Robert Z. Leonard: The Original Boob, From Oz to Ziegfeld

Robert Z. Leonard (1889-1968) managed to direct some of the best known and loved classics of the studio era, without achieving lasting fame himself, a factor clearly of the anonymous Hollywood system. He was at MGM throughout the sound era, and there’s no diminishing the excellence of most of his films. Among my friends are both The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Strange Interlude (1932), Peg O’ My Heart (1933), A Tale of Twin Cities (1935), The Girl of the Golden West (1938), Pride and Prejudice (1940), In the Good Old Summertime (1949), many or most of the Jeanette MacDonald musicals, and the late Red Skelton pictures The Clown (1953) and The Great Diamond Robbery (1953).

Leonard got in on the ground floor of several lucky enterprises throughout his career. He was all of 19, with just a little theatre experience under his belt, when he began working as an actor at Selig Polyscope in 1908. His roles there included the part of the Scarecrow in the original 1910 version of The Wizard of Oz and the title character in The Courtship of Miles Standish, also 1910. He played Robinson Crusoe in Bison’s 1913 adaptation of the Defoe classic, and was in The Sea Urchin, containing Lon Chaney’s first character part, the same year.

Leonard began directing his own vehicles in 1913. Of particular interest to us is a series of comedies he starred in and self-directed 1914-16, in which he played a character named “The Boob”, a country bumpkin who underwent a series of (mis)adventures. Also in 1914 he starred in a serial called The Master Key, which proved a hit, assuring his ongoing success.

Leonard began working regularly with Mae Murray in 1917; the pair were married in 1918. In 1921 the pair founded Tiffany Productions, where there successes included Peacock Alley (1922) and Jazzmania (1922). Also in 1921 Leonard began working at Metro, which became absorbed into MGM in 1924. By then, Murray had left the studio. The two were divorced in 1925, but Tiffany Pictures managed to hang on in various forms through 1932, releasing some truly interesting movies, especially towards the end, including The Lost Zeppelin (1929), Mamba (1930), The Medicine Man (1930) with Jack Benny, and The Death Kiss (1932).

In 1926, Leonard married movie star Gertrude Olmstead, whose career we’ll be looking at in a few weeks. That same year Olmstead starred in the film The Boob, clearly based on Leonard’s comedies from a dozen years earlier, although he is not credited. William Wellman directed, with Joan CrawfordGeorge K, Arthur, Charles MurrayHank Mann, and Babe London in the cast.

Meanwhile, Leonard became one of MGM’s most solid directors. The Divorcee (1930) won an Oscar for Norma Shearer, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture. The Great Ziegfeld won the latter award six years later. His last film will be very interesting to vaudeville fans. In Kelly and Me (1957) Van Johnson plays a down-and-out vaudeville performer who suddenly scores with audiences when he starts working with a very smart dog. The two become stars in movies, but success goes to Johnson’s head; the real brains of the act is the miraculous pooch!

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