Josephine Whittell: From the Barbary Coast to “The Buccaneer”

Note this morning on character actress Josephine Whittell (1882-1961).

Born Josephine Cunningham, either in Tucson or San Francisco, Whittell started out as drummer in an all-girl band in San Jose. She then went on to be a member of Anna Held’s chorus in a San Francisco Company. She is frequently spoken of in early press accounts as a Floradora Girl, although she was not one of the original sextet. She was already a stage actress and dancer in New York by the time she married millionaire heir George Whittell, Jr., scion of one of San Francisco’s wealthiest families, in 1904. Whittell was considered something of a wastrel. In his youth he had traveled with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Josephine (known as Josie in her youth) was Whittell’s second showgirl wife. George and Josie set up house in San Francisco. She divorced him two years later, citing “mental cruelty.” George went on to develop Thunderbird Lodge on Lake Tahoe in the 1930. Josie kept her ex-husband’s surname.

By 1909, she was she seeing stage and screen star Robert Warwick, whom she married in 1910. According to the San Francisco Call they met at the St. Francis Hotel. The pair were estranged while Warwick was serving during World War One, and were divorced some time after.

By 1911, Josie had made it to Broadway in George M. Cohan’s musical The Little Millionaire, featuring Cohan, his parents Jerry and Nellie, Maud Allen, and Donald Crisp. She was to appear on Broadway ten times over the next decade and a half, her last show being the original production of No, No, Nanette (1925-26). During that time, she also appeared in four silent movies in supporting parts: Alimony (1917, with Lois Wilson), Marie Ltd. (1919, with Alice Brady), The Climbers (1919, with Corinne Griffith) and The Inner Chamber (1921, with Alice Joyce).

In 1931, she went to Hollywood where she played supporting parts in another 80+ films over the next three decades. Many of these were classic comedies, hence our special attention. She appeared in Caught Plastered and Peach O’Reno, both 1931, with Wheeler and Woolsey; False Roomers (1931) with Clark and McCullough; and It’s a Gift and You’re Telling Me!, both 1934 with W.C. Fields. In talkies her status was more as a bit players. As the thirties rolled on, her character evolved from “vivacious funny friend” to matrons, dowagers and stern secretaries.

Other classics she appeared in included What Price Hollywood? (1932), Baby Face (1933), Servants Entrance (1934), Stage Door (1937), Blondie (1938), The Women (1939), Tugboat Annie Sails Again (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), State Fair (1945), Life with Blondie (1945), One Touch of Venus (1948), The Fountainhead (1949), In the Good Old Summertime (1949), a movie version of The Goldbergs (1950), and A Place in the Sun (1951). Her stint as a crowd extra in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) must have reminded her of her first husband who’d traveled with that titular circus; her turn in A Star is Born (1954) must have reminded her of her earlier role in What Price Glory? Her last appearance was in Cecil B. DeMille’s last project, The Buccaneer (1958).

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