John Boles: From Broadway to “Babes in Bagdad”

John Boles (1895-1969) was a major stage and screen star of the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Originally from Texas, he trained seriously in voice, traveled Europe and taught singing and French prior to making it in show business.

Boles’ big break was understudying the lead (and getting to replace him) in the Broadway show Little Jesse James (1923-24) with Nan Halperin, Miriam Hopkins, and Clare Luce. Two forgotten Broadway shows followed: Mercenary Mary (1925) and Kitty’s Kisses (1926). Meanwhile in 1924, he’d also broken into films in 1924 with The Sixth Commandment (1924) with William Faversham, Charlotte Walker, and a very young Neil Hamilton (later to play Commissioner Gordon on the tv series Batman). He was in about another dozen silent pictures including The Love of Sunya (1927) with Gloria Swanson, and Man-Made Women (1928) with Leatrice Joy and H.B. Warner.

Most film buffs know Boles chiefly from his talking films — his vocal training definitely gave him a leg up in the early days, when the studios were making lots of musicals. I always found him an unsual looking leading man — one of those stars who’s got to be photographed from the right angle. Sometimes his head looks very long in a manner that is almost grotesque. At other times he looked extremely handsome, something like Hugh Grant (especially without the pencil thin mustache that became his trademark). Boles was not only in musicals, but practically every genre, including horror, westerns, and melodrama. His over 50 pictures include The Desert Song (1930); Rio Rita (1929, with Wheeler and Woolsey); King of Jazz (1930); Frankenstein (1931, as Colin Clive’s best friend and rival for the hand of Mae Clarke); Back Street (1932); three Shirley Temple vehicles: Stand Up and Cheer!, Curly Top, and The Littlest Rebel (1934-35); The Age of Innocence (1934); Redheads on Parade (1935); Rose of the Rancho (1936); Craig’s Wife (1936); and Stella Dallas (1937). The war-time extravaganza Thousands Cheer (1943) was the last film of his original Broadway period.

Boles returned to Broadway to star in the hit musical One Touch of Venus (1943-45), the creative team of which was mind-boggling in its amassed talent: Kurt Weill, S.J. Perelman, Ogden Nash, Elia Kazan, and Agnes de Mille — with Mary Martin and Kenny Baker as co-stars. When the show closed he toured, singing in night clubs and presentation houses, and on radio, maintaining his stardom for a time. In 1950 he appeared on The Milton Berle Show. In 1952, following nearly a decade of absence from Hollywood, he appeared in his last movie role, as an “Arab”, in the Edgar Ulmer comedy Babes in Bagdad, starring Gypsy Rose Lee and Paulette Godard, with Sebastian Cabot, and a very young Christopher Lee in a small role. After this he retired from show business but continued to earn money from his real estate and oil investments. He spent his last years in his native Texas.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,