Conway Tearle: Loved By Girls

Conway Tearle (Frederick Conway Levy, 1878-1938) was show biz royalty, a star of stage and screen. The “Conway” handle comes from his mother’s side of the family, on which he was descended from British actor William Augustus Conway (1789-1828), his great-grandfather, who committed suicide during a tour of the States; grandparents Frederick B. Conway (1819-1874) and Sarah Crocker Conway (1834-1875) a husband-wife team who were major stars in Brooklyn for many years; Frederick had once played Iago to Edwin Forrest’s Othello; and his mother Marianne “Minnie” Conway (1852-1896) an actress who married British actor Osmond Tearle (1852-1901). Osmond was Conway’s step-father. His biologial father was musician Jules Levy (1838-1903), who was billed as the World’s Greatest Coronettist.

Conway Tearle was educated in England and America, and had the theatre in his blood, having memorized a dozen Shakespeare plays in his youth. His future was assured at the age of 21 when he was called upon to play the role of Hamlet in a regional theatre in Manchester in an emergency when the star couldn’t go on. It was a role closely identified with his stepfather. so he knew it well, and made a hit of it. For the next several years he was a star of the West End, appearing in companies managed by Ellen Terry and Sir Charles Wyndham. From 1905 through 1918 he was a constant fixture of Broadway, appearing in such notable productions as Booth Tarkington’s Cameo Kirby (1909), the American premiere of Shaw’s Major Barbara, and opposite Ethel Barrymore in The Lady of the Camellias (1917-18).

Tearle had also supported Barrymore in his first film, 1914’s The Nightingale. With his dashing good looks, Tearle quickly became a matinee idol popular with female audiences throughout the silent era. His leading ladies included Marguerite Clark, Clara Kimball Young, Anita Stewart, Conastance and Norma Talmadge (not at the same time), Mary Pickford, Corinne Griffith, and Clara Bow. In 1918, he married Adele Rowland, his fourth and last wife, following a scandal. Gold Diggers of Broadway was one of Tearle’s last silents; The Lost Zeppelin one of his first talkies, both in 1929.

Tearle maintained his star-status during the pre-code era in such racy fare as The Lady Who Dared (1931), Pleasure (1931) and the 1932 adaptation of Vanity Fair. In 1932 he returned to Broadway to take the role of the washed-up ham Larry Renault in the original production of Dinner at Eight. Unfortunately (for him) Johny Barrymore got the role in the film version the following year while Tearle continued to appear in things like Should Ladies Behave? (1933) — which happened to star Barrymore’ brother LIonel. By the mid ’30s Tearle was starring independent B movies, while still having major supporting roles in major features, like Stingaree (1934). His last few features include Klondike Annie with Mae West, The Preview Murder Mystery, and the Leslie HowardNorma Shearer Romeo and Juliet, all in 1936. In 1937 he returned to Broadway to play Antony to Tallulah Bankhead’s Juliet. He also did a regional production of a show called Hey Diddle Diddle with a young Lucille Ball. By then he was already ailing. A heart attack took him at age 60 about a year later.

Tearle’s younger half-brother Sir Godfrey Tearle was also a stage and screen actor, best known for turns in such movies as The 39 Steps (1935), One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) and Decameron Nights (1953).

For more on early screen history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube