Arthur Lubin: From Melodrama to “Mr. Ed”

The versatile Arthur Lubin (Arthur Lubovsky, 1898-1995) made a success in theatre, movies and television, as an actor, director, and producer. While no relation to the early screen mogul Sig Lubin, his change was in homage to hm.

Lubin grew up in Southern California and became involved in theatre from his teenage years, initially in high school and later with western stock companies. In San Diego he worked on stage with a young Harold Lloyd. His Broadway debut as an actor was The Red Poppy (1922) with Estelle Winwood and Bela Lugosi (with whom he was later to work in film). This was followed by Edgar Selwyn’s Anything Might Happen (1923) with Winwood and Leslie Howard. In 1924 he returned west to appear in the Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Liliom with Sylvia Sydney. He spent the rest of the decade acting in supporting roles in films, most of them silent dramas. His last film as an actor Times Square (1929) was released both as a silent and a talkie. By this time, he was second-billed to Alice Day.

Lubin took this transitional time to gain experience as a producer/director on Broadway, mounting the productions This One Man (1930) with Paul Muni, When the Bough Breaks (1932), Her Man of Wax (1933) and Growing Pains (1933). With this under his belt, he was able to get a job directing the film A Successful Failure (1934) for Monogram Pictures starring William Collier. Throughout the ’30s he directed B movies, many of them starring young John Wayne. Some of them, like The Beloved Brat (1938) with Bonita Granville and Call a Messenger (1939) with the Little Tough Guys, point the way towards the kind of formulaic comedies he would be best known for.

What were those comedies? I’m glad you asked. Although he made his mark in many genres, Lubin is today best remembered for being at the helm of no less than three major comedy franchises: He directed the first five Abbott and Costello movies (1941-42), and could have kept going, but felt the need for a change of pace. He also produced and directed the Francis the Talking Mule movies (1950-1955), and created, directed and produced the hit sitcom Mr. Ed (1961-66). The latter was obviously inspired by the Francis movies, for which the TV rights couldn’t be obtained. Some other notable comedies Lubin directed included the baseball/cat comedy Rhubarb (1951) with Ray Milland, Irene Dunne’s last film It Grows on Trees (1952), The First Traveling Saleslady (1956) with Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing (one of the very last RKO films), The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) with Don Knotts, and Hold On! (1966), Herman’s Hermits’ answer to the Beatles’ movies.

Lubin was also known for exotic adventures, like White Savage (1943) and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) with the Unhoy Trinity of Maria Montez, Jon Hall, and Sabu, and The Thief of Bagdad (1961) with Steve Reeves, as well as horror/mystery vehicles like The Black Cat (1940) with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the 1943 Phantom of the Opera remake with Claude Rains, and The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946) with Gale Sondergaard. He also made musicals like Delightfully Dangerous (1945) with Jane Powell and New Orleans (1947) with Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. His camp sensibility was subtle (too subtle for audiences) in Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955). The fact that Lubin’s last film was the 1971 Spanish western Rain for a Dusty Summer is explained by his many previous episodes of Bonanza, Maverick, and other westerns as director. His last credit was a comedy western episode of the ABC Weekend Special called Arthur the Kid, with Marvin Kaplan, Graham Jarvis and Dennis Dimster in 1981.

For more on show biz history, please read 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.