Charles Morton: When It Rains, It Pours

Charles Morton (1908-1966) must have wondered what the hell hit him. At age 19, with only some vaudeville and stock company experience behind him, the Madison Wisconsin native was signed by Fox and an instant movie star. Three years later sound came in and he rapidly sank to supporting player, a status he maintained for another three years. By 1933 (age 25), he’d descended yet again to the status of bit player and crowd extra, where he remained for the next three-plus decades. Some of us start at the top and work our way down!

Morton was actually second generation show biz. His parents were the vaudeville team of Morton and Mudge, and Charles first got onstage himself at age seven. Good looking and well-chiseled, he was third billed in his first film Rich But Honest (1927), By his next, Colleen (1927) he was co-starring with Madge Bellamy. Other major films of the silent era included John Ford’s Four Sons (1927), None But the Brave (1928, in which he had top billing), and Murnau’s 4 Devils (1928). Talkies included New Year’s Eve (1929) with Mary Astor, Allan Dwan’s The Far Call (1929, top billing), and Christina (1929) with Janet Gaynor. Cameo Kirby (1930) found him much farther down the pecking order, although he would still have good supporting roles in interesting features for a couple of years. These include Caught Short (1930) with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, Check and Double Check (1930) with Amos and Andy, Buck Jones’ The Dawn Trail (1930), and Arms and the Man (1932). He was actually second billed in Goldie Gets Along (1933) with Lili Damita, but that was his last hurrah.

The fact that Morton did some jail time for non-payment of alimony and child support to his ex-wife actress Lya Lys may have further harmed his career. He was an extra and stunt man on scores of films and television shows after that. A turn as a bartender on Cheyenne Autumn (1964), directed by John Ford, with whom he’d worked four decades earlier, was his penultimate film role. He also worked multiple times as an extra on The Untouchables, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, and F Troop.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,