The Highborn Henry Hathaway

Classic film fans know well the work of Henry Hathaway (1898-1985), especially later triumphs like the original True Grit (1969), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), How the West Was Won (1962, with John Ford and George Marshall), and Nevada Smith (1966), but also earlier things like the Hitchcock-seque Niagara (1952), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and Go West, Young Man (1936) with Mae West. Having written about many of his movies, I may well have done a post on Hathaway eventually, but now that I know his origins, the deal is sealed, for he was second generation showfolk, with parents who worked in the theatre, and that sort of multi-generational theatre-to-film continuum is one of our favorite things to write about.

Of the two parents, Hathaway’s mother was most interesting. His maternal grandfather was a Belgian aristocrat, born in Hungary, the Marquis Henri Léopold de Fiennes. He was part of a delegation that came to negotiate for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) as a colony for Belgium in 1862. The mission was not a success. The Marquis decided to settle with his family in San Francisco. His daughter, the Marquise Lillie de Fiennes (1876-1938), was Hathaway’s mother. Originally a stage actress, she went on to appear in over 50 silent movies between 1911 and 1925, under the decidedly unexotic stage name of “Jean Hathaway“. Ye Gods! What a waste of a title! Her first film was Allan Dwan’s An Eastern Cowboy (1911); her last, was the Harry Langdon comedy Plain Clothes (1925) directed by Harry Edwards for Mack Sennett.

The Marquise was married to Rhody Hathaway (1868-1944), a San Francisco actor/manager, who appeared in about a dozen films from 1924 through 1935. In the silent era, he was a supporting player, mostly in westerns. He’s only in a handful of talkies, as a supernumerary.

Henry began working in films at Universal at age 14, shortly after his mother’s film career began. He originally played child roles and worked as a prop boy. Following World War One service, he returned to props. By the mid ’20s he had graduated to assistant director, a post he filled on two dozens films from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), and Fred Niblo’s Ben Hur (1924) to later classics like Wolf Song (1929), The Virginian (1929), Morocco (1930), and Mae West’s first film (with George Raft), Night after Night (1932).

Having already begun an association with Gary Cooper as an A.D. he went on to direct Randolph Scott in several of his early westerns in the early to mid ’30s. The Thundering Herd (1933) might be the best remembered of these. Shepherd of the Hills (1941) was the first of his many films with John Wayne. Tyrone Power was another actor he worked with frequently. Their films together included Brigham Young (1940), Johnny Apollo (1940), The Black Rose (1950) and Rawhide (1951). With James Mason, he made The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1950) and Prince Valiant (1954). He revisited the theme of the former movie on one of his last directorial efforts Raid on Rommel (1971) with Richard Burton. His last picture was the blaxploitation film Hangup a.k.a. Super Dude (1974). (Reminds me that William Wyler’s last movie was 1970’s The Liberation of L.B. Jones — old guys bravely trying to tack with the times.)

By this time of course, Hathaway was in his late ’70s, and he retired. His birth year of 1898 must have contained personal significance for him. It was the same year the United States annexed Hawaii.

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