Johnnie, We Hardly Knew Ye: Silent Screen Star Johnnie Walker

With a name like Johnnie Walker (1894-1949) you’re bound to get lost in the shuffle. Not only is there the whiskey by that name, but also a more famous Bollywood actor, not to mention Johnnie’s contemporary, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. Walker used both spellings of his first name, but the “ie” ending appears more often than the “y”.

Walker sang and danced in vaudeville prior to his first film The Bribe (1915). He was to accumulate nearly 100 film credits as an actor in over two decades in the movies. By Fantomas (1920) he was third billed, and by the following year he had become a leading man, remaining one throughout the twenties, mostly in now-forgotten melodramas, mysteries and the like. His better remembered films include Over the Hill (1920), Old Ironsides (1926), and The Matinee Idol (1928), co-starring Bessie Love. In talkies, he was briefly a supporting player in such major films as Melody Man, Ladies of Leisure, and The Girl of the Golden West, all in 1930. In 1931 he co-starred with Mary Nolan in the independent film Enemies of the Law, his last such part.

With no acting work forthcoming, at this stage Walker tried on other hats.

In 1933, he co-directed and appeared in the interesting film, Mr. Broadway starring then-columnist Ed Sullivan. In 1934 he directed the declining Helen Morgan in the Educational short The Doctor. In 1935 he produced The Yiddish King Lear starring Esther Adler. In 1936 his marriage to former Mack Sennett Bathing Girl Maude Wayne washed out. They’d hitched when he was riding high in 1928. One imagines that a lot of Depression era career struggle was not what she signed on for. In 1939, Walker co-produced a low-budget crime drama called Back Door to Heaven (1939), his last movie.

In the mid forties he gave Broadway a fling, producing and directing Make Yourself at Home (1945), which closed after two performances, and producing The Haven, which closed after three. For a time, he was also married to Broadway actress Rena Parker. 

You can almost see the gears turning in his head, as tried a succession of careers. No more acting? Okay, I’ll be a director! No more directing jobs? I’ll be a producer! Films not working out? I’ll go back to theatre! But you can only tread water for so long before you grow exhausted. Walker passed away four years after his Broadway show, at the relatively young age of 55.

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.