Archive for the The Hall of Hams Category

On Donald Meek, Whose Characters Matched His Screen Name

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by travsd

The great (small) character actor Donald Meek was born July 14, 1878. Don’t tell me you don’t know who he is! With that enormous chrome dome and his small statue (5’6″) he seemed almost like a cartoon character, say, Droopy. And so many of the movies he appeared in were classics. Statistically, some were bound to be — he made so many movies: over 120 in 16 years of talkies, which averages to almost 8 a year, or a movie every month and a half.

It is surprising to learn that he was born and raised in Glasgow; he became a world travelling trouper at quite a young age and worked to lose the accent. He started out as a child actor in local pantomimes and the like, and the legend of his early career is wonderful if true, although the many tidbits one comes across seem possibly contradictory: 1) that he acted with Sir Henry Irving by age eight; 2) that he toured Australia, India, South Africa and England in the title role in Little Lord Fauntleroy;  3) that, at age 14 he joined a troupe of acrobats called The Marvells as a top mounter; 4) that, when on tour in the U.S. he fell, breaking several bones; and that, when he recovered, he enlisted and fought for the U.S. in Cuba in the Spanish-American War, where he was not only wounded in action, but also caught a disease that caused his hair to fall out.

Much of this may be publicists’ puffery; I merely report it you because it is entertaining, and I would far rather be entertained than trouble to learn the truth of the matter. What is quite clear is that, starting in 1917 he was cast in the Broadway musical Going Up, and he was to work steadily on the Great White Way for the next 15 years. One of these shows Six Cylinder Love (1921-22) was made into a 1923 movie, Meek’s first screen credit and his only silent one. Another of them, The Potters (1923-24) was later made into a silent movie starring W.C. Fields, whom he would later appear in two films with.

As the liquor drummer Peacock in “Stagecoach”, with Thomas Mitchell as the predatory drunken doctor who dips into his samples

When talkies came in, he had a period of overlap, where he both acted on Broadway, and in films at Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone studio in Queens. It was during this period when he starred in a series of shorts called the Dr. Crabtree Mysteries. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood to concentrate solely on acting for films. Some of his well known pictures include: Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) with Zasu Pitts and W.C. Fields; Top Hat (1935) with Fred and Ginger; Barbary Coast (1935) with Joel McCrea and Edward G. Robinson; Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) with Lionel Barrymore and Bela Lugosi; John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Stagecoach (1939) and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939); with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935); Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938); My Little Chickadee (1940) with W.C. Fields and Mae West; Jesse James (1939) and its sequel The Return of Frank James (1940); Air Raid Wardens (1943) with Laurel and Hardy; DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) with Red Skelton and others; and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945) among, scores of others.

As you can see, he made himself useful in EVERY genre. Ordinarily, he played shy, nervous, bookish or officious types: ministers, book-keepers, robbery victims and the like, although it was occasionally effective when he went against type to be a villain, as in the Jesse James films or Air Raid Wardens. His character names tell the tale: “Mr. Frisbee”, “Justice of the Peace”, “Dr. Zimmer”, “Iradius P. Oglethorpe”, “Willoughby Wendling”, “Samuel Peacock”, “Adelbert Thistlebottom”, “Mittelmeyer”, “Professor Birdo”, “Captain Makepeace Liveright”, “Henry Cadwallader”, “Mr. Twiddle”. His last film, William Wellman’s Magic Town was released posthumously in 1947. Meek had passed away the previous year.

 For everything you need to to know about early show business, including possible former child acrobats like Donald Meek, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

 

On the Pivotal Thomas Mitchell: From Classics to “Columbo”

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Irish, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Playwrights, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2017 by travsd

The great Thomas Mitchell (1892-1962) came into the world on this day. Mitchell remains well known today as a character actor with parts in an unnaturally long list of Hollywood classic movies — the full weight of them is almost too much to talk about. The best known are Gone With the Wind (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Stagecoach (1939) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). I had already seen these movies when I was a kid, and that’s a good measure of their evergreen reach. There are dozens more besides, which we’ll get to. Yet, we are such a movie-centric culture, seeing Mitchell solely in this light gives a false, incomplete appreciation of his entire career. Movies were just the tip of the iceberg. Prior to Hollywood, he had been an actor, playwright and director for the stage for over twenty years, and continued to appear on Broadway stages and regionally over the rest of his career. During the Hollywood years, he was not just an actor, but an occasional screenwriter. Then, like most of actors of his time, he was constantly on radio throughout the 40s.  And then, over the last decade of his career, he did a huge amount of television.

So Mitchell was prolific. But he was also emblematic of a cultural shift. He was a quintessential man of the theatre and her daughter arts, but unlike many who had gone before, and who may spring to mind, he was not the slightest bit “Anglo”. Back in the day, your typical man or woman of the stage, even in America, was ever self-consciously that. The three Barrymore siblings, though they were one-quarter Irish — think of their manner, and multiply it across the generations. Warren William, Frank Morgan and even Mitchell’s own mentor Charles Coburn (whom we’ll return to) all affected English style. It was dunned into actors at the time.  But Mitchell was the son of Irish immigrants, and there was surely no point in ever pretending otherwise. His face was like the caricaturist’s conception of a leprechaun’s, and he could summon the brogue of his parents for a role at a moment’s notice. And yet interestingly (whether its because or in spite of that, I don’t know) we also think of him as just “American”. Mitchell’s father and older brother were both newspapermen, and Mitchell dabbled in journalism briefly in his youth before choosing the theatre. Think of all the newspaper editors and reporters he plays so authentically. The gruff voice, the unshaven face, the twinkle in his eye, the unlit cigar in his puss. The quality carries over so well into other American archetypes — the country doctor, the provincial politician, the crusty uncle. He represents a sea shift that was probably more noticeable to our forbears. With actors like Mitchell, American culture was coming into its own. Nothing English about that guy.

Young Mitchell, from the Broadway period

Mitchell claimed in a 1939 article that he cut his teeth by touring vaudeville with a once act play he’d written about the poet Thomas Chatterton. As we said, for a time he toured with Charles Coburn’s Shakespearean stock company. By 1916, he is already on Broadway, appearing in the play Under Sentence with Edward G. Robinson and Frank Morgan. Over the next twenty years, he was constantly on the Broadway stage, appearing in or directing some two dozen plays. And his own plays were produced there, including Glory Hallelujah (1926), Little Accident (1928-1929, and later adapted into movies more than once), and Cloudy with Showers (1931). After Stick in the Mud (1936) he made the move to Hollywood, but he returned to Broadway another half dozen times, notably in the original production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1948-49), as a replacement in the original production of The Death of a Salesman (1949-1950) as Willy Loman (how I’d love to have seen that!), and the musical Hazel Flagg (1953), for which won a Tony. His last Broadway appearance was in Cut of the the Ax (1960), which closed after only two performances.

He only appeared in one silent film, Six Cylinder Love (1923). Interestingly one of his fellow players in that film was Donald Meek, with whom he later appeared in Stagecoach. This occasion seems like an experiment, an anomaly. He was very successful on Broadway and probably saw no reason to switch horses to this upstart medium where the audience couldn’t hear you speak, and where you heard no applause.

I first saw Mitchell’s haunting performance as Gerald O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” when I was about an 11 or 12 years old. What an enormous impression it made on me.

But by 1936, many things had changed. Broadway was badly hurt by the Great Depression. And talkies had not only proven their viability they also paid former stage actors big money. His first speaking part was in Craig’s Wife (1936) an adaptation of the George Kelly play, the easiest transition conceivable for him. And then: it was like he had a charmed career, especially at the outset. Highlights included Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), the incredible John Ford disaster movie The Hurricane (1937), and that same director’s beloved Stagecoach (1939), for which Mitchell won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. 1939 was a magical year for him, for in addition to Stagecoach, he also had key roles in Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Only Angels Have Wings. 1940 wasn’t much worse: among his several pictures that year were Swiss Family Robinson, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Ford’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home. Other notable pictures: The Black Swan (1942), the notorious Howard Hughes western The Outlaw (1943), The Sullivans (1944), Buffalo Bill (1944), Wilson (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and High Noon (1952). His last film role was in Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Further, his Broadway play Little Accident was made into a movie three separate times, and he co-wrote the screenplays for All of Me (1934), and Casanova Brown (1944).

And just as our tendency to be movie-centric causes us to neglect his early theatre work, it may also cause us to miss his late work in the broadcast media of radio and television. This is interesting to me — folks older than myself no doubt will remember him from this work. Conceivably, one could remember him primarily from this work. It is so voluminous one can scarcely wrap ones arms around it. In the radio days, he made repeated appearances on shows like Suspense, The Cavalcade of America, Lux Radio Theatre, and Anthology. On TV, some of the shows he appeared on (often numerous times) included Lux Video Theatre, The O. Henry Playhouse, The Ford Television Theatre, and at least a dozen others. he also was the star of two different tv series of his own: Mayor of the Town (1954-55), and Glencannon (1959).

Check it out — Mitchell as Columbo, with Cotten as the killer in the stage production of “Prescription: Murder”

And amazingly — and this is quite true — Mitchell’s last role was the part of police detective Lt. Columbo, later made famous on the tv series starring Peter Falk. Created by writer William Link, the character had made on The Chevy Mystery Show, with Bert Freed, in the role in 1960. Its next incarnation was a stage play at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco on January 1962, with Mitchell as Columbo, with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead as his co-stars. Mitchell died of cancer during the play’s tour. But I love this so much — it makes him this wonderful link between the past and future. This Irishman, who started out doing Shakespeare with Charles Coburn takes us all the way to the modern age, playing this Italian police detective, and would end up (metaphorically) handing the baton to Peter Falk, a Jewish guy who would play the part on television into the 21st century.

For more on vaudeville history, including touring thespians like Thomas Mitchell consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

George Sanders: Committed Suicide Because He Was “Bored”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by travsd

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The irreplaceable George Sanders (1906-1972) was born on July 3. I am astounded to contemplate that I haven’t done a post on him yet. Perhaps the undertaking has seemed too daunting. Such an unconventional excuse for a star and yet so indispensable once he established himself. Cutting, oily, arch, cynical but rarely purely villainous — usually more soft and lacking in character. Often his characters proved to have a heart, and he often even played heroes, even conventional ones. This is because the British have the opposite class prejudices that Americans do. Sanders’ upper class air of privilege and his sensuous, nonchalant manner seems perfectly consonant with the British idea of a military officer, patriotic spy, or virtuous knight. To an American, his personality is identical to what we have become conditioned to read as the villain. And after all, we did fight two wars against them. Sanders in a red coat and periwig, taking snuff between draconian edicts, would be a perfect poster boy for what we were fighting against.

Yet, he was often the hero, especially in his early years. I was astounded a few years ago to catch him starring in B movie series like The Saint and The Falcon that were playing on television. He was even in a Mr. Moto movie. But this led pretty quickly to prestige work. He’s in The House of the Seven Gables (1940, technically a B film) with Vincent Price, but also Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Foreign Correspondent (1940).

“All About Eve”, in which he gets to paw an early career Marilyn Monroe.

The languorous Sanders we’ve all come to appreciate shows up as early as The Moon and Sixpence (1942), and is fully solidified by The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) in which he plays Wilde’s stand-in, Lord Henry Wotton. He would get to do Wilde again in The Fan (1949), an adaptation of Lady Windermere’s Fan. The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) and his Oscar winning role role as theatre critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950) cement this particular image for all time. And yet at the same time, there were all these historical costume epics: Samson and Delilah (1949), Ivanhoe (1952), King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), and Solomon and Sheba (1959).  He had his own tv show in 1957, George Sanders Mystery Theatre. There follows some fairly respectable sci-fi and horror, From the Earth to the Moon (1958), Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons (1960) and Village of the Damned (1960). And comedies like The Cracksman (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964) and The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965).

As was frequently the case with actors of his generation, his last roles in the late 1960s and early 70s were a grab-bag of strangeness. He played Mr. Freeze on Batman.  He was the voice of Shere Kahn the Tiger in Disney’s animated The Jungle Book (1967), which ironically may be his most widely known role today. The same year, he played the villain in Sonny and Cher’s experimental comedy Good Times. And The Body Stealers (1969), Doomwatch (1972), Endless Night (1972), and Psychomania a.k.a The Death Wheelers (1972) are a very weird, schlocky final chapter to a career that had embraced just about every genre, including musicals.

Yes, Sanders could sing! He actually released this record album in 1958:

The George Sanders Touch…songs for the lovely lady. Was ANY irony intended here? His screen roles conjure visions of date rape, scoundrelly coercion, rakish seduction, and sneaky departures, a la “I’m sorry, my dear. I didn’t tell you? My mother needs me in Cairo. I won’t be back for 11 years.” If you’ve any doubt, two years after this album was released, he published his autobiography: Memoirs of a Professional Cad. Sanders was married four times; two of his marriages were with Gabor Sisters. (He’d co-starred with Zsa Zsa in Death of a Scoundrel).

And thus we come to Sanders’ suicide note. Apparently he left three of them, the most famous of which read: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

It sounds very funny and characteristic of him but it cloaked a much sadder reality. He was depressed, in failing health, and had been drinking since the failure of his last marriage. Despondent, he swallowed five bottles of sleeping pills while staying in a villa on the Spanish coast.

Sanders’ older brother was the actor Tom Conway, who took over as the Falcon when Sanders left the series, and starred in three Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO. The brothers were both born in Imperial Russia; the family fled at the time of the Revolution. Thus, this quintessentially English actor was — technically — Russian. No wonder he was so depressed!

Joseph Cotten: Courtliness Personified

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2017 by travsd

Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) was born on May 15. The late year of his death surprised me. Cotten’s last film had been in 1981 and I couldn’t imagine him ever not acting. But a stroke felled him in 1981. He eventually recovered sufficiently enough to write a memoir, but he never acted again.

From an old Virginia family, Cotten seemed from another time. This gentle, courtly quality made him perfect for a part in the original Broadway production of the antebellum themed melodrama Jezebel (1933). Orson Welles loved this quality of Cotten’s; in 1934, Cotten was to become a core cast member of the Mercury Theatre as well as its radio component The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In 1939, when Welles and company had gone out to Hollywood, Cotten remained in New York and starred in the original Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story. When it was made into a movie the following year the role he had created onstage went to the far better established Cary Grant.

But Welles was to be his patron once again, giving him key roles in the Mercury’s first three (and only completed) pictures for RKO: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Journey Into Fear (1942, which Cotten also co-wrote). Then his Hollywood career began to take off.  Alfred Hitchcock liked Cotten so much he starred him in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Under Capricorn (1949). Among Cotten’s other memorable pictures in the ’40s were: Gaslight (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Farmers Daughter (1947), Portrait of Jennie (1948) and The Third Man (1949).

With Welles once again in “The Third Man”

In the 50s, the magic sort of wore off, although he continued to be featured in copious movies through the middle of the decade, most notably Niagara (1953). He also made cameos in Welles’ Othello (1951) and Touch of Evil (1958). In 1953 he returned to Broadway to star in the original production of Sabrina Fair. As had happened with The Philadelphia Story, he was replaced in the 1954 film version, Sabrina. Cotten’s biggest splash in the ’50s was his tv show: The Joseph Cotten Show: On Trial, which ran from 1956 through 1959.

with de Havilland in “Sweet Charlotte”

I will talk a bit more about the next phase of Cotten’s career in another pioneering post I am working on. You can guess its topic by the film titles: Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Oscar (1966), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Lady Frankenstein (1971),  The Screaming Woman (1972), Baron Blood (1972), The Devil’s Daughter (1973), Soylent Green (1973), Airport ’77, Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979), and The Hearse (1980). But there was also some far less schlocky movies in there: Petulia (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), A Delicate Balance (1973), and Heaven’s Gate (1980 — I don’t care what it lost at the box office, Heaven’s Gate happens to be a brilliant film, only a moron thinks otherwise). And lots and lots of other movies and tv appearances in there as well. As we say, in 1981 he had a stroke. His autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere was published in 1987.

The Acting Career of John Wilkes Booth

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , on May 10, 2017 by travsd

“Sic Semper Tyrannis”

With those immortal words, John Wilkes Booth ruined his acting career.

In an exceedingly strange and ironic way, when Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he also assassinated himself. Obsessed with immortality, in a single act he obliterated everything positive and worthy he had ever been, eclipsing it with infamy. Once you became the assassin of a beloved figure, that is the sum of what you are.

Lincoln is my favorite President (I’m hardly original in that), so I won’t spend energy trying to redeem the irredeemable. Booth fully deserved the end he received, which was to be chased and shot like a distempered dog. When we imagine hell, it is precisely to contain men like him. Booth was convinced he was doing God’s work, but we all know it went down more like this:

You may think it doing Booth too much honor to speak of his accomplishments on the stage, but, no. Countless others have done so, and anyway it helps put the unthinkable story in perspective. Booth was a scion of America’s greatest theatrical dynasty; one of the stage’s best known and loved stars. We don’t really have an equivalent today to describe what he was: the analogy would be a scenario in which one of Hollywood’s top young box office stars, who also had enormous critical respect, was mixed with someone outspokenly, rabidly conservative to a daft degree. If you crossed Daniel Day-Lewis and Mel Gibson and made them as young as Daniel Radcliffe, it would be something like that.

The patriarch of the family Junius Brutus Booth (1796-1852) laid the groundwork. Junius Brutus Booth, Jr (1821-1883) followed his father into the business but was to live in the shadow of the rest of the family. Junior’s younger brother Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was considered the greatest of them all and the greatest in the country. John Wilkes (1838-1865) was the youngest theatrical Booth and was becoming a worthy rival to his brother Edwin prior to his act of madness. Raised on the family farm in Maryland, Booth was fond of manly pursuits like horses and fencing, and a somewhat lazy but popular student. He was only 17 when he began his stage career, with doors opened to him because of his famous name (although he did use pseudonyms at first so he could make his mistakes in private. His progress was extremely rapid. He spent a year at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia (1857). The following year, he joined the stock company at the Richmond Theatre in Virginia where he played 83 roles in 1858. By 1860, he was touring all of the great cities in America, north and south.

John Wilkes Booth was not as given to application and discipline as his more esteemed brother. Much of the contemporary praise of him had to with “charm”, “charisma”, “personality” and “attractiveness”. Still plenty also spoke of his “genius”, although typically that sort of praise generally qualified that his genius came in “flashes”. He played Hamlet, Romeo, Richard III. In late 1864, he co-starred with his two brothers in a production of Julius Caesar, a favorite play of his — and one that clearly screwed up his thinking.

It is interesting to observe that Booth’s career overlaps almost completely with the war years. He began acting a couple of years earlier, but his popularity took off just as the crisis began. These years define him in a way we can scarcely imagine. Like many folks in border states at the time, including his fellow Marylanders, Booth was pro-south from the very beginning. Unlike Edwin, who was pro-Union and refused to play southern cities after secession, John played both sides of the field, touring as far south and west as New Orleans. This was a peculiar state of affairs, that someone would be allowed to that.

He was a religious, superstitious, imaginative and romantic man, given to delusions of grandeur. It must have seemed he was living a charmed life, with all his easy succession and adulation. He was also a ladies man (when he was killed in 1865, there were photos of no less than five girlfriends in his pocket). When he was a kid, he’d visited a fortune teller, who warned that he’d come to a dark end. Certainly all the great tragedies which he spent so much time enacting present a world in which the hand of God is active — at least the characters would have it that way. He believed he was God’s instrument. The war was the defining event of his life, and that was to become truer than he ever imagined. Like Iago and Cassius, he schemed and planted evil ideas in people’s heads. He persuaded others to do terrible things. And then he personally did one of the foulest deeds any man ever did. And in so doing he did indeed write himself into the history books. He himself is actually a character in novels and plays and dramas, and is probably more famous by orders of magnitude than his brother Edwin, the greatest actor of his age, is remembered. But Edwin is a beloved, revered figure to those who remember him. John Wilkes Booth’s name ranks with Hitler’s and Judas Iscariot’s as one of the foulest that was ever spoken.

Some actors should just stay away from politics.

Sir Rex Harrison: Inventor of Speak Singing

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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Sir Rex Harrison, Inventor of Speak-Singing 

Today is the birthday of stage and screen Sir Rex Harrison (Reginald Harrison, 1908-1990). It’s safe to say that Harrison was the first serious English actor with whom I had any wide familiarity as a child, and I’m betting that’s true of many Americans of my age. He was frequently on television variety and talk shows throughout the 1970s (he was funny and also famous for his many marriages — six — as well as some notorious affairs). I imagine I encountered his films in roughly this order: Dr. Doolittle (1967), My Fair Lady (1964), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Blithe Spirit (1945), Major Barbara (1941), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Ann and the King of Siam (1946) and, quite recently, Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948). This leaves plenty I’ve yet to see; I’m particularly interested in Night Train to Munich (1940).

Harrison was certainly an early pathway to Shaw for me through My Fair Lady and Major Barbara. Onstage he’d also starred in Caesar and Cleopatra, Heartbreak House, and The Devil’s Disciple. I think of him as the consummate interpreter of Shaw, virtually his mouthpiece. For example, I’ve never seen him as Shaw’s Caesar (it’s Claude Rains in the 1945 film) yet I always picture the character as him when I read the play. Possibly partially because he played him in the 1963 blockbuster, but also because one comes to know and cherish Harrison’s delivery. It is a perfect match. Another stage performance of his I’d wish I’d seen is his Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) — it’s Richard Burton in the 1969 movie.

Harrison’s also the inventor of the technique of “speak-singing” which I confess I’ve always found frustrating. I’m the farthest thing from a musicals-Nazi, but often you hear the terrific melody the songwriters have written, and well, it feels a cheat not to hear it sung.

Originally from Lancashire, Harrison was educated in Liverpool College, where he began his career in the professional theatre in 1924. He first appeared in films and on the West End in 1930, and went to Hollywood in 1946.

To find out more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

McKee Rankin: Hub of America’s Greatest Acting Dynasty

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , on February 6, 2017 by travsd

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Arthur “McKee” Rankin (1844-1914) was born on this day. Rankin is they keystone of America’s greatest acting dynasty. I don’t call him the founder because he’s more at the center; it starts back in the late 18th century and goes all the way to Drew Barrymore. 

Rankin himself was a key figure in 19th century American theatre, unjustly swallowed up by time. Originally from Ontario, Canada, he was only 21 when the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, by some measures the leading theatre in the country at the time, made him their star. He was renowned in particular for his portrayals of the leads in MacBeth and Othello. In 1869, he married popular actress Kitty Blanchard and they became America’s most popular husband-wife acting team. Rankin also directed and produced his productions, taught acting, and wrote many plays, many with a western setting (a factor of his own extensive tours of western mining and logging camps). He would go on to start his own theatres in both New York and San Francisco.

Rankin’s plays included:

  • his own adaptation of Rip Van Winkle (1870), plainly an effort to compete with the successful Joseph Jefferson vehicle
  • Nannie, or the Dutch Orphan (1870)
  • The Danites, a tale of life among the Mormons co-written by P.A. Fitzgerald and based on The First Family of the Sierras by Joachin Miller (toured 1877-1881, made into a movie in 1912)
  • 49, a tale of San Francisco miners, also based on Joachin Miller material (1881)
  • The Metropolis, a tale of the underside of New York City (unproduced)
  • The Golden Giant, a tale of San Francisco co-written by Clay Greene (1885)
  • The Runaway Wife, co-written with Frederick Maeder, a melodrama in which a painter goes blind and his wife, told that he is dead by an evil sister, marries a nobleman (1888-89). This was made into a movie in 1915
  • Abraham Lincoln (1891)
  • The Baxters (1893), a comedy, written for actor Charles Cowles
  • a number of vaudeville one acts and the full-lengths Magda and The Fires of St. John, adapted from works by German writer Hermann Sudermann, in which Rankin co-starred with Nance O’Neil 1895-1908
  • Invasion (1909), an uncanny play in which the Japanese invade California. For some context, this was in the wake of Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war, at a time when Japan was in the process of colonizing Korea

Rankin’s last Broadway directorial credit was Judith of Bethulia (1904), which was adapted into a movie by D.W. Griffith ten years later.

The definite source for information about Rankin is David Beasley’s McKee Rankin and the Heyday of American Theatre (2002). 

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Oh, but we’re not done! I wanted to take the opportunity to, as best I can, lay out the whole glorious tangle of this extended theatrical family.

THE RANKINS

The Rankins had three daughters with notable theatrical associations:

Gladys Rankin (1870-1914) was the first Mrs. Sidney Drew in the stage and screen team of Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew. Their son was the actor Sidney Rankin Drew. More on the Drew family below. Since Drew was Lionel Barrymore’s uncle, and Gladys sister’s Doris (below) was married to Lionel, Gladys was both Lionel’s aunt and sister-in-law.

Phyllis Rankin (1874-1934), a notable Broadway star in her own right. She was married to actor Harry Davenport (best known as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind). Phyllis and Harry’s son Arthur Rankin was also a minor player in films (he took his mother’s more famous surname as his professional name. That’s gotta hurt!) Arthur’s son was producer-animator Arthur Rankin, Jr. is of Rankin-Bass fame.

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Doris Rankin (1888-1947), also a succesful stage and screen actress. Doris’s mother was not Blanchard, but some other unknown actress. Doris was married to Lionel Barrymore from 1904 through 1923.

THE DREWS

This estimable line begins with London actress Eliza Trentner (1796-1887), whose theatrical husband was a Mr. Lane, either Thomas Frederick Lane or William Haycraft Lane. Accounts differ, and as Eliza moved to America in 1826 with her six year old daughter and without Mr.Lane, the truth has been hard to uncover.

Louisiana Lane Drew, grandmother and mentor of the three Barrymores. By all reports she cut a formidable, if not terrifying figure

Louisiana Lane Drew, grandmother and mentor of the three Barrymores. By all reports she cut a formidable, if not terrifying figure

The six year old girl was the formidable actress Louisa Lane (1820-1897) whose third husband was Irish-American actor John Drew, Sr (John Henry Drewland, 1827-1862). Drew’s brother Frank Drew (1831-1903) was also an actor.

Their oldest child Louisa Drew (1852-1888) married a theatrical manager but seems not to have gone on the stage, though the others did, including John Drew Jr. (1853-1827), Georgina (1856-1953), and the above mentioned Sidney who was adopted by Louisa Lane Drew after John, Sr. passed away

Georgina married Maurice Barrymore; their children were of course Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore. 

lionel_ethel_and_john_barrymore_cph-3b04450

THE BARRYMORES

Ethel’s children were: Samuel Colt (1809-1986, a Hollywood agent), and Ethel Barrymore Colt (1912-1977) and John Drew Colt (1913-1975), both actors.

Lionel had two daughters with Doris Rankin; both died in infancy. After his divorce from Doris, he married actress Irene Fenwick (1887-1936), a former lover of his brother John.

John had four wives: socialite Katherine Corri Harris (who appeared in three silent films); the fascinating playwright and actress Blanche Oelrichs a.k.a “Michael Strange”;  actress Dolores Costello, daughter of Maurice Costello; and Elaine Barrie.

His performing children included Diana Barrymore (1921-196o), whose husbands included actors Bramwell Fletcher and Robert Wilcox; and John Barrymore Jr. (1932-2004) , who, like his father married four times, twice to actresses (Cara Williams and Nina Wayne). Two of John Jr’s children became actors: John Blyth Barrymore III (b. 1954) and Drew Barrymore (b. 1975). Whew!

Chip off the old block

Chip off the old block

 

 

 

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