Deconstructing Donald Cook

There are some actors whose unfortunate knack is in not leaving an impression. Such is the case I fear with Donald Cook (1901-1961). Looking at his list of credits, I realize that I had seen him in a large number of movies without ever quite noticing that he existed. To be fair, he is rarely the lead, normally he’s either the second male lead, or somewhere below that in the supporting cast. But still! Given his impressive list of credits, one would think he would stand out more in the mind.

Cook is perhaps most historically signficant for being the first actor to play Ellery Queen in any medium (The Spanish Cape Mystery, 1935). His best known films include The Public Enemy (1931), in which he played Cagney’s older brother; Baby Face (1933), third billed behind Stanwyck and George Brent; and he played Steve in the 1936 version of Show Boat.

Originally from Oregon, Cook started out in vaudeville and stock theatre before appearing in a half dozen Broadway shows between 1926 and 1930, billed as “Donn Cook”. He appeared opposite Ruth Etting in a 1930 Vitagraph short called Roseland, and this secured him a place in features. From 1931 to 1937 Cook was one of those very hard working contract players, appearing in over 50 films during that seven year stretch. If you’re like me, you’ve seen plenty of them. They include Side Show (1931) with Winnie Lightner, The Mad Genius (1931) with John Barrymore, The Heart of New York (1932) with Smith and Dale and George Sidney, Penguin Pool Murder (1932) with Edna May Oliver, and Frisco Jenny (1932) with Ruth Chatterton.

After Circus Girl (1937) with June Travis, Cook left Hollywood for a time and married an Italian noblewoman, the Princess Gioia Tasca di Cuto. At this stage he returned to Broadway, appearing in 14 additional stage productions until the end of his life. Patricular successes there included Claudia (1941-43) with Dorothy Maguire and Olga Baclanova, which ran for almost two years; a 1948 revival of Private Lives with Tallulah Bankhead; and the original production of The Moon is Blue (1951-53) with Barbara Bel Geddes and Barry Nelson, which ran for over two years. He made a handful of additional films in the ’40s, including Patrick the Great (1944) with Donald O’Connor and Peggy Ryan, Bowery to Broadway (1944) with Jack Oakie and Maria Montez; and Here Come the Co-Eds (1945) with Abbott and Costello. In 1959 he co-starred with Joan Bennett and Bridgid Bazlen in a short-lived TV sitcom called Too Young To Go Steady.

At the time of his death by heart attack at age 60, Cook was in rehearsal for the Broadway production of A Shot in the Dark. He was replaced in the stage version by Walter Matthau. A couple of years later it was adapted into the familiar Pink Panther movie.

For more on vaudeville and its veterans,  please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,