Jack Mulhall: Riding the toboggan

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Happy-go-lucky Jack Mulhall didn’t last as a movie star, but not for lack of trying.

Here’s a happy 131st birthday to Jack Mulhall, a jaunty, popular Hollywood player of the silent era who, by accidents of technology and timing, became a virtual non-entity in the talkies.

For every James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or Spencer Tracy whose stage-honed dialogue skills made them into almost-instant Hollywood stars after the transition to sound, there were many others who were forced to adapt to the change. Reginald Denny, for example, had to drop the American characters he played in silents in favor of those that suited his British accent; his billing declined slightly, but he continued a lucrative career. John Gilbert had a perfectly suitable voice that did not match his he-man image, but he was derailed by personal concerns, as was Clara Bow.

And then there were actors like Mulhall, whose precipitous drop in the motion-picture hierarchy led him from starring roles in big-studio talkies in 1930 to bit parts at the majors (and occasional Poverty Row leads) within a year or two, and then, as the ‘30s neared their end, pretty much just bits.

Mulhall’s career mirrored that of a fellow player at Warner Bros.-First National, Monte Blue. Both men had built their screen careers since the mid-‘teens (Mulhall at the old Biograph studio, where he claimed to be the first actor with a weekly salary in three figures) and were aging into their early 40s as sound came in. They were precisely the highly experienced, high-salaried talents whom studios sought to clear from their contract rosters as folks like Cagney and Tracy came West to settle in.

“Jack Mulhall still wears that wholesome Irish smile – the kind that never grows old or never wears off,” a writer from Missouri said – sadly, in retrospect — of the New York state native in a report on a 1928 First National silent comedy, The Butter and Egg Man (which co-starred another eventual casualty of sound, Greta Nissen).

Mulhall continued to land quality assignments at the dawn of the talkies, including an unusual dual role in Dark Streets (1929), in which he portrayed twins: a cop and a crook. That film is lost, but Mulhall can be seen opposite Alice White in the musical Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), Loretta Young in the crime saga Road to Paradise (1930), and Mae Clarke in RKO’s The Fall Guy (1930). That Mulhall was significantly older than any of those female co-stars was not complained about by the filmgoing public, as Mulhall photographed somewhat younger than his middle age.

Still, Mulhall’s First National contract was not reviewed in June 1930. In a fan-magazine blurb about his farewell to FN, Colleen Moore, Dorothy Mackaill, Milton Sills, and Corinne Griffith were also mentioned as newly freed. Griffith had retired, the writing on the wall, and poor Sills, career-vulnerable at age 48, would drop dead of a heart attack that August.

Mulhall inked a new deal with RKO, which lasted for The Fall Guy and no more. More ominously, he went on to “little major” Columbia, where he made now-long-forgotten features such as For the Love o’ Lil (1930) and Lover Come Back (1931), top-billed in the latter with the declining Betty Bronson and rising Constance Cummings). At the end of 1931, you could see Mulhall headlining with his erstwhile FN co-star, Patsy Ruth Miller, in Night Beat, but this crime story was an indie, from producer Ralph M. Like’s on-the-cheap Action Pictures.

From there on out, Mulhall would be alternating between have and have-not companies, with prominent roles for the latter – as late as 1936, he headlined as criminologist Craig Kennedy in the marathon (15 chapter!) science-fiction serial The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand for Weiss Productions. Four years before, Mulhall had also delved into the realm of the fantastic film as the prospective son-in-law of a death ray-creating mad scientist in Murder at Dawn (Big 4 Films, 1932).

As time passed, when most folks saw Mulhall, he was playing various uncredited reporters, photographers, clerks, and henchmen for precious little time and rarely for screen credit at Paramount (his most frequent employer in the ‘30s) and other majors.

Mulhall suffered some damage to his personal reputation in 1933, when he was ordered to pay a $50 fine imposed in court after he was found guilty of assault and battery. The charge stemmed from an incident in which the actor and a friend, both reportedly having imbibed a bit, broke into an apartment looking for a fight and had a tussle with the husband and wife therein.

“Are you a Russian?” one of the victims recounted Mulhall asking, inexplicably. It turned out the two men had the apartment house correct for the solving of their real or imagined grievance, but not the right apartment.

Times grew especially harsh in 1935. Mulhall and his wife of 13 years separated, and he filed for bankruptcy the same week. That same year, he supported young Lon Chaney, Jr. (newly rechristened from his original Creighton Chaney) in a gangster quickie, The Shadow of Silk Lennox. Mulhall had acted with Chaney’s famous father and could have served as a cautionary tale to the junior Chaney, who himself went on to work in increasingly thankless roles until his own death.

There were plenty of other silent stars hanging around the picture business, but few of them had been near the top as recently as Mulhall. In 1936, he was given an unusual forum for a bit player: a bylined, first-person story in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine that was headlined “They Don’t Retire in Hollywood.”

Acknowledging peaks and valleys in his career, Mulhall wrote: “I’m back in harness again, in my fourth comeback, after piling up and losing several sizable fortunes. Ten years ago I had $1 million, two $6,000 automobiles, a $65,000 home in Beverly Hills, and a contract for 52 weeks at $3,250 a week.

“In one year I saw my last antique piece go: you never can save one stick – when the toboggan gets underway.”

Not long after the story appeared, Mulhall attracted the attention of popular movie columnist Jimmie Fidler, who noted that he still heard audiences break into applause for the old-time star whenever he appeared on screen. “From all evidence, he will again scale the heights,” Fidler opined hopefully.

It didn’t happen, although Mulhall never stopped trying. Television came in, so he got seen – however briefly — on Dragnet, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Playhouse 90. Mulhall turned up in the Best Picture Oscar winner Around the World in Eighty Days and the shot-for-peanuts monster flick The She-Creature, both in the same year (1956) that he also found work as a greeter for a Sunset Strip restaurant.

The Internet Movie Database lists Mulhall’s screen finale as a 1959 sci-fi thriller, The Atomic Submarine.

At age 91, Jack Mulhall died of heart failure on June 1, 1979, at the Motion Picture Country Home, where he had resided since 1977. Among his survivors was the wife who had separated from him 44 years before.

“It hasn’t been a rosy path out here for me, for anyone else, either, who has hit the chutes,” his Times obituary quoted Mulhall as saying during what must have been many introspective periods. But he said he always had “the old feeling, always an unmistakable one, that I am definitely on the road back.”

SOURCES

“At the Strand Next Week,” Chillicothe (Missouri) Constitution-Leader, December 29, 1928.

“The Orchid Bids Farewell to the Screen,” Talking Screen, June 1930.

“Pair Get in the Right House But the Wrong Boudoir,” Associated Press report, cited from the Baltimore Sun, August 7, 1933.

“Jack Mulhall Fined,” International News Service report, cited from Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald, September 3, 1933.

“Jack Mulhall Files Bankruptcy Petition,” International News Service report, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), April 17, 1935.

“They Don’t Retire in Hollywood,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1936.

“Jack Mulhall, 91, Movie, Stage, TV Actor, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1979.

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Jack Mulhall is flanked by co-stars Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (left) and Bob Steele in Mascot’s serial “The Mystery Squadron” (1933), one of many chapterplays Mulhall made after his star fell permanently. (Another was 1933’s “The Three Musketeers,” with John Wayne in the cast.)

TNT and me

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“The Show of Shows,” a 1929 Warner Bros. studio revue, was among the hundreds of seldom-viewed movies that found new life after TNT debuted in 1988.

How much do I love Turner Classic Movies? A lot, as I have written here. But as delighted as I was to finally have non-commercial-interrupted Golden Age movies piped through my TV set via TCM, the real revelation in small-screen film-watching was my first exposure to TCM’s predecessor in the classics-on-cable field … TNT.

Turner Network Television, as it was called more frequently than now, debuted 30 years ago this week, on October 3, 1988. I have a special affinity for TNT, as its infancy aligned to certain significant events in my personal life.

Even with all the cheesy advertisements breaking up its programs, who among us couldn’t love TNT? With its need for programming came the first real emptying of the Ted Turner-controlled film vault, with hundreds of long-unseen pre-1960 MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO gems suddenly available in our living rooms. I never thought I’d get to pose questions like “Can you believe TNT is showing Show of Shows at 4 a.m. Monday?” Of course, I had to ask these questions to myself, as there were no movie message boards or blogs in the late 1980s, nor did anyone within earshot in Flint, Michigan, know what Show of Shows was.

Here’s where the personal stuff comes in: I had to get married to get TNT.

In 1989, I was living in an apartment complex with an in-house cable menu of about 15 channels, so … no go. My then-fiancée lived in an apartment complex with no TNT but with access to AMC (née American Movie Classics), which was frequently showing rarities from Paramount and Universal.

My wife-to-be was no movie watcher (she still isn’t), but I knew she was right for me when she agreed to allow me to time-tape Night World and Love Comes Along at 5 in the morning on her home VCR. (I also knew she was Ms. Right after I dared to show her Freaks and she didn’t run from the room screaming at the climax.)

You think this isn’t significant? Try finding Night World and Love Comes Along on TV at all anymore.

Anyway, we got married and it was all worth it. We moved to an apartment complex that offered both TNT and AMC. Happy ending. Great times. The marriage was pretty good, too, as I recall.

TNT showed reruns of rarely viewed TV shows such as Medical Center and Mr. Novak and produced its own new programming, but its bread-and-better fare was old movies – many, many of which I saw for the first time on that channel. These would have to be taped on VHS, for collectability purposes and because then, as now on TCM, some of the older rarities were aired at times inconvenient for sleep.

One of these was the early musical The Singing Fool, which I wrote about last week. I was so excited to see it show up on TNT that I couldn’t trust my VCR to go on and off as programmed. So, at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, August 10, 1990, I shuffled out of bed, turned on TNT and my VCR by hand and taped the movie … while editing out the commercials.

(This is how good it was for early talkie buffs in 1990: The Singing Fool was airing at the same time as The Pay-Off (a 1930 Lowell Sherman crime drama from RKO) on AMC and Night Nurse (WB 1931, Barbara Stanwyck) on The Movie Channel.)

Seeing The Singing Fool – even with all of its awkward silence-to-sound-and-back-again transitions and schmaltzy father-son scenes between Al Jolson and little Davey Lee – was nearly the highlight of my week. Would’ve been, too … had my first child not been born two days before.

I learned to time middle-of-the-night bottle feedings to select TNT screenings … The Hollywood Revue of 1929The Thirteenth ChairThe Great Divide … and, yeah, Show of Shows. As I rocked my first boy — and, not long after, my second — to sleep with the black-and-white images flickering in the background, I wanted to think, “Someday, son, maybe you’ll enjoy watching Betty Compson and Lawrence Gray as much as I do.”

Yeah, great times. The movies were pretty good, too, as I recall.