The romantic musical comedy King Kelly of the U.S.A. (Monogram, 1934) was the only feature film for its top-billed player, stage baritone Guy Robertson, who prominently starred before the footlights from the late 1920s through the early ’40s but is pretty much forgotten now. His cinematic opportunities may have been limited by his strong facial resemblance to James Cagney, and there was no one quite like Cagney – even in a musical comedy. Robertson has also become a lost player of sorts, with only sketchy information about his probable whereabouts, but we think we know some of what happened to him.
A New York City native born in October 1898 and reared in Denver, Robertson was the son of stage actors: His mother, Maude, performed under the name Dollie Davis, and his stepfather, William N. Webb (aka William Webb Robertson), was a notable enough actor and director to merit his own New York Times obituary upon his death in 1934. Robertson was packed off to prep school – where, he would recall later, his roommates were Vincent Youmans and Norman Rockwell – and was educated as an engineer at Lehigh University. The tie to Youmans, the future composer and producer, didn’t hurt once the footlights won out.
With a Broadway musical career going back to 1919, Robertson became a matinee idol through prominence in such shows as The Circus Princess, White Lilacs, The Perfect Fool, and The Street Singer. He co-starred in Nina Rosa (the Sigmund Romberg show to which stage actress Ethelind Terry escaped after co-starring in the 1930 MGM flop Lord Byron of Broadway) and hosted the Broadway Varieties radio show. Robertson missed out on an even bigger success: He was initially announced as male lead Gaylord Ravenal in the original 1927 Ziegfeld production of Show Boat but was replaced, although he finally got to play the role in a 1930 St. Louis production (with W.C. Fields as Captain Andy).
Robertson’s film experience was scant, however. A trade publication report in late 1928 indicated that he was reprising his stage role in an independently produced all-talking screen version of the operetta White Lilacs, but the movie seems to have not been released. He was seen, however, in a 1929 Vitaphone short, High Waters, in which his singing accompanied stock footage of the Mississippi River, and in a 1933 Warner Bros. one-reeler, How to Break 90 #5: Impact, in which he was identified only by his first name and did little more than fill out a foursome to play with the famed golfer Bobby Jones. Another false start in the flickers occurred in 1933 when Robertson was signed by producer B.P. Schulberg, the former Paramount production head now releasing independently through that studio. Schulberg told the trades that Robertson to “become more popular in pictures than he was on the stage.” But it didn’t happen. At one point, Robertson was set to participate with Edmund Lowe and Wynne Gibson in Schulberg’s production Her Bodyguard, but he did not appear in the finished film.
Trem Carr, production chief of Monogram Pictures, pacted Robertson in the spring of 1934 with the intent of repeating the recent success of young leading man Ray Walker, who had starred in five films for the company. Robertson filmed King Kelly of the U.S.A. in June and July, just after a live stint – playing a movie star, of all things – in the musical comedy All the King’s Horses in New York. All the while, Robertson had to endure descriptions of him as a prettier version of Cagney. Judging by a 1936 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he was good-natured about it: “Oh, oh. That chap is the bane of my existence. But I guess if I have to be like somebody, I’d rather it be Jimmy than anyone else.”
For director/co-screenwriter Leonard Fields in King Kelly of the U.S.A., Robertson sings three unmemorable songs (“Believe Me,” “Right Next Door to Love,” and “There’s a Love Song in the Air”), all written by Bernie Grossman and Joe Sanders (the former leader of the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks jazz orchestra) in an old-school romantic style that was becoming passé by 1934. In the scenario, American stage producer James W. “King” Kelly (played by Robertson) takes his new show, Kelly’s Affairs of 1934, on an ocean liner to an engagement in Paris. He falls for a passenger, Catherine (Irene Ware), secretly a princess from the small kingdom of Belgardia. T. Ashmore Brockton (Franklin Pangborn), an efficiency engineer en route to a job in Belgardia, tries to buy the contract of Kelly’s featured dancer, Maxine, so he can romance her.
Kelly receives word that his show’s work permit has been canceled. Brockton buys Kelly’s show for $1,000 – and his contract with Belgardia. In Belgardia, Kelly and aide “Happy” Moran (Edgar Kennedy) meet the eccentric king (Ferdinand Gottschalk), who wants the kingdom’s financial troubles cleared up, although Belgardia’s only asset is a surplus of unsold mops. Kelly proposes that Belgardia pay its debt to neighboring Moronia by marrying off Princess Tania to Prince Alexis of Moronia (William Orlamond), but he doesn’t know Catherine is Tania. Kelly must figure out how to save the kingdom from bankruptcy while keeping Tania for himself; his solution is to sell the mops on a “Voice of Romance” radio show sponsored by “Personality Mops.” With help from the grateful housewives of Belgardia, Kelly and Tania are united.
The story is mainly derivative but with an odd mix of Ruritanian-type operetta and Depression-era consumerism, with a short, primitive animated sequence thrown in. The script favors Edgar Kennedy, cast as right-hand man to Robertson’s girlie-show impresario whose good-old American ingenuity saves a European kingdom. Moreover, however competent his performance, Robertson’s screen time with female lead Ware (1910-1993) isn’t enough to generate fireworks. This wasn’t much of a booster to Ware’s career, which was stalling after an early impact in Fox’s Chandu the Magician (1932). (As in Chandu, she would be menaced by Bela Lugosi, this time with Boris Karloff, in Universal’s The Raven in 1935.)
The Film Daily praised King Kelly of the U.S.A. as “an amusing burlesque [that] … develops a considerable number of laughs,” and Motion Picture Herald predicted that Robertson “should be found appealing, especially to the feminine portion of the patronage.” But those were opinions of the showmen’s media; patrons came away with a different view. A theater manager from Florida reported to Motion Picture Herald that he was impressed with “a pleasing musical that Monogram should be proud of” after watching a screening, but he said that he would report again after his patrons responded. A few weeks later came his follow-up: “The paying customers don’t agree with me. They didn’t like it and said so.”
An exhibitor from Oregon was even more direct in his submission to MPH: “The exchange told me this was a good comedy. My customers told me it was not. I am inclined to believe them, for they were sincere enough to get up and walk out in the middle of it. I didn’t see the picture, because after getting the comments on the first show, I hid in the office for the remainder of the run and trembled every time someone knocked on my office door.”
Most of the humor in King Kelly is provided by Kennedy, dumb blonde Joyce Compton, fussy Pangborn, and eccentric Gottschalk – an amusing enough lineup, you’d think – and Robertson was deemed worthy enough by Monogram to be announced for two more films, the first to be titled Smiling Irish Eyes. However, Robertson’s career went in another direction, back to the stage, with what would become his greatest triumph, as Johann Strauss II in the operetta The Great Waltz. Robertson originated the role in New York in September 1934 with such acclaim that Monogram used it in its trade ads: “Monogram presents a great box office star in his film debut … Guy Robertson, hit of New York’s $44,000-a-week stage smash is now starring for you … sign him up by booking King Kelly of the U.S.A.”
Robertson played well over 1,000 performances of The Great Waltz. When he brought the production to Los Angeles in 1936, Robertson was asked by that city’s Times in an interview if he would like to play the Strauss role in the movies. “Of course, I would. Don’t be silly,” he replied. “But I’ll wager if any studio has a Strauss picture in mind, it’ll pick Ted Healy for my role while I, Johann Strauss, gnash my teeth.” What actually happened was that MGM made a Strauss musical called The Great Waltz in 1938, without Robertson – and, thankfully, sans Healy. Robertson consoled himself in expanding his repertoire by playing George, seriously and with no music, in Of Mice and Men on tour.
Robertson’s career decline began in the early 1940s, although he found temporary bliss after marrying stage actress Audrey Christie in 1938. By 1942, while touring with his wife in the comedy My Sister Eileen, Christie was granted a divorce on grounds, according to a wire service report, “that Robertson twice struck her in a quarrel over his gambling.” A month later, at age 44, Robertson enlisted in the U.S. Navy, for which he divided his time between doing service radio shows in Chicago and serving on a destroyer as a chief petty officer in the South Pacific. After the war, he worked as a production director for the Mutual Broadcasting Company and returned to the stage as an actor and also as a singer/emcee in a touring show called The Copacabana Follies.
And then … Robertson’s name disappeared from public view – at least until King Kelly of the U.S.A. transitioned to TV and, later, home video. Why did his career fade? Perhaps an answer is hinted at in one of the last recorded notices of Robertson as a performer, this one for a 1946 stop of Copacabana Follies in Indianapolis, where a writer opined that Robertson’s voice was “a little rusty” and “shaky.” Robertson’s ultimate fate was not documented, and the birth-death information for him on the Internet Movie Database at this writing is almost certainly incorrect. (The IMDB info seems to match that of a Missouri-born former government official in California who died in an auto accident in Sacramento in March 1960.)
However, recent research indicates that the singing actor moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s, worked there as a hotel and club singer, and died in a veterans’ hospital in Erie on February 1, 1974, at age 75. Information on the Guy R. Robertson who died in Erie in ’74 jibes with many of the vital statistics (date and location of birth, family members’ names, military record in both world wars) known about the actor.
Oddly, though, the local newspaper obituary for the Guy from Erie doesn’t mention his fame on the stage … which opens up another mystery even as one seems to have been solved. If anyone has more information on the actor-singer Guy Robertson, please let me know.
“William N. Webb Dies; Actor and Director,” The New York Times, November 1, 1934.
“His Parents Decided to Keep Him Off the Stage,” Wilmington (North Carolina) Sunday Morning Star, November 26, 1939.
“Powers Cinephone Is Now Making White Lilacs,” Motion Picture News, December 8, 1928.
“Schulberg Signs Robertson,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 10, 1933.
“Schulberg Starting Bodyguard Monday,” The Hollywood Reporter, May 3, 1933.
“Guy Robertson Telephones Reactions to Spectacle,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1936.
“Reviews of the New Features: King Kelly of the U.S.A.,” The Film Daily, September 11, 1934.
“Showmen’s Reviews: King Kelly of the U.S.A.,” Motion Picture Herald, September 15, 1934.
“What the Picture Did for Me,” Motion Picture Herald, October 27, 1934; November 3, 1934; and December 29, 1934.
“Divorce Given Famed Actress,” International News Service report, quoted from The Daily Times (New Philadelphia, Ohio), September 10, 1942. (Wire-service accounts of Robertson’s enlistment in the Navy appeared in many newspapers in late October.)
“Varied Acts in Keith’s Copacabana Follies,” Indianapolis Star, March 9, 1946.
“Guy Robertson” (obituary), Erie (Pennsylvania) Daily Times, February 4, 1974.