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.
“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.