms and swallow flies for a penny,” he claimed, “For one-third of the profits, I exhibited him in a tent.” Starting in 1910 he toured the Keith Circuit in a vaudeville act with a girl named Dorothy Shoemaker. In 1914 he began getting film work as an extra.

By the 1920s, Baxter was a full-fledged star. He was Gatsby in the original screen version of The Great Gatsby (1926). 1928 was a particularly notable year: he starred in the first screen version of Craig’s Wife by George Kelly, as well as Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar, and In Old Arizona, the first talkie western. His role as the Cisco Kid in the latter film led to lots of work playing Latin heroes in westerns and melodramas, although ethnically he was nothing of the sort. Similar later fare included The Arizona Kid (1930), The Cisco Kid (1931) and The Return of the Cisco Kid (1939).

“You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”

The association with westerns got Baxter cast in the 1931 remake of The Squaw Man. He was terrific as the hypertense, possibly psychotic Broadway director Julian Marsh in 42nd Street (1933) and as the Secretary of Amusement in Stand Up and Cheer (1934), the all-star, very vaudevillian Depression era booster film where Shirley Temple crossed over into stardom He starred opposite Myrna Loy in Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934). There was also King of Burlesque (1936), The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) and Kidnapped (1938). By the ’40s he was down to B pictures, and was best known for playing Dr. Robert Ordway in a series of “Crime Doctor”pictures. His last film was State Penitentiary (1950). These are just a few highlights. There are over 100 film credits to his name.

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