Briefest of posts this morning on a notable though forgotten supporting actor of the silent era, Malcolm Waite (1892-1949).
I’ve not yet stumbled upon what Waite’s pre-movie experience was, have not encountered references to him in vaudeville or on Broadway. He was born in Menominee, Michigan, a small town on the Upper Peninsula bordering Green Bay (the body of the water, not the town) and Marinette, Wisconsin, with which it forms a kind of lesser regional “Twin Cities”. It’s two and half hours from Milwaukee, the closest city of any size, and farther away still from Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit. As a pure guess, with zero facts to support it, my assumption would be that he spent some years touring with stock companies, a common road back then for provincial thespians. If we learn better, we’ll of course update the post. What is known is that he had been amateur boxer in his youth, and some how, some way, was able to travel in posh social circles, earning him the nickname “The Millionaire Extra”
Waite’s got fewer than three dozen film parts, with all of his roles of any size falling during the silent era, but there were some notable ones. His best known and most significant role was as Chaplin’s good-looking rival in The Gold Rush (1925). This was only Waite’s fourth movie; how bright things must have looked at that moment! Other silent films in which he had decent sized supporting parts included The Hill Billy (1924) with Jack Pickford, Feet of Mud (1924) with Harry Langdon (as a rival, probably how he got the Gold Rush job); Blarney (1926) with Ralph Graves and Renée Adorée; Kid Boots (1926) and Kid Millions (1934) with Eddie Cantor; The Whole Town’s Talking (1926) with Edward Everett Horton and Trixie Friganza; and Why Girls Love Sailors (1927), a very early Laurel and Hardy comedy (in which the comedians haven’t yet adopted their famous characters).
In the talkie era, he had much smaller bit roles in The Vagabond Lover (1929) with Rudy Vallee; Up and Down (1934) with Franklin Pangborn; Diamond Jim (1935); W.C. Fields’ Poppy (1936); Zenobia (1939); The Boys from Syracuse (1940), Honky Tonk (1941); Jackass Mail (1942) with Wallace Beery and Marjorie Main; and The Pride of the Yankees (1942) with Gary Cooper, with whom he shared a birthday.
The mention of Coop makes a nice segue to the fact that many of Waite’s other films were westerns, on which he worked with the likes of John Ford, Tom Mix, and Buck Jones. With his dark good looks and pencil thin lips he was made to play rivals and villains, just as he often did in comedies.
For more on silent slapstick comedy film, please, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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