The Vaudeville of Victor McLaglen (and Siblings)

The Informer

Your average conscientious classic movie buff knows Victor McLaglen (1886-1958) as a key member of John Ford’s stock company (in particular the Cavalry Trilogy and The Quiet Man, though much more notable is his Oscar winning turn in the largely forgotten The Informer), and as one of the title characters in Tod Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925), as one of the trio in Gunga Din (1939, with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr), and certain things like Klondike Annie (1936) with Mae West and Wee Willie Winkie (1937) with Shirley Temple. He was a gruff, buff Englishman with a broken nose, who ordinarily played military men and other roughneck types, usually ones with a heart and brain beneath the plug-ugly outer shell. (I often think of Anthony Quinn and Mike Mazurki as Victor McLaglen types).

Many could be forgiven for assuming that McLaglen was Irish, given his “Mc” surname and the fact that Ford often cast him as such. But he was actually of Scottish stock (MacLachlan) and born and raised and spent early adulthood in England and in various corners of the Pax Britannica, including South Africa, Canada, and Iraq. His father was a missionary. McLaglen had eight brothers and a sister, most of whom, like himself, were some combination of actors, artists, adventurers, soldiers, and other colorful professions. The sister Lily (Mrs. Lance Tweedy) was an actress, singer and piano player. Of the brothers, the best known are Clifford (who was a silent movie actor in Britain, worked in circuses and vaudeville, and served in WWI), and Leopold (who invented a form of jujutsu and gave exhibitions of it in music hall, and was once exposed for impersonating Victor). Others included Arthur, actor, unarmed combat professional, and sculptor; Cyril, actor and horseman; and Kenneth, actor and minerologist. (If the latter sounds more pointy headed than the others, I beg you to remember adventure films and B movies you may have seen about gold and gem seeking men in pith helmets braving the dangers of jungles and deserts in pursuit of wealth and glory). Long story short, the whole family were like something out of McLaglen’s movies — especially Victor.

Victor first made his name as a wrestler and boxer, starting out as a young man in Winnipeg. He famously fought Jack Johnson and toured with circuses and American vaudeville (the Interstate Circuit) as a strong man and an exhibition boxer. He served in the army during the 2nd Boer War and the First World War (stationed in Bagdad) and was Heavyweight Champ of the British army in 1918. In 1920 he was hired to play a boxer for the film The Call of the Road, launching his movie career.

McLaglen became a favorite of Ford’s later in the twenties. Their films together include Mother Machree (1928), Hangman’s House (1928), The Black Watch (1929), The Lost Patrol (1934), The Informer (1935), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) and The Quiet Man (1952). McLaglen often played garulous, bibulous and pugnacious Irishmen in these films, which we touched on in our little piece on Ford’s love of the stereotype. But we want to call special attention however to The Informer, one of Ford’s best, though one that has largely fallen by the wayside. It ought to be McLaglen’s best known performance, as he fully deserved his Best Actor Oscar for it. Set during the Irish War for Independence, he plays a slow-witted guy who rats someone out to the English for reward money. He’s a complicated hero, but he (and Ford) manage to make him sympathetic. McLaglen was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his part in The Quiet Man. It was a productive relationship.

Other notable McLaglen films include Herbert Brenon’s original Beau Geste (1926) with Ronald Colman; the original What Price Glory? (1926) and The Loves of Carmen (1927), both directed by Raoul Walsh; Murder at the Vanities (1934); Captain Fury (1939); The Princess and the Pirate (1944 with Bob Hope and Virginia Mayo); Prince Valiant (1954); and scores of others. It is interesting to note that one of his last films was Bengazi (1955) — now there’s one to obsess over! His last appearance was in a 1959 episode of Rawhide with Clint Eastwood, released posthumously.

We’ll inevitably do a post on his son, director Andrew V. McLaglen, who directed his dad as well as frequent colaborator John Wayne in many pictures. Andrew’s mom, Victor’s first wife Enid was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1942. Naturally, horses were a major recreation in the McLaglen family. In 1933 Victor even founded a paramilitary unit called the California Light Horse Regiment, although its primary function seems to have been parades and polo playing. He even added motorcycle and airborne units. McLaglen was accused of Fascism for a time, and he denied it, although, he, along with William Randolph Hearst, Ward Bond, Gary Cooper, and others flirted with quasi-Fascism in the mid ’30s, as mentioned in this article. By the late ’30s, when Hitler had begun to take over neighboring countries, most Hollywood people backed off. But Victor’s brother Leopold appears to have jumped in with both feet . At any rate, it was a natural if repugnant direction for British Imperialists to have gone in at the time. Every morning upon arising you should thank your lucky stars for Winston Churchill. (For stopping Hitler; he wasn’t so hot on the India question).

To learn more about vaudeville, please see 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.