Second generation actor Raymond Walburn (1887-1969) began his career in Oakland, California then toured with stock companies, eventually making his way east where he made his Broadway debut in a show called The Greyhound (1912). After another couple of small parts, Waburn served in World War One, eventually making his way back to the Great White Way by 1922, in Henry Hull’s Manhattan, with Helen Gahagan. He was in nearly two dozen Broadway plays through 1934, perhaps most notably in a 1932 revival of George Kelly’s The Show Off, which he directed and starred in.
While Walburn had appeared in some earlier films, his cinematic career can be properly stated to have begun with with The Great Flirtation (1934) with Elissa Landi, Adolphe Menjou, David Manners, and Lynne Overman. He rapidly became in demand for character parts. Even if you didn’t know his name you probably recognize Walburn from dozens of classic Hollywood comedies. He was always nattily dressed, his hair parted in the middle, his face ornamented with a trim, dapper mustache. With his bulging eyes and arched eyebrows, he looked almost like a comic strip character come to life. Dashing yet often befuddled and sometimes theatrically pompous, he much in common with both Frank Morgan and Guy Kibbe. Yet he managed to occupy his own niche.
He was a favorite of Frank Capra, who put him in Broadway Bill (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), State of the Union (1948) and Riding High (1950); as well as Preston Sturges, who cast him in Christmas in July (1940), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947). Speaking of the latter, Walburn had also been in Harold Lloyd’s previous film Professor Beware (1938). Other oddments include The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Craig’s Wife (1936), Louisiana Purchase (1941), Excuse My Dust (1951) with Red Skelton, and the Lotta Crabtree bio-pic Golden Girl (1951) with Mitzi Gaynor. He also starred in his own series of “Henry” comedies with Walter Catlett: Henry the Rainmaker (1949), Leave it to Henry (1949), Father Makes Good (1950), Father’s Wild Game (1950), and Father Takes the Air (1951). Walburn’s last film was the 1955 re-make of The Spoilers. After ending his movie career, to everyone’s delight he returned to the Broadway stage for the original production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), and the Ruth Gordon–Garson Kanin comedy A Very Rich Woman (1965).
For more on early screen comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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