Russell Simpson: California Codger

I am amused to note that Russell Simpson (1880-1959) shares a birthday (June 17) with Flora Finch and David “Stringbean” Akeman. Apparently something in the stars has decreed that this will forever be a day of rustic scrawny people.

Simpson is best remembered today as a member of John Ford’s stock company, in particular the role of Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), as well as Drums Along The Mohawk (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Tobacco Road (1941), They Were Expendable (1945), My Darling Clementine (1946), Wagon Master (1950), and The Horse Soldiers (1959, his last film). But Simpson had close to 250 screen credits (some of them starring roles) as well as a wealth of stage experience in back of that.

Simpson’s lanky frame, beady eyes, thin lips, and owlish beak were definite assets in getting cast as rural and frontier types, but so was his background. Originally from the farm community of Danville, California, he later prospected for gold in Alaska, and worked as a blacksmith in Seattle while taking his first acting classes. He became a professional thespian shortly after the turn of the century, acting with stock companies and performing in vaudeville and burlesque. His two Broadway credits were in Two Women and That Man (1909) and The Count of Luxembourg (1912).

Then came movies. Cecil B. DeMIlle cast him in a bit role in his original version of The Virginian (1914). Simpson later got to play the plum role of Trampas in the 1923 remake. Westerns were his meat and drink through most of his career. He was the lead in Out of the Dust (1920). You can also see him in such classics of the genre as The Girl of the Golden West (1923 and also the 1938 remake), Billy the Kid (1930), Law and Order (1932), Frontier Marshall (1934), West of the Pecos (1934), Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940), The Spoilers (1942), Tall in the Saddle (1944), Along Came Jones (1945), Albuquerque (1948), Broken Lance (1954), The Tall Men (1955), and The Tin Star (1956), and scores more.

Rustic types are also naturally useful in comedy. You can see Simpson in The Sap (1929) with Edward Everett Horton, Shut My Big Mouth (1942) with Joe E. Brown, Bowery Buckaroos (1947) with the Bowery Boys, Preston Sturges’ The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), Comin’ Round the Mountain (1951) with Abbott and Costello, and Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952). He was also in certain musical entertainments with a frontier angle such as the Texas Guinan bio-pic Incendiary Blonde (1945), as well as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Oklahoma! (1955).

Other assorted stuff included Peg O’My Heart (1922), D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930), Cabin in the Cotton (1932), The Power and the Glory (1933), and San Francisco (1936). Frank Capra cast him in bit parts in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Throughout the ’50s he also appeared frequently on television, usually on such western shows as Wagon Train.

Simpson’s wife, the former Gertrude Aller, had been a singer in vaudeville, and was cast in a couple of dozen films in bit roles, including Saratoga (1937), Wells Fargo (1937), The Women (1939), The Shop Around the Corner  (1940), and Maisie was a Lady (1941). 

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