Jack Buchanan: Man About Town

A few words about international stage and screen star Jack Buchanan (1891-1957). Buchanan was a British star, but he got a bit of a toehold in the U.S., as well, which ought to make him of more than ordinary interest to the American show biz fan.

Amusingly, though Buchanan became famous and adored for playing the quintessential English “man about town” in silk top hat and tails, his surname tells a truer story — Walter John Buchanan was a Scotsman through and through. His father was an auctioneer; young Jack spent some time learning that skill in his youth, a natural preparation for some of the broader aspects of theatre performance, one should think. He acted for a time in Glasgow, then came down to London, where he performed in music halls as “Chump” Buchanan.

Buchanan made his West End debut in The Grass Widow (1912). His performance in the touring version of Tonight’s the Night two years later put him on the map. The original West End production had starred George Grossmith, Jr, with whom Buchanan is endlessly compared. He sang, he danced, he told funny jokes, all done in an offhand, rakish manner that made it all seem off the cuff. In 1922 he produced and starred in the original West End production of Battling Butler, which became the basis of the Buster Keaton film four years later.

In the ’20s Buchanan also starred in Charlot’s Revues with people like Gertrude Lawrence and Ivor Novello, and transferred with two editions of the show over to Broadway in the middle of the decade. This made him enough of a Broadway star that he was featured in some early Hollywood talkies such as The Show of Shows (1929), Paris (1929, with Irene Bordoni, ZaSu Pitts, and Jason Robards Sr), and Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo (1930, with Jeanette MacDonald.) Of his roughly three dozen films, most, including a 1935 version of Brewster’s Millions, were British. He also starred in the British radio programs The Jack Buchanan Show and Man About Town.

Buchanan’s other Broadway shows included Wake Up and Dream (1929-30), which he also choreographed, Between the Devil (1937-38), and Don’t Listen Ladies (1948-49), which he also produced. He also went into the original production of Harvey as a replacement for star Frank Fay. In the ’50s he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Milton Berle Show, and Max Liebman’s Spotlight. His last movie credit was also the last film of Preston Sturges, The French They Are a Funny Race (1955).

To learn more about vaudeville and music hall, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,