W.C. Fields and She: Remembering Susan Miller

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Susan Miller (1920-2018) was an actress and singer best known for her appearance in the W.C. Fields classic “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”

Susan Miller … who knew?

Miller died this week in Phoenix at age 98 (wow!). She was an actress who appeared in one of my favorite scenes with one of my favorite actors in one of my favorite movies. The actor was W.C. Fields, and the movie was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

And here is the scene (actually, it starts about a minute into this) …

The ultra-innocent blonde whom the old reprobate (Fields) attempts to engage in a fictional “parlor” game on a remote mountain homestead is Miller. Her insanely protective mother is played by Margaret Dumont, the frequent Marx Brothers collaborator who was now opposite one of the greatest of solo comedians.

A Universal release, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was Fields’ last great movie — and perhaps the craziest of all. Its flights into surrealism and interweaving plot lines keep it lively. The flimsy central premise (scripted by the star) has Fields — playing himself, sort of — caring for his young niece while trying to pitch a movie script to exasperated mogul Franklin Pangborn. A climatic extended chase scene fits right in.

As for Miller, she acted and sang in a couple of handfuls of movies during the 1940s. Sucker was by far the most notable, and she also got to sing a song in that one: “Comin’ Thru the Rye,” which we hear later on after her byplay, as a character named “Ouilotta Hemogloben,” with W.C. (Fields liked colorful names like that, and it’s said he used to scour the phone book to find them.)

According to an Internet Movie Database contributor, Miller spent 60 years or so performing in supper clubs and live theater after her picture career ended in 1948. She was described by her neighbors at a Phoenix retirement complex as being “bright and bubbly” as she neared the century mark.

Miller is not the last surviving cast member of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. The niece (seen at the start of the above YouTube clip) is played by Gloria Jean, the then-popular soprano who is still with us at age 92.

Alice White: A flapper’s life

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Alice White was a Jazz Age movie charmer whose relatively short starring career was followed by many tumultuous years.

Here’s a happy 114th birthday to that blonde jazz baby Alice White, whose spunk and cuteness made her a popular star of light comedy and musical films of the late-silent/early sound era.

The title of a 1929 fan-magazine story praised Alice as “The Girl Who Licked Hollywood” – meaning that this 5-foot, 98-pound spitfire had shot to the top of her profession quickly, and through the force of her vivacious, no-nonsense personality. That personality wasn’t always an asset, however.

New Jersey-born and Hollywood-bred, White was a script girl for Charlie Chaplin and a secretary for a spell. But the camera liked her better in front of it.

“I was so stubby and fat and pink-looking that everybody there called me ‘Peter Rabbit.’ I had no thought of becoming a movie actress,” White recalled in 1958. “One day, the still cameraman had a new lens he wanted to test, and he said, ‘Peter Rabbit, how about posing for me?’

“So I put on an act with gestures … [and] the pictures turned out fine. When Mr. Chaplin saw them, he said, ‘Peter Rabbit, you ought to go into the movies.'”

Upon losing nearly 40 pounds, White moved up fast. She cagily signed a studio contract that demanded no worse than second leads. White’s first big hit was in a synchronized silent, First National’s Show Girl (1928), in which she portrayed Dixie Dugan, the wisecracking Broadway chorister made famous in J.P. McAvoy’s popular novels and comic strip.

She couldn’t play Dixie, at least not by that name, in every picture, but similar roles at FN and Warner Bros. kept on coming – in films with self-descriptive titles such as Naughty Baby (1928), Hot Stuff (1929), Broadway Babies (a 1929 musical/crime drama opposite frequent co-star Charles Delaney), The Girl From Woolworth’s (1929), Playing Around (1930), Show Girl in Hollywood (a delightful 1930 musical Dixie Dugan sequel), The Naughty Flirt (1930) and Sweet Mama (1930). When called upon to sing and dance, White could do so adequately but no better than that, and although she did take on a few serious roles, her lack of range or growth as an actress caught up to her.

Some of White’s talkies are occasionally shown on TCM and are available on DVD for modern appraisal, but while she lived, White’s onscreen achievements were overshadowed by personal setbacks, both self-inflicted and by chance.

In 1931, after an argument with a studio executive over money, she was bumped down to a Poverty Row chiller, Tiffany’s Murder at Midnight (which you can watch here). She spent most of ’31 and ‘32 refocusing her career with a vaudeville tour.

White returned to the movies in 1933 and even landed some parts back at the majors, opposite Joe E. Brown, for example, in Warners’ A Very Honorable Guy (1934). But a headline-grabbing scandal emerged. In the fall of 1933, two men were indicted in Los Angeles for the robbery and attempted disfigurement of an English actor, John Warburton. It was alleged the defendants were acting at the behest of White and her longtime boyfriend, banker-turned-actor-turned-agent-turned-screenwriter Sy Bartlett, in retaliation for a vicious beating of White by Warburton during a party in Beverly Hills.

“He beat me up all over the street and grabbed me by my hair,” White said in newspaper accounts of her testimony to a grand jury about Warburton’s alleged attack. “It’s a wonder I didn’t die.”

White and Bartlett were exonerated in the affair. They soon married but were separated within a year and a half. By 1937, their union was kaput, and White – in search of what turned out to be a temporary $65-per-week alimony award — told a judge that she had $100 left in the bank and was living with a friend because she couldn’t afford to pay rent.

White’s final film appearance saw her on screen with another ‘20s jazz baby, Joan Crawford, in Warners’ Flamingo Road (1949). By this time, Crawford was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and White’s ninth-billed “comeback” role as a roadhouse hostess was little more than a novelty.

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By the time Alice White (left) made “Flamingo Road” (1949), she was firmly in support of Joan Crawford, her jazz-baby contemporary of the ’20s.

Another wild marriage to a screenwriter, one Jack Roberts of Columbia Pictures, fizzled in divorce in 1949 after eight years. According to the Los Angeles Times, White told a divorce court that Roberts “called her vile names, threw things around and was carrying on with other women.” White and Roberts accused each other of spouse-swapping allegations involving a studio musician, William Hinshaw, and his wife, actress Barbara Brown.

White found new work in her old occupation as a secretary. In 1957, she fell off a ladder while trimming her garden, landed on a pair of scissors, and was temporarily blinded for several months as a result.

“My life isn’t so frantic anymore,” she said in a 1958 wire-service interview when asked if she missed her acting career. “I never look back. What’s past is past. I never saved a clipping when I was a star.”

Childless and now a redhead, Alice White died in 1983 after suffering a stroke in her Hollywood Hills home. Her death made headlines nationwide, so at least she had not been forgotten.

The moral of our story: Even if you think you have the movie biz licked, the Hollywood fates can lick right back.

 

SOURCES

“The Girl Who Licked Hollywood,” The New Movie Magazine, December 1929.

“Alice White Charges Actor ‘Beat Me All Over Street,’” Associated Press report in Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 1933.

“Slugging of Ex-Sweetie Reveals Alice White’s True Love – Or Does It?” New York Daily News, October 15, 1933.

“Alice White’s Husband Forced to Pay Alimony,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1937.

“Alice White Making a Comeback,” Associated Press report in Newport (R.I.) Daily News, May 23, 1958.

“Actress Alice White Dead at 76 [sic],” United Press International report, February 25, 1983.

“Former Actress Alice White Dies,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1983.

“Alice White, 76 [sic], Flapper Movie Star in ’30s,” Associated Press report in Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1983.

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Alice in her heyday, as we’d like to remember her.

This pre-Code thriller was inspired by a very un-Trump-like New York landlord family

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In her only movie, Mary Morris (left) gives Evelyn Venable fake pearls in the suspense thriller “Double Door.”

“The play that made Broadway Gasp” is how Paramount explained Double Door in the opening title of its new film of 1934. The screen version of the popular stage melodrama premiered on May 4 – less than two months before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code cracked down on censorship and took the edge off mainstream Hollywood product.

But this Old Dark House thriller was no reveler in modernistic sex and violence – it enticed with a ruthlessly old-fashioned quality that made us shudder. And many folks who watched Double Door on screen in 1934, or had viewed it live, knew of its odd back story – one said to be inspired by members of a lost-in-the-past New York City landlord clan known as “The Wild Wendels.” Their distaste for the attention of publicity and the accoutrements of affluence would have made them the anti-Trumps of today.

A must-watch for fans of Golden Age horror (or, in this case, semi-horror), Double Door was foremost a triumph for its star, Mary Morris, a longtime Broadway actress whose only movie this was. Too bad, but Morris packs a lot of punch into her 75-minute screen career in the role she originated on Broadway in the fall of 1933.

Morris plays a cold-blooded spinster named Victoria Van Brett, who in 1910 has holed up in her decaying Fifth Avenue brownstone with her meek, pliable sister, Caroline (Anne Revere), as Manhattan, and the rest of the world, changes around them. “I’d live in a tomb if I had all the millions they have!” comments one of their lower-class neighbors, who envy and pity the sisters in their “old museum” of a home, where the urns containing the ashes of their long-dead parents are displayed in plain sight.

The imperious Victoria has no plans to alter this arrangement, even with the marriage of her lively, much-younger half-brother, Rip (Kent Taylor). Victoria orders her attorney (Sir Guy Standing) to cut Rip out of her will upon his union with Anne (Evelyn Venable), a kindly nurse. Reminded that Anne is to inherit the valuable family pearls, Vicki claims them for her own as the start of a crusade to ruin the life of her new sister-in-law, whom she derides as an “empty-headed upper servant.”

The title refers to the entrance to a mysterious “sleeping room” deep inside the mansion that is known only to Victoria, and you can be sure that it will fit into this piece of American Gothic at an appropriate time.

Morris (1895-1970) was only 38 when she played the film role for director Charles Vidor, yet she is entirely convincing as an oldster. Even a series of extreme closeups of Victoria’s baleful face in the opening fail to reveal her youth (and amount of makeup).

“Remember her name … you’ll never forget her face!” studio ads boasted to build the fear factor, and critics responded in kind: “Hers is a piercing, brilliant characterization – beautiful in its austere cruelty and fascinating in its complete domination over you,” said a scribe who had seen Morris on stage as well. On the West Coast, a Hollywood Reporter review praised Double Door as “superbly directed, stunningly photographed and more than competently acted.”

Revere, who, like Morris, was repeating her Broadway role (and whose first movie this was), is also highly effective as one of the two women dominated by this dominator. Revere (1903-1990) returned to pictures after a few years to build a career highlighted by a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for National Velvet (1944).

The source work was written by Elizabeth A. McFadden, a librarian from Cincinnati who had been writing plays in New York since the Armistice. She shared (although not so in degree) Victoria’s aversion to personal attention. In 1933, just as Double Door was premiering on Broadway, she left it to her producer to issue a statement in which she responded to the print rumors about the connection of the Wendel family to her work.

“Several of the papers have recently said that ‘it is reported that … Double Door is based on the story of the Wendell [sic] family. … I wish to deny categorically and as emphatically as possible that my play has the slightest resemblance to the history of the … family,” the statement read. “… Double Door is the story of two middle-aged rich women living on Fifth Avenue. There, any possible resemblance to the Wendells [sic] ceases.”

Rightly or wrongly, this was great publicity for Double Door, the rights for which were bought for a hefty $55,000 by Paramount even before 1933 was out. This was one of the biggest Broadway-to-Hollywood acquisitions for the 1933-34 season.

We can compare the play and movie with the real-life story of the Wendel family, which was the subject of a lengthy New York Times feature story in 2016. There were more than just two spinster sisters in the Wendel clan at the peak of its infamy; there were six, plus a brother, who were all unmarried and living, sans electricity, in a four-story mansion at Fifth Avenue and 39th Street in Manhattan during the early years of the 20th century. Inside, the siblings dressed in long-out-of-date Victorian garb and bathed in zinc tubs. Outside, tour buses pulled up for views of “the House of Mystery.”

“It was very hard to do business with them,” Douglas Durst, a member of a still-powerful New York real estate family that did business with the Wendels, told the Times, “because they didn’t have a telephone.”

But the Wendels did have more than 150 properties in Manhattan, with many falling apart because of the family policy to not waste money on repairs, and to never sell willingly. “Once the Wendels got what they wanted, they never let go until death loosed their fingers,” the New York Daily News declared.

During its 100 years of miserliness, the litigious family was frequently in hot water with New York for its refusal to sell parcels of land deemed important to advance the growing metropolis, and the city often had to turn to resort to legal or legislative means to get its way.

The remaining Wendels began to die off, one of them, according to a contemporary newspaper account, having “spent her last days alone, talking to herself and ‘playing house’ with imaginary companions.” The last of the siblings perished in 1931, prompting a wild scramble for the family fortune.

Many supposed relatives came out of the woodwork, but most of the estate – estimated to be worth as much as $150 million in 1930s dollars — went to charity. This proved that strong-willed landlords could make news long before Donald Trump was a gleam in anyone’s eye.

McFadden died in 1961, having apparently not shed any further light on her inspiration for Double Door. Given all the litigiousness in the Wendel affair, it would not have been in her best interest to admit ties between fiction and fact.

The Double Door film – which was not a box office success, despite the good reviews — is difficult to see these days, although it has been shown in periodic repertory and convention screenings. Even with its outdated air, the play has been revived periodically, and an internet search reveals a staging as recently as 2011. And why not, for has avarice ever gone out of style?

 

SOURCES

“Who Will Get the Wendel Millions?” New York Daily News, August 7, 1932.

“Fame Raps at Cincinnatian’s Door,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 8, 1933.

“Paramount Double Door Fantastic But Thrilling,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 18, 1934.

“The Screen: Double Door,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1934.

“Pix Cautious on Legits,” Variety, October 30, 1934.

“Before the Trumps, There Were the Wendels,” The New York Times, April 8, 2016.

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Mary Morris looked older than age 38 in advertisements for “Double Door,” and she successfully played old in the movie.

A few words about Capitolfest 2018

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The Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y., is the annual home of Capitolfest.

When the audience at Capitolfest applauded at the sight of Eleanor Boardman, I knew I was in the right place.

My son and I had driven from Michigan to attend our first Capitolfest, the annual classic-film extravaganza in Rome, New York, expressly to sit through the 68 minutes of the 1933 science-fiction musical It’s Great to Be Alive. (I am writing about that Fox picture for a book project I am soon to finish.) But we wouldn’t be getting our money’s worth without attending some of last weekend’s other screenings, which brings me to Boardman and the newly restored 1930 adventure Mamba.

For the uninitiated, it’s common to applaud familiar names at insider events such as this, and even if most of the world has forsaken Boardman – a striking blonde whose acting career ended in 1935 – we buffs haven’t forgotten.  She looks great, if not terribly expressive, in Mamba, which is a thing now because, as Hollywood’s all-Technicolor talking drama, it’s back in circulation after being feared lost.

Jean Hersholt delivers a colorful performance as the nominal star of the piece, produced by the third-tier Tiffany studio (which, probably not coincidentally, went bankrupt not long after). In German West Africa not long before the outbreak of World War I, a powerful plantation owner (Hersholt) is called “Mamba” by the locals and hated by both the occupying Germans and British. To curry favor, the planter secures an arranged marriage to the daughter (Boardman) of an Austrian creditor, and when she moves with him to Africa, she becomes mutually attracted to a German military officer (‘30s Poverty Row reliable Ralph Forbes).

Mamba was restored at UCLA from a unique 35 mm nitrate print that was owned by a collector in Australia. (The back story is told in a charming short documentary, The Theatre of Dreams, which preceded the Mamba showing in Rome.) Mamba is not an ideal restoration – the source material was in terrible shape – and I am not one to criticize painstaking efforts to preserve rare cinema. I was disappointed in Mamba as a movie, although given the constraints of the script and the resources of the producing company – even if Tiffany was spending more than its usual – this might have been expected.

Mamba is a not-insignificant piece of history, however, and if this restoration were available to me on DVD or Blu-ray tomorrow, I’d not hesitate to buy it.

A surprise for the positive at Capitolfest was another 1930 talkie: The Storm, an early William Wyler-directed drama from Universal. Some inventive camera work and exciting exterior action scenes give way, over the course of 80 minutes, to a taut, intimate account of a love triangle in a cabin deep in the Canadian wilds. The participants are portrayed by Lupe Velez, William “Stage” Boyd and Paul Cavanaugh, three actors for whom I have no special affection, but who do good work. Velez masks her strong Mexican accent by adapting it to French-Canadian, and Cavanaugh proves he had more to him than the debonair clubman roles to which he would become typecast.

Wyler wrote in his autobiography that he considered The Storm to be his worst film. Maybe his memory was faulty.

Ronald Colman was the designated star of Capitolfest 16, and this event showed one of my Colman favorites, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), a lively mystery drama that also sends up the private-eye genre. I had not seen The Night of Love (1927), a Colman teaming with frequent co-star Vilma Banky, but this story of Gypsy revenge in medieval Spain is first-rate, especially when Colman and heavy Montagu Love play mind games with each other in the first half hour, with innocent maidens as the victims.

I will have much more to say about It’s Great to Be Alive at a date TBA, but I certainly did not regret the effort taken to view the print restored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brazilian tenor Raul Roulien, a Maurice Chevalier type without the charisma, is top-billed as a playboy who ends up being the last man alive on Earth (no kidding!), but Edna May Oliver steals the futuristic show. The songs are unmemorable, but the offbeat humor is highly enjoyable. And in what other picture can you hear Edward Van Sloan call Emma Dunn “Sugar”?

Next year’s Capitolfest stars are to be Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, so expect plenty of early RKOs and Paramounts. The Capitol Theatre looks great, and once the marquee is restored to its original 1928 state (as, we were told, is planned), it will look even better. I eagerly await a Roman return.

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William Wyler didn’t like “The Storm,” but we did.

George Houston: Old before his time

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George Houston was a baritone cowboy star for a while in the early 1940s, but he came to the movies as an opera singer in the 1930s.

Like so many others – Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Judy Garland, to name three — George Houston received his film baptism in a Vitaphone short subject. Unlike those more-fabled names, Houston used his commanding operatic baritone to become a small-part player in big pictures, endured a stint as the lead of Poverty Row sea adventures, and capped his picture career as a cowboy star. But like so many in Hollywood, he died way too young.

The end came for Houston (1896-1944) due to a heart attack suffered after he collapsed while walking along a Hollywood street. He was only 48, so if we must imagine an older Houston, we will have to rely on his heavy-makeup look as an octogenarian in the Vitaphone musical comedy Masks and Memories (1934). Besides being Houston’s debut picture, this “Broadway Brevity” was a rarity among Vitas for its three-reel (32-minute) length, the more to fit in some elaborate dance numbers set at a Mardi Gras ball in New Orleans.

I reference George Houston and Masks and Memories now because one of its infrequent showings is scheduled for 5:55 p.m. EDT Tuesday, August 14 on Turner Classic Movies. The star of the mini-musical is singer Lillian Roth, who, in present-day scenes and long-ago flashbacks, plays the object of the affections of both Houston and Clark Gable-lookalike Weldon Heyburn. Houston plays Heyburn’s aged Uncle Andy, who we see as a bitter, reclusive old man in 1934 and, to show us how he got that way, as a loving but stubborn steamboat captain of 1874.

The tale sounds melancholy, but it’s actually not, thanks mainly to the revue numbers and some comedy from secondary couple Queenie Smith and Jack Good. Houston is completely serious as he sings “The Rhythm of the Paddle Wheel,” written for the piece by Warner Bros. house composer Cliff Hess. (Hess was, in his own youth, a pianist on one of those Mississippi River boats so loved by Andy.)

The son of a blind New Jersey clergyman, Houston was trained in New York as what we now call the Julliard School and came to pictures from the realm of grand opera and operettas. He appeared initially with the Rochester (New York) American Opera Company and was praised by The New York Times, upon his troupe’s 1927 performance of Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio as “the leading member of the cast in … artistic achievement … [with a] bass-baritone of sonorous, manly quality.”

Six-foot-2 and well built, Houston spent a few years in the employ of theatrical impresario Earl Carroll and amassed stage credits that included “Chee-Chee” (his Broadway debut), “Fioretta” and “The New Moon” (in which he no doubt sang “Stout Hearted Men”). He also spent a full year (probably in the early 1930s) under MGM contract but was never used.

But it was only a matter of time for Hollywood to take note, and Houston became part of the mid-1930s trend toward recruiting operatic performers for the movies. His feature debut was in Columbia’s 1935 drama-with-songs The Melody Lingers On, in which he sang a selection from Carmen before his character was killed off halfway through.

Movie’s minor leagues beckoned, as Houston was cast as “Cap’n” Bill Jones, a bare-chested, tattooed tough guy who battles South Seas treasure hunters in Grand National’s Captain Calamity (1936). The studio touted Houston’s character as a “fighting skipper who revels in the crunch of knuckles against jaw bones.”

As if not to let Houston’s voice talent go to waste, he takes time out from all that battling to sing a pair of songs to female lead Marian Nixon – and in color, to boot. Grand National thought enough of the result to put Houston in a similar singing he-man role in Wallaby Jim of the Islands (1937), now in black-and-white. A Wallaby Jim series was promised by GN, but the studio went under.

Meanwhile, Houston was being seen in briefer roles in major-studio fare. In MGM’s Greta Garbo starrer Conquest (1937), he was billed 12th as a grand marshal. In the musical Let’s Sing Again (RKO, 1936), he was billed third as the father of its star, Bobby Breen.

In the most prestigious film among his credits, Houston sang with Oscar-nominated soprano Miliza Korjus in The Great Waltz (MGM, 1938), in which he makes the most of his limited screen time. And when someone was needed to play George Washington in the historical drama The Howards of Virginia, Houston was the man in the RKO Cary Grant release of 1940.

In late 1940, the new indie company Producers Releasing Corporation signed Houston for a series of B-Westerns as “The Lone Rider.” Houston amassed a lot of screen minutes, if not large financial compensations, in 11 quickie features, all with Al “Fuzzy” St. John as comic sidekick.

But Houston and Westerns weren’t a great fit: Oater fans liked their singing heroes with less operatic tones and more informality (hence, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers over the likes of, say, Houston or Fred Scott or Dick Foran). In 1942, Houston was replaced as PRC “Lone Rider” by Bob Livingston, a more-seasoned sage-brusher.

Houston’s Poverty Row Westerns, now in the public domain, are easily accessible. Examples include Frontier Scout (Grand National, 1938); The Lone Rider in Frontier Fury (PRC, 1941); and Houston’s final film, Outlaws of Boulder Pass (PRC, 1942).

Houston was by now married to another opera singer, Virginia Card, and was busy as founder and stage director of the American Music Theatre of Pasadena, California, a group presenting opera in English. He mentored Howard Keel and John Raitt, among many aspiring song stars.

Houston seemed to have new career momentum. According to print obituaries, he was preparing to take his company on a national tour sponsored by the Theater Guild of New York when his heart gave out on November 12, 1944.

 

SOURCES

“Guntoting, Gallant, Scrapping Skipper,” The Courier (Waterloo, Iowa), March 3, 1937.

“First Wallaby Jim at Brooklyn Strand,” New York Daily News, March 1, 1938.

“George F. Houston, Opera Singer, 47” (obituary), United Press report, The New York Times, November 13, 1944.

“George Houston, Singer, Expires During Stroll,” Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1944.

“U.R. Graduate May Be Starred in Own Show,” San Bernardino (California) Sun, April 4, 1944.

http://www.b-westerns.com

Charles Delaney: A smiling, flying Irishman

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Charles Delaney gets to know Alice White a little better in First National’s 1929 comedy with music “The Girl From Woolworth’s.”

Let’s wish a hearty 126th birthday today to Charles Delaney, a jaunty, handsome fellow from the East who topped out in leading-man roles as sound was taking hold in Hollywood.

Delaney’s career mirrored that of a better-known, East Coast-bred Charles – Charles Farrell — in that they were both late bloomers to top parts and well-known for being paired with cute-as-a-button female stars.

Farrell (who would have turned 118 today, by the way) was, of course, the longtime screen partner of Janet Gaynor. In Delaney’s case, however, he was widely associated with two ladies: Sally O’Neil and Alice White.

Delaney got his big break in films opposite O’Neil in Frisco Sally Levy (1927), was reteamed by MGM with her in The Lovelorn (1927) and was heard as well as seen with Sally in the Tiffany musical romance Kathleen Mavourneen (1930). At First National, he played White’s sweetie thrice — in the synchronized silent Show Girl (1928) and two 1929 talkies, Broadway Babies and The Girl From Woolworth’s.

Delaney served his female contemporaries well, as his open-faced, distinctly Irish look and energy appealed to viewers without being a distraction. In a 1928 review of Universal’s Home, James, in which Delaney appeared with Laura La Plante, New York Daily News critic Irene Thirer praised him as “our idea of a leading man, who is just handsome enough and yet not too handsome. His pleasing appearance and flashing smile ought to net him more good roles.”

They did, although Delaney’s work at the peak of his career isn’t that easy to find. In Broadway Babies, Delaney plays a brash stage manager whose romance with singer-dancer White is imperiled by the presence of Fred Kohler’s “importer” from Detroit. Delaney spends much time stewing, but Alice comes around. There are three songs in this musical comedy, but Charlie sings none.

In Kathleen Mavourneen, a contemporary story inspired by the long-running play by Irish writer Dion Boucicault, Delaney is a singing plumber named Terry. He is in love with O’Neil’s Kathleen, who is just off the boat and living in an Irish neighborhood of NYC. The local ward boss (Robert Elliott) is the younger man’s competition for the heroine’s hand, but the plumber wins out over the pol. The two leads perform a pair of James Brockman compositions, “Kathleen” and “Mother My Own”; she may or may not be dubbed, but his voice sounds as if it was.

Kathleen Mavourneen was no help to Delaney’s career, or anyone else’s. Filmed in the summer of 1929, it sat on the shelf until the middle of 1930, possibly because of instability in the management of the Tiffany studio. Thus considered creaky by the time it could be seen, the picture was dismissed by The Film Daily as “a week number plugging the Irish angle,” while Photoplay readers were advised to “save your money.”

(For the curious, Broadway Babies occasionally airs on TCM and is on a Warner Archive DVD, and Kathleen Mavourneen is in the public domain and is easy to access.)

Charles Edward Delaney was born on August 9, 1892 to a large New York City clan; his coachman father and housekeeper mother, both born in Ireland, produced six children on U.S. soil. According to accounts of Delaney’s life written when he was a film actor, he left his native country during World War I to serve in the Canadian flying corps. While the claim of Canadian duty might be legitimate, we also know that a Charles Edward Delaney was posted at the Bay Shore U.S. Naval Air Station on Long Island in 1917.

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A young Charles Delaney.

In any case, Delaney became known as a stunt flier after the war, and that skill is what brought him to Hollywood. He was credited for flying stunts in as many as 200 movies (a likely exaggeration). He also was said to have performed in vaudeville in a mind-reading act but that his stage career ended when he was injured in an airborne publicity stunt. His acting credits date from 1922.

If there was any doubt over Delaney’s two-fisted nature, it would have been countered by a tussle with Jack Kearns, the former manager of champion boxer Jack Dempsey, after a golf outing at the El Rancho Country Club in July 1929. Kearns emerged with two black eyes and Delaney sustained a broken nose following a disagreement with Delaney over their scores. “We made up and will be good friends again, but I don’t think we’ll play golf together,” Delaney wisely told a Los Angeles Times scribe.

Delaney’s reputation as an action man widened the scope of his parts even as the prestige of his projects began to decline. In 1931, Delaney – now pushing 40 — was cast in two “Thrill-O-Dramas” for the small-time Sono Art-World Wide Company. In Air Police, he was a federal law enforcement pilot battling illegal-immigrant smuggling with Kenneth Harlan, and Hell-Bent for Frisco (now lost) saw him playing a prizefighter.

With the majors, Delaney had played opposite canines as well as humans – with Bonaparte “The New Dog Star” in MGM’s The Thirteenth Hour (a 1927 Old Dark House thriller with Lionel Barrymore) and the great Rin-Tin-Tin in The Man Hunter (Warner Bros., 1930). Now, on the way down, he was a crusading journalist who was Captured in Chinatown (1936), a Consolidated Pictures Corporation production with “Tarzan the Police Dog” and the much prettier Marion Shilling.

Delaney married circa 1920 and stayed such, living childless in Los Angeles. (There was a curious 1926 newspaper report about his saving his wife in a suicide attempt when he discovered the gas from his stove being turned on.) Until his death on August 31, 1959, he continued to play small roles, credited and not, in films and television, with many Westerns included.

When he left us, his final role — billed seventh in the teen exploitation drama The Beatniks (1959) — was new on display in theaters. With direction, script and songs by legendary voice actor Paul Frees, that undistinguished film gives Delaney quite a bit to do as a fatherly talent agent who (despite the bad influence of gang punk Peter Breck) tries to turn “singing sensation” Tony Travis into a star.

There are worse ways for an actor to go out.

Charles-Delaney-and-Peter-Breck
In his film finale, “The Beatniks,” Charles Delaney stares down gang creep Peter Breck.

SOURCES

Home James, Comedy at Hip, Has Laura La Plante as Star,” New York Daily News, September 11, 1928.

“Charles Delaney Affords Story for Movie Thriller,” Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1927.

Kathleen Mavourneen,” The Film Daily, July 20, 1930.

“Brief Reviews of Current Pictures,” Photoplay, October 1930.

“Kearns Makes Ring of Nineteenth Hole,” Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1929.

“Stunt Flier Decries Movie Perils,” New York Daily News, March 22, 1931.

“Answers to Movie Fans,” Lincoln (Nebraska) Star, January 15, 1928.

“Actor Rescues His Wife From Death by Gas,” Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1926.

“Charles Delaney” (obituary), Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1959.

Ancestry.com

A sad end for Albert Gran

Albert Gran Gold Diggers
Albert Gran and Winnie Lightner made a lively pair in the hit musical “Gold Diggers of Broadway” (1929).

Albert Gran, a classically trained character player from Norway, was among the busier actors in Hollywood at the dawn of sound.  As silent movies fell away and talkies came to stay, Gran remained very active – despite the heavy Scandinavian accent that could have distanced the corpulent oldster from Depression-era moviegoing America.

Screen fans in Gran’s day likely remembered him most for his serious role as an aged cab driver in the Fox silent 7th Heaven (1927). If he is recalled nowadays, it is for lighter fare, perhaps most notably as the moneyed object of comedienne Winnie Lightner’s affections in the 1929 Warner Bros. mega-hit (and now conspicuously lost) musical comedy Gold Diggers of Broadway, but he was also in a few early talkers that you actually can see on TCM or DVD.

The voice turned out not to hurt, but Gran disappeared from cast lists three years into the full-talkie era. He’s one of those performers whose absence you might not have noticed – until you thought about him for a moment and wondered, “What became of that guy?”

The truth – as we found – is sad to consider, but perhaps it tells us something of Gran’s humanity and personal character, especially at a point of duress.

But first, some background. Albert Gran was born in 1872 in Bergen, Norway, where his father was posted as the English consul for many years. His family opposed Albert’s plans to become an actor, so the young man journeyed to England in the early ’90s to build his theatrical resume.

In London, Gran’s mentor was the famed actor-manager Sir Henry Irving. By 1897, his work had extended to the United States, and Gran was among the first actors to bring the works of his countryman Henrik Ibsen to the American stage, where he toured in scenes from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Brand.

By this time, Gran had been welcomed back home and had trod the boards for the Norwegian National Theater and at the Royal Theater of Copenhagen. In 1910, he came to the U.S. to stay and became a renowned Broadway regular, particularly adept at comedy and at playing fatherly roles even in his 30s.

His co-stars in New York included Ethel Barrymore, Eva Le Gallienne, Ann Harding, Henry Hull, Lionel Atwill and Sidney Blackmer. Gran was strongly active in Actors’ Equity, which also endeared him to many fellow performers.  In the play Tarnish, it was said, Gran shed tears so effectively every night for a year that the constant strain on his tear ducts began to affect his eye use.

In 1925, Gran made what would be a permanent move to the Los Angeles area. Two years later, he was in 7th Heaven opposite the popular screen romantic team of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, in what Picture Play magazine called “a marvelous character makeup which absolutely obliterated his own countenance and personality … completely a person other than himself.”

Gran followed up his 7th Heaven portrayal with a similar role as a postmaster in John Ford’s Great War drama Four Sons (Fox, 1928).  “It gives Gran more opportunities to show us what a really good actor he is,” commented England’s insightful journal The Film Spectator.

Gran’s first talking feature was opposite Dolores Costello in Glad Rag Doll (1929), First National’s first complete talkie. His second was Gold Diggers of Broadway, a Technicolor remake of Warners’ 1923 success The Gold Diggers. Gran plays an attorney named Blake who advises caution to businessman Stephen Lee in blessing the relationship of Lee’s nephew, Wally (William Bakewell), with a showgirl, Violet (Helen Foster). Unexpectedly for him (not for us), Blake is eyed by one of Violet’s housemates, boisterous Mabel, who might make an actress if she can remember even the briefest of lines.

Gold Diggers of Broadway was a huge box office success, and it introduced the standards “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Painting the Clouds With Sunshine.” Its complete soundtrack is extant, but at this writing, only portions of its picture element remain. A seconds-long sequence of banter between Gran’s and Lightner’s characters was recently found in, of all places, a kiddie toy projector, so there’s hope for the rest.

Gran can be seen more distinctly in other early musicals: Tanned Legs (RKO, 1929); Follow Thru (Paramount, 1930); and a pair from Warners, the studio revue The Show of Shows (1929) and the especially delightful operetta Kiss Me Again (1931, with soprano Bernice Claire and Walter Pidgeon). His ability to play dunderheaded fathers and other authority figures came in handy in the traditional musical comedy format imported to cinema from the stage.

Even when musicals temporarily went out of vogue due to a box office glut, Gran kept working, as he did beside John Barrymore in the now-lost society comedy The Man From Blankley’s (1930). And when Gran wasn’t in pictures, he was on stage: A February 1932 Los Angeles Times ad named him among the cast in a locally playing David Belasco production of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Richard Bennett (father of actresses Constance, Joan and Barbara).

In the 1930 U.S. Census, Gran was listed as single and living in Santa Monica with a butler and a chauffeur. A magazine item from the same year identified the actor as “one of the most famous hosts of filmland” in an account of a lavish, candle-lit buffet supper peopled by name performers, producers and songwriters. Maybe he was living beyond his means, for Gran found himself in bankruptcy court in 1931. According to the trade publication Motion Picture Herald, he explained to an L.A. judge that he “gave away all of his earnings to needy friends.”

Gran had finished what would be his final role, in WB’s Employees’ Entrance (1933), and was living in Encino, California, when he met his demise under an atypical circumstance – a Good Samaritan gesture gone horribly wrong.

Albert Gran death
A newspaper clipping about the unexpected death of Albert Gran in 1932.

On December 9, 1932, Gran was driving on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles when he spotted a man – described as a “Negro chauffeur” in news accounts – lying in the street after just having been hit by an automobile while he was attempting to cross the busy highway. As the driver who hit the man was summoning an ambulance, Gran stopped and – despite his advanced age (70) and excessive poundage – decided to exit his own car to render assistance to the victim. It was then that Gran was himself struck by a passing vehicle.

Both victims were taken to a nearby hospital; neither survived. Gran died on December 16, and the Los Angeles Times reported that news of his accident had “been kept quiet because, even [if] he had recovered, one of his legs would have to be amputated.”

Actor Conrad Nagel presented the eulogy in the Christian Science burial rites. Nagel also identified his friend’s body at an inquest by a coroner’s jury at which Gran’s death was declared accidental.

Albert Gran 7th Heaven
Gran earned laudatory reviews for his role as a taxi driver in Fox’s “7th Heaven.”

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

“Ibsen Undefiled,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 31, 1907.

“Albert Gran Suported [sic] Famous Feminine Stars,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 10, 1912.

“When the Director Shouts: Cry! Cry! Cry!” Motion Picture, July 1925.

“Making Faces,” Picture Play, January 1932.

“Earle Foxe Gives a Great Performance,” The Film Spectator, January 21, 1928.

“Fads and Fashions,” Hollywood Filmography, May 17, 1930.

“Asides and Interludes,” Motion Picture Herald, April 4, 1931.

“Similarity Marks Traffic Accident on Boulevard,” Van Nuys (California) News, December 12, 1932.

“Last Rites Tomorrow for Actor,” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1932.

“Jury Finds Gran Death Accidental,” Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1932.