Richard Arlen: “Wings” and Westerns

Notes on and nods to Richard Arlen (Sylvanus Richard Mattimore, 1899-1976). Sylvanus? Sylvanus. That could have been his screen name right there, full stop, just the one name like Elvis, Cher, Madonna, Prince, Rihanna. But times were different back then.

Arlen served as a pilot in World War One and held a variety of menial jobs prior to crashing his motorcycle into the Paramount studio gates as a film delivery boy. Studio bigwigs noticed he was good looking in a beefcakey kind of way, and (also possibly trying to avoid publicity or a lawsuit) began casting him as an extra and bit player in (then silent) films. He first gained widespread notice in William Wellman’s aeronatutical extravaganza Wings (1927), in which he was clearly cast for his flying skills, which opened doors for a wider career, just as many professional swimmers, ice skaters, body builders and the like have become movie stars before and since. That same year he married his Wings co-star Jobyna Ralston (Harold Lloyd’s leading lady at the time), to whom he was married through 1946. Arlen’s other notable early films include The Four Feathers (1929), the 1927 version of The Virginian, thr horror classic Island of Lost Souls (1932), the all star comedy College Humor (1933), Three Live Ghosts (1936), and Artists and Models (1937) with Jack Benny and Ida Lupino.

By the late ’30s, Arlen was more of a B movie star, and henceforth flew, shall we say, “under the radar” as far as many movie buffs are concerned, although hardcore ones certainly know him. He wasn’t the world’s greatest actor, but recall that he only became an actor by cracking up his motorcycle! From 1939 to 1941 Arlen co-starred with Andy Devine in the so-called “Aces of Action” pictures for Universal. During WWII he was primarily in contemporary war pictures with titles like Aerial Gunner and Submarine Alert (both 1943). Many of these were made by Pine-Thomas Productions, in which Arlen owned stock. Storm Over Lisbon (1944) with Vera Ralston and Erich Von Stroheim is one of Arlen’s better remembered films of the period.

After the war Arlens was mostly in B movie westerns for over two decades, although you could also see him such things as the 1948 George Jessel musical When My Baby Smiles at Me with Betty Grable; the horror classic The Crawling Hand (1963), Gore Vidal’s political thriller The Best Man (1964), and a 1964 remake of The Shepherd of the Hills. Starting in 1965 he starred in a series of inexpensively made, retrograde westerns independent producer A.C. Lyles, 15 of them, beginning with Black Spurs (1964) and ending with Fort Utah (1967). After this, he worked a few additional times as a bit player in films, and made the occasional guest appearance on TV. A supporting role in the Disney movie The Sky’s the Limit, with its airport setting and all-star cast might have been the perfect swan song for him, but he did appear on screens a couple of additional times. His last role was in a family film called A Whale of a Tale (1976) with William Shatner, Marty Allen, and Arlen’s old co-star Andy Devine.

For more on silent and early film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.