George Bancroft: From Stage to “Stagecoach”

I selected the photo above not because it is the best representation of George Bancroft (1882-1956) but because it represents the film role of his which I know best, the part of Marshall Curley Wilcox in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), a part that’s both funny and sympathetic, and central to the story. You may also know him from supporting parts in such classics as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).

A Philly native, Bancroft went to sea at age 14, first serving in the merchant marine, and then the navy in the Spanish-American War, service for which he was decorated. Circa 1901, he went on the stage in musical comedies and vaudeville, where he performed impressions and did a minstrel act. In 1916, he married and partnered with Broadway star Octavia Broske (1886-1967), who’d been in such shows as The Jersey Lily (1903, with Blanche Ring, Reine Davies, and Billy B. Van), Tillie’s Nightmare (1910-1911) with Marie Dressler, and A La Broadway (1911) with Mae West. Bancroft and Broske teamed up for a vaudeville act called “International Stars of Song”.

In 1921, Bancroft was cast in Hugo Ballin’s The Journey’s End, the first of over 50 films he would appear in over the next two decades. A sizable percentage of his output were westerns: in addition to Stagecoach, he was in The Deadwood Coach (1924), Code of the West (1925), The Rainbow Trail (1925), The Pony Express (1925), Thunderbolt (1929), When the Daltons Road (1940), Northwest Mounted Police (1940) and Texas (1941). He was also famous for gritty urban dramas like Underworld (1927), The Docks of New York (1928), The Wolf of Wall Street (1928), and Each Dawn I Die (1939). His last film was Whistling in Dixie (1942) with Red Skelton. After this he retired, spending his remaining days operating a ranch.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see my book 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.