J. Farrell MacDonald: Of Munchkins and Mole Men

Waterbury-born J. Farrell MacDonald (1875-1952) left a remarkable legacy of over 300 credits as an actor and over 50 as a director over the 40 year period 1911-1951. Perhaps his most noteworthy legacy consisted of directing L. Frank Baum’s Oz films in 1914, and directing Harold Lloyd’s first “glasses” film Over the Fence in 1917, which turned out to be his own last outing behind the camera. But these are really just the tip of the iceberg; you’ve surely seen him in many a classic film. His characters, like himself, were almost always Irish, and he often played stern cops, and the like.

MacDonald got his start singing in vaudeville, minstrel shows, and touring theatrical troupes. He broke in as an actor and director almost simultaneously in 1911 at Carl Laemmle’s IMP, which eventually was incorporated into Universal. Early films he appeared in, beyond those mentioned, included Belasco’s The Heart of Maryland (1915), Rags (1915) with Mary Pickford, and The Ghost Breaker (1922) with Wallace Reid. In 1928 he replaced Charles Murray as Patrick Kelly in The Cohens and the Kellys in Paris. That same year he played Jiggs in a feature adaptation of the comic strip Life with Father. 

Between 1919 and 1950 he appeared in 25 John Ford films, most of them westerns. He also was featured as part of the Preston Sturges stock company in seven features, as well as the Sturges scripted The Power and the Glory (1933). As time went on, MacDonald became more of a bit player. Other pictures he appeared in included Abie’s Irish Rose (1928), The Girl of the Golden West (1930), the original version of The Maltese Falcon (1931), the 1931 remake of The Squaw Man, Peg O’My Heart (1933), Myrt and Marge (1933), The Cat’s Paw (1934), The Whole Town’s Taking (1935), the 1936 version of Show Boat, Topper (1937), Zenobia (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), Pin Up Girl (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), The Dolly Sisters (1945), If You Knew Susie (1948), and Superman and the Mole Men (1951). Elopement (1951) with Clifton Webb, Anne Francis, and Charles Bickford was his last film.

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