Finlay Currie: A Music Hall Magwitch

We were delighted to learn this morning that beloved Scottish character actor Finlay Currie (1878-1969) had a vaudeville and music hall background.

Currie occupied a wonderful casting niche, gruff and homely but loveable. His greatest role for that quality is also one of his best known, that of Magwitch in David Lean’s adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations (1946), scary at first, but ultimately shown to be a generous lug. Now this is what I call a LOOK:

He was also the pirate Billy Bones in the 1950 Robert Newton version of Treasure Island and played a riverboat captain in Michael Curtiz’ 1960 take on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another terrific look that calls to mind Ernest Torrence in Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) who was a very similar type:

Currie’s primitive, elemental aura made him perfect for Biblical, Roman, medieval and otherwise historical costume epics and he had important supporting roles in such things as Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948), The Black Rose (1950), the 1951 version of Quo Vadis?, Ivanhoe (1952), Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953), Beau Brummel (1954), Captain Lightfoot (1955), King’s Rhapsody (1955), Saint Joan (1957), Solomon and Sheba (1959), the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, the 1960 version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Francis of Assisi (1961), Joseph and His Brethren (1961), Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). I ask you, is it possible to do any more than that?

Other notable odds and ends include the screwball comedy People Will Talk (1951) with Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain, the John Philip Sousa bio-pic Stars and Stripes Forever (1952), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Billy Liar (1963), Paul Gallico’s The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964) for Disney, and Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1965).

Ah, but we promised vaudeville! Currie was born and bred in Edinburgh, where as a youth he was a church organist and choirmaster. He went into show business around the turn of the century, and for nearly 30 years he was before the footlights. He worked in British, American and Australian vaudeville and music hall. In 1905 he married American vaudeville performer Maude Courtney (1884-1959) and the two paired up for many years as a double act. They were billed as “Maude Courtney and Mr. C.” The Australian Variety Theatre Archive has a great description of their act. They tell us that as “the conquerors of fun” and the “dainty girl and talented tenor,” the pair established an act comprising songs (solo and duos), Currie’s piano playing, repartee, storytelling and comedy routines. They remained on the Australian circuits for almost ten years (1917-26), almost exclusively for the impresario Benjamin Fuller. Their last known engagements were in Britain in late-1929.

Currie landed his first film role in 1931 at the age of 53. His first two decades saw him employed in British movies. In 1950 he went to Hollywood, working steadily there until after his wife died at the end of the decade, at which time he returned to London. His last screen role, a two part episode of The Saint, was released posthumously in 1969. He was 90 at the time it was filmed!

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