H.B. Warner: Christmas, Easter and Passover

The earlier phase of the career of actor H.B. Warner (Henry Byron Lickfold, 1876-1958) is the more significant but it makes more sense for us to begin near the end, for his later parts are better known and remembered today. Warner was part of Frank Capra’s stock company, the guy who played the stern judge in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Chang in Lost Horizon (1937), Ramsay in You Can’t Take it With You (1938), the Senate Majority Leader in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Mr. Gower (the drunken old druggist) in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and Uncle Elihu in Here Comes the Groom (1951). You may also know him as one of the “waxworks”, along with Buster Keaton and Anna Q. Nilsson, in Sunset Boulevard (1950). But, as we say, these well known turns were as capstones to a much more extensive career. Billed in his early days as “Harry Warner”, he switched to the initials when he went into films to avoid confusion with the movie producer.

Warner was a third-general English stage actor; his siblings Grace Warner and J.B. Warner, were also actors (J.B. was adopted). His father Charles Warner, last made headlines in 1909 when he hanged himself in a New York hotel room at the age of 63, following a period of derangement. By that time, Harry had been a stage professional himself for over a decade, starting out under Charles’ wing, most notable in a West End production called Drink.. Audrey (1902-03) with James O’Neil was the first of H.B.’s 15 Broadway stage credits through 1925. Some of the better known plays he appeared in include Salomy Jane (1907), The Battle (1908-1909), with Wilton Lackaye), Alias Jimmy Valentine (1910), The Ghost Breaker (1913), and Sleeping Partners (1918-19).

Peter! I can see your house from here!

It was as a well-known star that Warner entered films in 1914 for Famous Players Lasky, in things like Henry C. De Mille’s The Lost Paradise and the first screen version of The Ghost Breaker. Out of his over three dozen starring siulent features, his best known role is that of Christ in Cecil B. deMille’s The King of Kings (1927), a role that was supposed to go to his adopted brother J.B. Warner, but the latter died of T.B. at age 29. Other pictures from the silent period include Allan Dwan’s Zaza (1923) with Gloria Swanson, and the title role in the original version of Whispering Smith (1924).

In the sound era, Warner was a supporting player, but an important one. In addition to the Capra pictures, you can see him The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), The Show of Shows (1929), Liliom (1930), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Rose of the Rancho (1936), Girl of the Golden West (1938), Kidnapped (1938), the Bulldog Drummond films, The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Corsican Brothers (1941), Hitler’s Children (1943), Gentleman Joe Palooka (1946), and deMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), his last.