Rockliffe Fellowes: Between Business and “Monkey Business”

This photo of Rockliffe Fellows was taken almost exactly a century ago (April 1920), when he was at the peak of his career

Contemporaries of Rockliffe Fellowes (Rockliffe St. Patrick Fellowes, 1883-1950) would be surprised to learn that his best remembered role would turn out to be his supporting turn as gangster Joe Helton in the Marx Brothers Monkey Business (1931). A decade and a half earlier Fellowes had been a leading man in silent films. Today, silent movie buffs know him well as the lead in Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915), but silent buffs, I’d bet even money, are a much smaller subset of movie-lovers than are Marx Brothers fans. Movie goers in 1931, I think, would have gotten the joke casting of Fellowes in his Monkey Business role, for it was a bit of self parody, matching S.J. Perelman’s subtle gangster spoof dialogue that I think evades modern movie audiences, including Marx Brothers fans.

Canadian by birth, Fellowes briefly followed a career in business before pursuing a life on the stage in his early 20s. His first Broadway play was Her Sister (1907-08) by Clyde FItch with Ethel Barrymore, Louise Drew, and Lucile Watson, who would later be his wife (Watson was more successful both on stage and screen ultimately than Fellowes — we’ll be writing about her in a couple of months.) After film stardom, Fellowes returned to Broadway just two more times, in the plays Eve’s Daughter (1917) with Lionel Atwill, and Pot Luck 1921.

Fellowes was a leading man in silents up until about 1920 in such films as The Wasp (1918) with Kitty Gordon, and The Panther Woman (1918) with Olga Petrova. Throughout the ’20s he was a top supporting player, usually third in the billing, in such films as  East of Suez (1925) with Pola Negri and Edmund Lowe, Syncopating Sue (1926) with Corinne Griffith and Tom Moore, and The Taxi Dancer (1927) with Joan Crawford and Owen Moore. Less often he would still get the occasional male lead, as in Flapper Wives (1924), The Satin Woman (1927) with Dorothy Davenport, and The Crystal Cup (1927) with Dorothy Mackaill. He is still third billed in his first talkie The Charlatan (1929), but after this he rapidly sank to supporting player and then bit player. I’m thinking perhaps because of his wooden delivery? Just a guess — though that never stopped many a worse actor! He’s unbilled in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1933) with Spencer Tracy. He fared a little better in B movies like The Phantom Broadcast and Rusty Rides Alone that same year. His last film was the newspaper drama Back Page (1934) starring Peggy Shannon. He was only 51 at the time of his parting of the ways from the film industry; he would live 16 more years.

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 please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.