Lowell Sherman: Did It All

Lowell Sherman (1888-1934) cut a rare figure in show business, both an actor and a director of both stage and screen. A third generation he went from working with David Belasco to D.W. Griffith to co-starring in What Price Hollywood? (1932, the model, many feel for A Star is Born), and directing Mae West’s first starring (and best) picture She Done Him Wrong. He was Helene Costello’s second husband from 1930 to 1932 (thus John Barrymore’s brother-in-law for three years). These various bits would be enough to ensure his place in history, but there’s much more.

Sherman’s maternal grandmother was Kate Gray, an actress who had appeared onstage opposite Edwin Booth. His mother Julia Louise Gray was also an actress; his father John Sherman, a theatrical agent. Lowell grew up amidst San Francisco’s theatrical scene, acting on stage since childhood. At age 16 he made his Broadway debut in Judith of Bethulia (1904) with Nance O’Neil. This play was later adapted for the screen by Griffith. From 1906 through 1908 he was in Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West. Over the next 20 years he would appear in another two dozen Broadway shows, notably as the title character in Casanova (1923).

Meanwhile, in 1914 he had begun supplementing his stage work with parts in silent pictures. His first film was Behind the Scenes, in which he was third-billed behind James Kirkwood (who also directed) and Mary Pickford — an auspicious beginning. Other interesting stuff of the silent era included Vera the Medium (1917) starring Kitty Gordon and directed by Broncho Billy Anderson; D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) in which he played the villain; The Gilded Lily (1921) with Mae Murray; Molly O (1921) with Mabel Normand; and the original version of Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) with Valentino. Sherman was at the ill-fated Fatty Arbuckle party in 1921, but emerged unscathed from the scandal.

Sherman’s stage experience stood him in good stead when sound came in. He started out strong in such pictures as General Crack (1929) with John Barrymore; Mammy (1930) with Al Jolson; Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930) starring Barbara Stanwyck; Hugh Herbert’s He Knew Women (1930) with Alice Joyce; and Oh Sailor Behave! (1930) with Charles King and the vaudeville team of Olsen and Johnson.

Then: a fairly unique situation. Having appeared in the play Lawful Larceny on Broadway in 1922, he was allowed by RKO to direct and appear in the screen version in 1930. This came off successfully, so he was allowed to do this (both direct and act) six more times: The Pay Off (1930), The Royal Bed (1931), Bachelor Apartment (1931), High Stakes (1931), The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932), Ladies of the Jury (1932), and False Faces (1932). It was during this period that he also co-starred in What Price Hollywood? (1932), directed by George Cukor.

In 1933 he began to focus strictly on directing, with terrific results. The films of this period included Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933); Morning Glory (1933, for which Katharine Hepburn won her first Best Actress Oscar); the historically important Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933) which features turns by Blossom Seeley and Texas Guinan, as well as Constance Cummings, Russ Columbo, Paul Kelly, Eddie Foy Jr; and the Abe Lyman Orchestra; Born to be Young (1934) with Loretta Young and Cary Grant; and the fantasy-comedy Night Life of the Gods (1935) starring Alan Mowbray.

Sherman had just begun directing Becky Sharp when he died in late 1934 of double pneumonia. Rouben Mamoulian took over the reins of that project. Only 46 when he died, Sherman would have no doubt created many more classic films if he’d lived to a ripe old age.

For more on early film history please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.