Born 150 Years Ago: Wilfred Lucas

Actor/writer/director Wilfred Lucas (1871-1940) was born 150 years ago this day. Lucas was a major figure at Biograph with D.W. Griffith and at Mack Sennett’s Keystone, and played well-remembered roles in comedy classics of the ’30s, among numerous other distinctions.

Like Sennett, Marie Dressler, and Mary Pickford, Lucas was one of several important Canadian players in the early American film industry. originally from Montreal, he attended McGill for a time, and spent his early ’20s touring in light opera, musicals and similar productions, making it to Broadway by 1904. His best known show of his early Broadway period is Henry B. Harris’s production of The Chorus Lady (1906) starring Rose Stahl.

Like Griffith, Lucas started at Biograph in 1908. In over 30 years in the movies, Lucas acted in over 400 pictures, directed nearly 60, and contributed to about 20 silent film scenarios. He played scores of parts at Biograph, including the title role in Enoch Arden (1911).

At Keystone in 1913, Lucas appeared in and directed numerous comedies including The Speed Kings and Fatty’s Day Off (1913). His best known classic comedy work came a but later. He’s in two Laurel and Hardy classics, Pardon Us (1931, as the Warden) and A Chump at Oxford (1939, as the Dean), as well as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936, as the Juvenile Officer), The Tenderfoot and You Said a Mouthful (both 1932) and Alibi Ike (1935) with Joe E. Brown, and Cracked Nuts (1931) with Wheeler and Woolsey. He also appeared in comedy shorts at Roach, Educational, and Columbia, with the likes of Charley Chase, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy, Our Gang, Thema Todd and Zasu Pitts etc.

Obvious we are inclined to stress classic comedy, but that short-changes lots of other important work. His most critically acclaimed performance as an actor was in the 1916 film of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Acquitted. That same year he played MacDuff in a version of MacBeth starring Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Constance Collier, directed by John Emerson. He starred as the title character in Hell-to-Pay Austin (1917) with Bessie Love and Eugene Pallette. He also starred in Tod Browning’s first films as director, Jim Bludso (1916) and Hands Up (1917). Other notable silent films Lucas appeared in include Jazzmania (1923) with Mae Murray, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924) with Mary Pickford, and Riders of the Purple Sage (1925) with Tom Mix.

Lucas returned to Broadway for a couple of years in the late ’20s, appearing in Willard Mack’s The Noose (1926-27), which gave us the twin gifts of Barbara Stanwyck and Mae Clark, as well as a 1927 revival of Madame X, and a play called Restless Women (1927-28). When he returned to Hollywood, talkies were in full swing and he found himself relegated to bit parts and walk-ons in major films, although he got to play larger roles in B movies and serials, like Dick Tracy (1937), The Return of Chandu (1934), The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (1935). His last role was the Helmsman in the 1940 version of The Sea Wolf.

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