Monday, April 15, 2024

This Day in Film History (Death of Wallace Beery, Oscar-Winning Lovable Lug)

Apr. 15, 1949— Wallace Beery, whose burly frame and gruff voice propelled him from supporting roles to an Oscar-winning box-office mainstay, died of a heart attack at age 64 at his Beverly Hills home.

The character actor, one of the busiest of the silent and early sound eras, started in the entertainment industry at age 16 with Ringling Brothers Circus as an assistant to the elephant trainer, then transitioned to musical variety shows before heading west to Hollywood in 1913.

Over the next 15 years, he appeared onscreen 150 times, chiefly at Keystone, Universal, and Paramount Studios, before the arrival of sound led the industry to a virtually wholesale liquidation of much of their talent.

Beery was looking for work when “Boy Wonder” MGM producer Irving Thalberg sensed potential in the actor. 

It was a shrewd guess: Within a year, the illness and death of Lon Chaney opened up an opening for a plum role as a three-time murderer in jail for life in The Big House, and screenwriter Frances Marion, noticing Beery eating spaghetti at the studio’s cafeteria, reminded her of San Quentin prisoners she’d interviewed during her research for the movie.

Beery was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role, and he would win it for playing a washed-up prizefighter desperately providing for the son he loves in the 1931 movie The Champ (remade, to far less box office and critical acclaim, in 1979 with Jon Voight).

Throughout the Thirties, MGM did everything it could to milk their suddenly hot property for everything he was worth, in such films as Mexican outlaw Francisco Villa in Viva Villa!, grasping capitalists in Dinner at Eight and Grand Hotel, and Long John Silver in Treasure Island.

The last three roles could be at best edgy and at worst treacherous. But the studio assembly line that emphasized typecasting increasingly frustrated the actor so that, by the end of the decade, his acting “took on the boozy self-consciousness of a department store Santa with a chronically overdeveloped sense of his own charm,” according to Tom Sutpen’s February 2006 post from the blog for Bright Lights Film Journal.

Audiences couldn’t get enough of the actor. With his lined face and beefy build, he looked like one of them, and film fans weren’t as besotted with physical perfection as they would become in later decades. They were disinclined to believe that someone seemingly so earthy and easygoing could be unprofessional and perhaps violent away from the cameras.

It did not become known till years later, then, after MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and his PR crew were no longer around, that the reality regarding Mayer was quite different.

There seems little doubt, for instance, that Beery couldn’t stand juvenile actors, because they had the unconscious habit of stealing scenes from them. As adults, Dickie Moore, Margaret O’Brien, and Jane Powell all described him as abusive, and O’Brien even accused him of stealing her lunch!

But the youngster who seems to have suffered the most at Beery’s hands was Jackie Cooper. The success of The Champ led the studio to pair the two in three more pictures that must have been absolute agony for the youngster.

The extent to which Beery wreaked havoc on adults is just as egregious as his conduct towards juveniles, if more disputed. One of the more persistent stories that emerged after his death was that he and two friends got into a drunken brawl in 1937 with Ted Healy that resulted in the death of the creator of The Three Stooges.

Details have varied over the circumstances surrounding Healy’s death, and I am inclined to believe that Jon Ponder, in this “West Hollywood History” blog post, disproved the story.

But it says something about both Beery’s dark side and MGM’s fabled ability to fix scandals that so many industry observers were ready to credit the tale.

At the time of Beery’s death, he was involved in a paternity suit, charged by actress Gloria Schumm with reneging on an agreement to give her child his first name. The court dismissed the proceedings after the actor’s death.

The other unseemly tale involving Beery and adults concerned Gloria Swanson, who claimed that, on the night of their wedding (which fell on her 17th birthday), he returned from the hotel bar to rape her. When the future Sunset Boulevard star became pregnant, she wrote in her autobiography, he gave her a concoction that induced an abortion.

The marriage only lasted two years. It would take six decades, but Swanson would finally have revenge of a sort on her ex in her memoirs. 

She related in its opening pages the story of his mistreatment of her. Combined with the other stories that others have come out with, it makes laughable the Los Angeles Times obituary that observed that he was “soft spoken, unexcitable and entirely lacking in temperament at home.”

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