On Four Funny Fred Sullivans

I knew a Fred Sullivan years ago; he’s a longtime (decades long) company member of Trinity Rep in Providence, where I studied, as well as Boston’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. (I am delighted to read this morning that he’s done Falstaff. That’s a role he certainly seemed to be researching when I knew him!) So I’ll never hear the name without thinking of him first. I just found this old program with him in it, above the late Dan Von Bargen, whom I eulogized here. It’s from a circa 1980s era edition of Triny’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, this one directed by the excellent actor Peter Gerety. I auditioned for it but didn’t get in, the bastards! I think Patricia Dunnock, Mildred Dunnock’s grandaughter and a schoolmate of mine, was in it as well.

And of course, Fred Sullivan was also the given name of vaudeville and radio comedian Fred Allen. But today we want to communicate to you a couple of others, a father and son who connect the show business of Victorian London to that of early Hollywood.

Frederic “Fred” Sullivan (1837-1877) was the older brother of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Originally an architectural draftsman, he decided to switch careers and became a professional actor in musicals in 1870. Today he is best known for appearing in his brother’s Cox and Box, as well as the early G & S shows Thespis and Trial By Jury, as well as other operas by the likes of Offenbach, F.C. Burnand (who’d written the libretto to Cox and Box), Robert Reece and others. Unfortunately, Sullivan died when he was 39, else he almost certainly would have been in all of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan operas of the next several years, and much better remembered as part of the D’Oyly Carte legend.

Fred’s early death left his widow saddled with seven children. She remarried in 1881. Then two years later, at the urging of her brother, moved with six of the kids to Los Angeles, which was then some three decades away from being a movie mecca. One of the children, Herbert, or “Bertie” (1868-1928) remained in London to be the ward of Sir Arthur, later becoming the manager of his legacy and estate, as well as his biographer. Of those who moved to America, we are exclusively concerned with Frederic “Dickie” Sullivan (1872-1937), sometimes spelled “Frederick” in credits.

Though he initially worked as a local newspaper reporter, Dickie went on to carry on the family business. He acted, directed and managed regional stock companies for about 15 years. In 1905 he appeared on Broadway for the first time in Sardou’s Fedora.

In 1913 Sullivan made his transition to film by producing Thanhouser’s adaptation of Cymbeline, with Florence La Badie and James Cruze. He worked steadily in silent film over the next decade, directing several dozen films, and acting on a handful of occasions, (Some sources attribute a couple hundred films to him during this period, but much fewer have been confirmed). Sullivan directed La Badie and others at Thanhouser through 1917. There followed a brief transition period where he free-lanced, directing among other things The Solitary Sin (1919) with Jack Mulhall and Helene Chadwick. In 1920 and 1921 he directed numerous comedy shorts for Educational and Al Christie starring the likes of Dorothy Devore, Bobby Vernon, Neal Burns, Laura La Plante, Lige Coney, and others. A version of The Courtship of Miles Standish produced by its star, Charles Ray in 1923 was his last time behind a camera. The previous year he had acted in a comedy with Ray called A Tailor Made Man. In 1923 he appeared in John Ford’s The Face on the Bar-Room Floor (not to be confused with Chaplin’s), which starred Henry B. Walthall. In 1925 he was in Cruze’s original silent adaptation of Beggars on Horseback with Edward Everett Horton and Esther Ralston. He co-starred in a handful of comedy shorts in 1926 and 27, rounding out the silent era.

Sullivan briefly returned to Broadway to appear in three short-lived plays, presumably to establish his fitness for talkies, though he had acted on stage for decades. The plays were Room of Dreams (1930), Midnight (1930, with Clifford Odets, Maud Allan, Glenn Anders, and Jack la Rue), and Greater Love (1931). Cruze gave him a decent part in the 1930 screen comedy Once a Gentleman with Edward Everett Hoton, but in the sound era he mostly played bit roles. We think our readers will find some of them especially worth noting, for they include the Marx Brothers Monkey Business (1931) and Duck Soup (1933), W.C. Fields’ If I Had a Million (1932) and You’re Telling Me (1934), and such other pre-code classics as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Hot Saturday (1932), A Farewell to Arms (1932), The Match KIng (1932), Bolero (1934) and Dames (1934). Lovers of old English music hall songs will appreciate the fact that his last Hollywood film was The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935).

Dickie Sullivan was also a composer and actually set of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems to music.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.