Winchell Smith: A Lamb Who Didn’t Get Lost

Thank you, Kevin Fitzpatrick, for reminding us of actor/playwright/producer/director Winchell Smith (1871-1933), an important man of the theatre, and, indirectly, of early 20th century American cinema.

Originally from Hartford, CT, Smith was the nephew of the great actor/manager William Gillette, the first Sherlock Holmes. Starting at age 18, he apprenticed with his uncle, first as assistant prop man, later as an actor and director. The original 1901 production of Under Two Flags is his first Broadway credit; it was later filmed in 1916, 1922 and 1936. Smith acted in another half dozen Broadway productions, including the 1906 American premiere of John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw. 

Smith’s main legacy lies in having co-written and/or directed numerous Broadway properties that were later adapted into popular Hollywood films. These include Brewster’s Millions (1906), which we wrote about extensively here; The New Henrietta (1913-14), which later became The Lamb (1915), Douglas Fairbanks’ screen debut, as well as The Saphead (1920), the first feature starring Buster Keaton; Lightnin’ (1918-21), which was filmed in 1925 by John Ford and again in 1930 by Henry King starring Will Rogers; and Waterloo Bridge (1930), famously filmed in 1931 and 1940. His 1909 play The Fortune Hunter was also filmed four times, the most notable iteration of which was the 1927 version starring Syd Chaplin (now lost).

Winchell Smith was a long time member and benefactor of the Lambs Club. His Farmington Connecticut estate was named Lamb’s Gate in its honor, and in acknowledgment of the fact that one of its architectural feature had once been part of the Lamb’s New York City headquarters.

To learn more about show business history, 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.