The World of Wheeler Oakman

A few words of acknowledgment today on screen actor actor Wheeler Oakman (Vivian Eichelberger, 1890-1949), who appeared in nearly 300 films over a veritable half-century. Based upon his given name, one inevitably speculates on a family tie of some kind to Ethyl Eichelberger, whose real first name was James, but changed it something more flamboyant. Vivian, on the other hand, was born with a gender-ambiguous first name, and traded the entire thing in for something not just masculine but downright deciduous.

Anyway, the drag star was from Illinois; Oakman was from Washington DC. He started out acting with stock companies on the East Coast before breaking into films at age 22, initially appearing in productions of the Selig Polyscope Company under the direction of Colin Campbell in 1912. His earlier films include the first screen version of The Spoilers (1914), lots of westerns starring the likes of William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and William Farnum, and Mabel Normand’s first feature Mickey (1918), in which he played the love interest. In 1920 he married his co-star Priscilla Dean, his co-star in movies like Outside the Law and The Virgin of Stamboul, both released that same year. The marriage broke up in 1927.

Oakman had a prominent role in the first all-talking film Lights of New York (1928), but as talkies progressed, he was sent down to the minors, frequently playing the villains in B movie westerns starring the likes of Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, and a young John Wayne. You can also see him in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), Buck Rogers (1938), several East Side Kids pictures, Bowery at Midnight (1942), The Ape Man (1943), and the 1948 Superman serial with Kirk Alyn, his last.

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