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.

Gladys Brockwell: Too little time to talk

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Gladys Brockwell (with Robert Elliott) stood out as a world-weary girlfriend of a gangster in the landmark 1928 Warner Bros. talkie “Lights of New York.”

“Is Gladys Brockwell going to be one of the new stars?” The Los Angeles Times posed this question to its readers on August 5, 1928. And with good reason: Brockwell’s performance was the highlight of Warner Bros.’ new crime drama, Lights of New York.

Well, that and the sound. Lights of New York was Hollywood’s first all-talking feature-length picture, and audiences forgave the flimsy plotting and the technologically imposed, claustrophobic recording and camera work to hear dialogue that they heretofore could only read from an intertitle.

Initially intended as a short subject, Lights of New York was elongated to a feature-length 57 minutes, With a final negative cost of $23,000, it grossed an astounding $1.2 million and, groused WB scenarist (and future Fox studio boss) Darryl Zanuck, “turned the whole g–damn tide” toward the permanence of talkies.

Gladys Brockwell – born 124 years ago today — had become one of the first actors to benefit from the sound revolution. But less than a year after the release of Lights of New York – and less than 11 months after the Times speculated on her promising future — she was dead. The Twenties hadn’t even finished Roaring.

Brockwell was 33 – no youngster – when she played the moll, loyal “for more years than she cared to admit,” of a bootlegging nightclub owner (Wheeler Oakman) in Lights of New York. This was a film that was derided – in 1928! — for its primitive technique, including several unintentionally humorous moments having to do with character groupings (to suit the stationary, hidden microphone) and slow-paced, hackneyed dialogue (co-written by future WB “woo-woo” comic Hugh Herbert). “Take him for … a ride!” the chief villain unconvincingly orders his minions to dispatch a fall guy.

Anyone who thinks Singin’ in the Rain exaggerates the hazards of the transition to sound needs to see how much stranger truth was than fiction.

The hapless fall guy and his girlfriend are played by Cullen Landis and Helene Costello, whose respective film careers came to screeching halts once patrons had voices to match to their faces. Fellow Lights players Oakman, Eugene Pallette, Tom Dugan, Robert Elliott and Mary Carr adjusted to sound and kept on working, and so, at first, did Brockwell. Audiences heard her final-reel speech (after the moll has done away with her lover) – “I’m not afraid. I’ve lived … and I’ve loved … and I’ve lost!” – and they were ready for more.

She was ready, too. Brockwell was not a new star, just one newly returned to the firmament. Introduced to pictures while not yet in her 20s, the Brooklyn native rose in stature by playing the “siren heroine” type.

“In the early days of pictures, Miss Brockwell ranked among the favorites,” stated one newspaper feature. “ … Largely on account of her sincerity, she was one of the most popular actresses of the film colony. If she liked a person, it didn’t matter about his or her worldly standing or possessions. Once, Gladys lost a very big contract with a powerful picture company because she criticised [sic] to the face a movie magnate who had been overworking his extra people.”

The failure of an early marriage was a setback in her personal life, but Brockwell expanded her professional repertoire by playing costume parts in Oliver Twist (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). One of her most prestigious roles was as Nana, the abusive older sister of the prostitute heroine played by Janet Gaynor, in Fox’s popular drama 7th Heaven (1927). All three of the above films, as well as Lights of New York, are available in full on DVD. (One of Brockwell’s fellow cast members in 7th Heaven, Albert Gran, died under unlikely circumstances, as did the subject here.)

Once 7th Heaven and Lights of New York were done, Brockwell signed to perform in no fewer than eight upcoming films, at least five with all or partial dialogue, the L.A. Times reported. The newspaper thus thought it a good idea to ask this conqueror of the Devil Microphone about her triumph.

“Do you know you can have stage fright before the microphone? It’s true,” Brockwell replied. “I have felt my knees shaking more when I faced the microphone than ever in days of the stage. … There isn’t any music [played] on the sets to set the tempo as in the silent films, but there is the music within us and the music of the players’ voices and emotions.”

Brockwell found time to parody her own recovered image as a star in a Vitaphone short subject, Hollywood Bound (1928). She appears as the glamorous seducer of a rube (James Bradbury Jr.) who is shown winning a contest granting him an acting contract at a Hollywood studio. (It can be seen as part of this DVD collection.)

After Lights of New York, Brockwell was seen in quick succession in two late-1928 releases, and there would be five more in theaters during 1929. The last of them, Universal’s courtroom drama The Drake Case, debuted in September … but Brockwell had been gone two months by then.

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Newspaper accounts such as this one in the Los Angeles Times covered the impending death of Gladys Brockwell in 1929.

The end was a shock to all. On June 27, 1929, Brockwell was a passenger in a new roadster driven by Thomas Stanley Brennan, a Los Angeles advertising representative, when it went over a 75-foot embankment off the Ventura Highway near Calabasas, California. Brockwell’s body was crushed, and one particularly vivid newspaper wire-service account said she had suffered fractures of the skull, pelvis and jaws, with “a jagged ten-inch gash in her right side, caused by broken glass.”

The car “turned over three times after striking the bottom” below the embankment, the L.A. Times noted helpfully in the first of a series of articles during what turned out to be a death watch. As the auto had neared a sharp curve while at a high rate of speed, the story said, Brennan “failed to take the newness of the car into account … and the machine leaped over the edge.”

Both victims were unconscious at the site, but Brennan soon awoke to tell investigators that a cinder had blown into his eye just as his car was approaching the curve. Brockwell reportedly emerged from her stupor long enough to claim she had been at the wheel, but officials noted her “semiconscious state at the time of the questioning.”

At one point, physicians told the press that Brockwell might recover, but after four blood transfusions, she died on July 2, 1929. The immediately stated cause was peritonitis, caused by an intestinal puncture.

Brockwell’s passing seemed to be just as well, accounts implied, for her face had been paralyzed by the severing of a nerve, and her career before the camera would have been halted. A coroner’s jury ruled that Brennan had indeed been at the wheel of the car and that the accident was indeed caused by the temporary blindness caused by the cinder.

There was a postscript to Brockwell’s fatal accident. On February 11, 1949, a car skidded across a bridge in Los Angeles, smashed through a concrete barrier, and dropped 35 feet to an alleyway below. The driver was severely injured, but his passenger died at the scene. The passenger’s name was Thomas Stanley Brennan, and he’d been an ad man in L.A. back in the summer of 1929.

 

SOURCES

“New Film Royalty May Arise,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1928.

Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

“Gladys Brockwell, Star of Films, Dying After Machine Plunges Over 75-Foot Bank,” United Press report, cited from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Evening News, June 28, 1929.

“Actress Crushed by Auto,” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1929.

“Film Actress Near Death,” Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1929.

“Actress Has Fair Chance to Recover,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1929.

“Plunge Injuries Fatal to Gladys Brockwell,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1929.

“Gladys Brockwell Dies of Injuries,” Associated Press report, cited from Owensboro (Kentucky) Messenger, July 3, 1929.

“Last Rites of Actress Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1929.

“Gladys Brockwell Is Mourned,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1929.

“Rider Killed as Car Drops From Bridge,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1949.

Ancestry.com

A few notes from … Walter Pidgeon?

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Walter Pidgeon wore fancy costumes in “Sweet Kitty Bellairs” (1930) and other early operettas.

To most film fans, Walter Pidgeon will be best remembered for his stolid acting in classics such as How Green Was My Valley, Forbidden Planet and, to cite just one of his many pairings with Greer Garson at MGM, Mrs. Miniver. But as we mark his 121st birthday on September 23, I’ll admit that I think of him first as a baritone in early musicals, both comedies and operettas.

A native of New Brunswick, Pidgeon (1897-1984) came to the United States after World War I service with his native Canada. He went into banking initially but gained a footing on stage and in silent pictures. When talkies came in, Pidgeon – who had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music – found himself in demand for singing parts.

Pidgeon sang in such Warner Bros.-First National songfests as Bride of the Regiment (1930, opposite Vivienne Segal); Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930, with Claudia Dell); Viennese Nights (1930, Segal again), and Kiss Me Again (1931, Bernice Claire). He also appeared in, but did not sing in, Warners’ The Hot Heiress (1931) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). By 1931, Warner Bros. had no use for Pidgeon’s baritone, as musicals were out of vogue.

Pidgeon also sang in Universal’s first talkie, Melody of Love (1928), which may or may not be a musical. (Someone will have to find it, and see it, before we know for sure.)

Pidgeon endured a downturn in his film career and returned to New York for a spell in the 1930s, but as we know, he rebounded very nicely.

I’m planning to write more about Bernice Claire and Kiss Me Again soon, so consider this a teaser of sorts …

On top of the world: Al Jolson’s ‘The Singing Fool’ turns 90

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In 1928, the star — and the sound — made “The Singing Fool” a runaway hit.

“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” was what Al Jolson exalted when he opened his mouth to sing in his landmark 1927 (part-)talkie, The Jazz Singer. He might have said the same for the following year’s The Singing Fool, in which audibly crazed audiences heard even more talk and song by the singular entertainer billed as far above the title as Warner Bros. could accommodate.

The Singing Fool premiered 90 years ago tonight at the Winter Garden theater in New York City, where a scribe from the movie trade publication Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World reported thusly:

“It is doubtful if, in all the history of … films, there has ever been so exciting and spectacular an opening as came to the Winter Garden. … Of course, the Warner Brothers were the center of attention, for Jolson has been their great discovery, in many ways the cornerstone of the great edifice they are now building. …

“The picture was a smashing success. Though the script is not quite worthy of the star, he showed himself to be so extraordinary that no one can doubt but that it will take the country by storm, as did The Jazz Singer.”

Folks unfamiliar with The Singing Fool might think the musical drama is an all-talkie, but actually only about two-thirds of its 102 minutes includes dialogue or musical numbers to augment a fully synchronized underscore. And it premiered two months after Warners debuted the first all-talking feature, the otherwise-routine crime drama Lights of New York. The novelty of the Lloyd Bacon-directed Singing Fool tends to overshadow its story of the “fool” of a singer-songwriter played by Jolie, who rockets from waiting tables to nightclub and recording fame while gaining and losing an unloving wife (Josephine Dunn) and a greater love, his “Sonny Boy” (played by 3 1/2-year-old Davey Lee).

The almost unbearably sad “Sonny Boy” was written in that hyper-mood as a joke by the songwriting team of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, but the public made it the first song from a movie to sell more than 1 million copies of sheet music and phonograph records. It and the more upbeat “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” and “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder” were what patrons were humming as they left theaters after watching The Singing Fool. The cringey father-son scenes don’t play so well today, and Jolson’s overbearing quality would catch up to him as an actor (his ensuing WB releases were flops, and his contract with the studio was allowed to run out in 1930), but that wasn’t the case nine decades ago this evening.

The Singing Fool sometimes gets lost in the recitations of early-sound-history shorthand: Edison … the French … the De Forest shorts … WB and Vitaphone … Fox-Case … Don JuanThe Jazz Singer Lights of New YorkThe Broadway Melody … and now we’re into 1929. But The Singing Fool was a signal accomplishment as the first talking-film megahit. It cost less than $400,000 to make, but it grossed $3.8 million in this country and nearly $6 million worldwide, setting box office records unrivaled until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came along nearly a decade later.

Not that many theaters around the country were wired for sound when Singing Fool made its run, but It could command top dollar. Ticket buyers for opening night at the Winter Garden got in for $11, and the film went for $3 for its regular run there … this in a day when the average price of a movie ticket was 25 cents.

Pare Lorentz, then a young, intellectual film critic whose landmark documentaries about the New Deal were a few years ahead, had to offer at least grudging praise of Jolson in The Singing Fool: “Obvious and tedious as the climax is, when the blackface comedian stands before the camera and sings ‘Sonny Boy,’ you know that the man is greater, somehow, than the situation, the story, or the movie.”

Turner Classic Movies isn’t airing The Singing Fool for its birthday (that channel hasn’t shown it since 2014), but the TCM website has what is alleged to be a trailer of the British reissue here. And there is a DVD available for purchase from Warner Archive (info here).

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Little Davey Lee became a short-time star after appearing with Al Jolson in “The Singing Fool.”

SOURCES

“1st $3 Top Film Is Jolson’s at Garden,” Variety, September 26, 1928.

“Jolson’s Singing Fool Makes Spectacular Garden Opening,” Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, September 29, 1928.

Judge, October 20, 1928.

EMB, The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927-32 (McFarland & Co., 1996).

Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-30 (Simon and Schuster, 1997).

 

 

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.

alice-white-1
Alice in her heyday, as we’d like to remember her.

Charles Delaney: A smiling, flying Irishman

Charles Delaney-Alice-White-Woolworth
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.

Charles-Delaney-young
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