Archive for the The Hall of Hams Category

Hall of Hams #113: Rex Harrison

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.

Hall of Hams #112: 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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Today is the birthday of Arthur “McKee” Rankin (1844-1914). 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. 

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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

 

 

 

Hall of Hams #111: Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , on January 2, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Florence Lawrence (Florence Annie Bridgwood, 1890-1938). Today she is best remembered as “The First Movie Star”, both because of her success as “The Biograph Girl” (back when studios did not yet divulge the names of the actors in their films) and because her popularity resulted in her being the first star whose name was given out to the public.

She was the daughter of Ontario-based female actor/manager Lotta Lawrence, an Irish immigrant whose Lawrence Dramatic Company toured the provinces. Florence’s father George Bridgwood, a carriage maker, separated from his wife when Florence was young and died when she was eight. By then the family had moved the Buffalo and “Baby Flo, the Child Wonder” had been performing in melodramas with her mother’s company for several years.

Circa 1906 she moved to New York, and having scant luck getting parts in Broadway plays, she began to work for Stuart Blackton’s Vitagraph Company. Notable films from her first year or so in the business include an adaptation of Bouicaults The Shaughraun and Daniel Boone, or Pioneer Days in America (for Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon). In 1908, she went over to Biograph, just as D.W. Griffith was getting started, becoming the first star associated with the director, through dozens of films. During this year she also became the romantic and artistic partner of actor, screenwriter and director Harry Solter, marrying him that same year. The following year  (1909) the two moved to IMP (Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, precursor to Universal), and it was that studio’s head Carl Laemmle who first publicized her name in 1910. The pair worked for Universal for about a year, and then worked for most of 1911 for Sig Lubin. In 1912, they formed their own production studio, the Victor Film Company. In 1913, they sold the company to the newly-formed Universal for a large sum.

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At this stage, Lawrence was beset by a number of setbacks. She was estranged from Solter in late 1912. She was badly burned while performing a stunt during the filming of Pawns of Destiny in 1915. Her ouput for the rest of the decade was sporadic, troubled by psychological insecurities sustained as a result of the accident. Solter died in 1920. Lawrence remarried and attempted a comeback in 1921, while simultaneously opening and operating a cosmetics store. Most of her roles throughout the 20s were supporting parts. She lost most of her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. In 1931, she divorced her second husband and closed the store. In 1933, she married her third husband, who reportedly beat her. They were divorced within months. Her career in the sound era consisted mostly of bit parts and walk-ons. W.C. Fields, who had a soft-spot for old veterans and often gave them work in his films, gave her spots in The Old Fashioned Way (1934) and Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935). Then in 1937, she became sick with a disease that caused “anemia and depression”. She took her own life the following year.

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For more on early film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

Hall of Hams # 110: Norman Lloyd

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2016 by travsd

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Happy 102nd birthday to Norman Lloyd (Norman Perlmutter, b. 1914), who has enjoyed surely one of the most amazing theatrical careers in history.

Lloyd has been a performer since 1923 — over 90 years. He started out taking lessons and performing at clubs and benefits in his native Brooklyn at the age of nine. He was a prodigy. He graduated from high school at age 15 and enrolled NYU, later dropping out because he said it seemed senseless during the Depression to waste money on an education for a job that likely wouldn’t be there when he graduated. So he focused on the theatre, becoming (at 17) the youngest apprentice at Eva La Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre. His first Broadway show was Andre Obey’s Noah (1935). In the 1930s, he worked with the Group Theatre, the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper Unit, and the Mercury Theatre, for which he played Cinna the Poet in Orson Welle’s legendary production of Julius Caesar (1937-38).

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He initially went to Hollywood in 1939 with the Mercury company to appear in their first planned production at RKO, which was to be Heart of Darkness. When that production appeared to be not forthcoming, he returned to New York, missing the opportunity to be in Citizen Kane. He appeared in a few more Broadway shows, then came back to Hollywood to play a memorable Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), later appearing in Spellbound (1945), as well. He was in a number of memorable movies throughout the ’40s and early ’50s: The Unseen (an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, 1945), Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945); the all-star World War 2 picture A Walk in the Sun (1945), the Burt Lancaster swashbuckler The Flame and the Arrow (1950), and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952).

About to fall off the Statue of Liberty's torch in "Saboteur"

About to fall off the Statue of Liberty’s torch in “Saboteur”

In the ’50s and ’60s, he became heavily involved in television as an actors, producer, and director, most notably and consistently on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1958-1962) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1964). In the ’70s, he produced and directed several made-for-tv movies. He appeared in the terrible comedies FM (1978) and The Nude Bomb (1980).

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Then, at 68 years of age he began to play what may be the best known role of his career, as the crotchety Dr. Auslander on St. Elsewhere (1982-1988). And he never stopped! He’s in Dead Poet’s Society (1989), The Age of Innocence (1993), and movie and tv credits right up nearly to the present day — he was in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck last year (2015)!

Unusually, his essential persona seems to have changed little in all that time. As a young man, he already read as “old man”, bookish, serious, and perhaps a little frail. But that last of course is an illusion. A man who’s still doing movie shoots in his second century is anything but frail. Hat’s off to you today, sir!

Hall of Hams #109: King Baggot

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , on November 7, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of King Baggot (1879-1948). I know — sounds like a good name for a Hobbit’s Doberman Pinscher. What he was, was one of the first movie stars whose name was promoted to the public, one of the biggest screen stars of the American cinema’s early years, and one of its top directors as well.

The son of Irish Catholic immigrants he started out working for his father’s St. Louise real estate film. But the Siren Call of the theatre was irresistible and he began barnstorming with Shakespearean stock companies, gradually working his way up to top outfits like the Frohman and Shubert outfits. His one Broadway show was a 1906 production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. 

In 1909, on a lark he have the then-still-quite-new movie business a try, starring opposite Florence Lawrence in The Awakening of Bess at IMP Studios. She was to be his leading lady for two years, at which point he starred in numerous films opposite Mary Pickford. He starred in scores of movies in these early days, when most films were about ten minutes long. A well remembered early picture is his 1913 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

He began writing films in 1911 and directing in 1911. In 1913, he directed and starred in a feature length Ivanhoe. The following year, he made Shadows, in which he played ten characters. In 1921, he stopped acting in order to concentrate on directing. Films of this period include Kissed (1922), Marie Prevosts’s one of first starring pictures; The Gaiety Girl (1924), Raffles (1925), and probably his best known film nowadays, William S. Hart’s last picture Tumbleweeds (1925). Baggot’s last film as director was Romance of a Rogue (1928).

Unfortunately just as the industry was transitioning into talkies, Baggott had developed a bad reputation in the business due to his drinking. At this stage, he was hired neither as a star nor as a director, and was simply a bit player, often only an extra. He continued to work until the end of his life, and in some classic films, but normally as an uncredited walk-on. (Look for him, for example, alongside W.C. Fields in Mississippi, since this is Fields Fest! Fields always had a soft spot for forgotten old stage veterans.)

To learn more about early film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Hall of Hams #108: Alice Brady

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of actress Alice Brady (Mary Rose Brady, 1892-1939). She was the daughter of actor/ producer/ boxing promoter William A. Brady; his position as both a Broadway and movie producer made it possible for Brady to become successful on both stage and screen as a teenager. On Broadway she appeared in numerous Gilbert and Sullivan operettas between 1911 and 1915, and played Meg in a 1912 production of Little Women, among other shows. She appeared in scores of silent films between 1915 and 1923, then quit film to concentrate on the theatre.

It was after starring as Lavinia in the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931-32) that she decided to return to the screen, and today we know her best from her films of the 1930s, including such classics as The Gay Divorcee (1934); Gold Diggers of 1935; Go West, Young Man (1936); My Man Godfrey (1936), In Old Chicago (1937), Zenobia (1939), and Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Because she often played silly middle aged women, she seemed older than she was even if she didn’t look it. She was only 47, when cancer took her prematurely in 1939.

Hall of Hams #107: Edward Van Sloan

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of useful character actor Edward Van Sloan (1882-1964).

If only he’d been born a few hours earlier! He’d fit so neatly into all our October Halloween-Month horror movie blogging. And yet…Halloween is actually All Hallows Eve…and today All Hallows Day...and so we make room for one more spirit.

Van Sloan was of Dutch American stock and came from Minnesota. He trouped in the theatre for years before landing the part that would seal his fate and make him forever associated with the Universal stock company: he was cast as vampire hunter Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in the 1927 Broadway production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi were the only members of the stage production to be cast in the 1931 film version. In the early days, it was almost as if Universal didn’t dare make a horror movie without Van Sloan or a Van Sloan-esque character. In Frankenstein (1931) he played Victor Frankenstein’s mentor Dr. Waldman. In The Mummy (1932) he is Dr. Muller. He returns as Van Helsing in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). And he plays the Spy Chief in the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps (1939). Other relevant films included Murder on the Campus (1933), The Infernal Machine (1933), The Black Room (1935), A Shot in the Dark (1935), and The Last Days of Pompeii (1935).

Van Sloan has credits through 1950, although in later years he is playing mostly bit parts, mostly uncredited. This is interesting to me, for Universal’s horror division got a new shot in the arm with 1941’s The Wolf Man , giving older franchises like The Mummy new life. But Van Sloan was not part of this resurgence. Perhaps his very old school staginess was considered too artificial for these later movies. But nowadays that is just what we love about his performances!

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