Archive for the The Hall of Hams Category

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


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


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). 


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 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.


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.


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. 



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




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


Florence Lawrence (Florence Annie Bridgwood, 1890-1938) was born on this day. 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.


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.


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 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. 

Norman Lloyd: A Century of Excellence

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


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).


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).


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!

King Baggot: One of Filmdom’s First Stars

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


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 companies. 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 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.

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