Robert Frazer: First American Robin Hood

The professional statistics of stage and screen actor Robert Frazer (Robert Browne, 1891-1944) are astonishing: 230 films over a 32 year career. When one encounters volume like that, the person of interest normally proves to be a crowd extra, but Frazer played proper roles, sometimes starring in his films, more frequently playing large supporting or ensemble parts. The record is partially explained by the fact when he entered the industry in 1912, films were typically about ten minutes long and produced at the rate of about one a week, and that his later talkies were B pictures, also cranked out quickly and cheaply. But the achievement remains impressive, and he played many significant roles in films that are still watched and/or written about today. He was the first American to play Robin Hood onscreen, for example, and that’s only one of the credits that assure his place in cinematic history.

Originally from Worcester Mass., Frazer started out as a teenager acting with traveling stock companies. He was only 21 when he was hired by the American division of the French studio Eclair, which was one of the companies that was absorbed into Universal. By 1916 he had already appeared in 50 films, including early screen versions of Robin Hood (1912) and Rob Roy (1913), and two films in which he played Christ, The Holy City (1912) and Thus Saith the Lord (1913). In 1917 he took a break from pictures to appear on Broadway in Julia Arthur’s production of Seremonda. Throughout the remaining years of silents, he appeared in features, many of them well known to classic screen buffs, such as Jazzmania (1923) with Mae Murray, Miss Bluebeard (1925) with Bebe Daniels, and Lightning (1927) with Jobyna Ralston.

Frazier’s talkies are circulated are still more widely circulated, even now. The best known may be the two horror classics White Zombie (1932) and The Vampire Bat (1933). He was also in the 1931 version of Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1931), a very loose 1933 modernization of The Three Musketeers, the 1935 serial The Clutching Hand, and the 1944 Captain America serial. From the late silent period until the end of his career the majority of his films were B movie westerns, some of which he starred in, while in others he played the villain or another supporting role opposite the likes of Tim McCoy, Rex Bell, Hoot Gibson, Hopalong Cassidy, and The Three Mesquiteers. His last picture was Law Men (1944) starring Johnny Mack Brown, in which he played “Banker Bradford.”

Having begun in pictures at such a young age, Frazer was only 53 when leukemia ended his life and career, else his resume might have proved still more voluminous and might have included some television as well.

For more on early cinema, please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.