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.
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.
“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.