This post arose because I became interested in a Frank Montgomery who appears to be two different people, as well as a second (or third) one as the case may be, a contemporary who was definitely not the same man as the other one (or two). The confusion arises from other peoples’ accounts which I have come across on the internet that appear to mix all of these men up.
We start with stage and screen actor/performer/director Frank Montgomery (Frank Edward Akley, 1870-1944), who may be either one or two people, who may have been white, African American, or of mixed race (see photo above vs. some of what we chronicle below.)
Montgomery hailed from Petrolia, Pennsylvania, an early oil boom town literally named after its product. His first film credit as an actor was Selig’s In the Sultan’s Power (1909) with Hobart Bosworth. A Cheyenne’s Love for a Sioux (1910) for Bison Pictures, paired him for the first time with Native American actress Mona Darkfeather, whom he subsequently was to marry and direct in dozens of the 123 pictures he helmed between 1911 and 1917.
Here is where things get confusing. Montgomery often played Native American characters in films, but he also played African Americans. That’s not rare at all for people of either color, to play both races, especially back then. But now I refer you back to the photo above, and the fact that some of his characters were much less ambiguously “black”. I first became aware of him in the 1915 comedy short Two Knights of Vaudeville, where he and another actor of color named Jimmy Marshall see a vaudeville show and decide to put on a performance of their own, with disastrous results. This was part of a little run of similar comedies, Black and White (1914) Aladdin Jones (1915) and Money Talks in Darktown (1915) which are rather unlike the other movies he made, which were usually westerns in which he played Native Americans or Mexicans. But he also directed numerous “Stanley in Africa” films in 1915, with African Americans playing natives.
To add to the confusion, shortly after one or both of these Frank Montgomerys left films for a time in 1917, the one who was in the silent race comedies appeared on vaudeville and burlesque stages with his partner (and some sources say wife) Florence McClain, who had appeared in those movies with him.
We read accounts of Frank Montgomery and Florence McClain performing as a pair (with him often directing and producing) between 1919 and 1926, at which time McClain was arrested for appearing in an “immoral stage show”.
What adds to the confusion is that one or both Frank Montgomerys continued acting in films during these same years (again, mostly westerns), ending with W.C. Fields So’s Your Old Man in 1926. Then his film credits stop. Same year as McClain’s arrest. Seems potentially significant. Then, this one appears to have divorced Mona Darkfeather in 1928. According to IMDB, he was married to Bernice Jessica Therese Sheay from 1928 to 1936, then appeared as an extra in Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937), then remarried Mona Darkfeather in 1936. What’s of particular interest to me is that the timeline itself sort of scans; it’s mostly the separate simultaneous movie and vaudeville careers in the ’20s that confuses. Not only would it be hard to pull off (vaudeville and burlesque performers need to travel; movie actors need to stay put), but they also seem like different performers, doing different sorts of acts. If more turns up, I’ll update this piece. His IMDB page is here if you wish to explore.
As for the OTHER Frank Montgomery who sometimes gets mixed up with the performer(s), he owned a chain of silent movie theatres in Memphis. Frank T. Montgomery was also born circa 1870, although he originally came from Kentucky. He started out traveling with circuses and carnivals. Shortly after 1900 he started with a small Nickelodeon in Fort Worth, Texas, expanded to a few others in that state, before cashing out and cornering the market in Memphis, where he became known as “The Moving Picture Man”. Read more about him here.
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.