Canadian silent megastar Mary Pickford made a few sound films (winning the first best actress Oscar® for Coquette in 1929), but she was not comfortable with the new medium and discontinued acting. She continued in the business, however, as a producer and studio executive at United Artists, a company she co-founded with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks in 1919. Marie Dressler, who had made a handful of silent films for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios before returning to the New York stage in the 1920s, made a remarkable late career comeback and appeared in more than two dozen talkies (including Anna Christie, Garbo’s first), winning the second best actress Oscar® in 1930 for her tragicomic performance in Min and Bill opposite Wallace Berry.
By far the biggest Canadian-born star of the early sound films was the glamorous Norma Shearer, pictured below. She landed her debut role at MGM in 1920 after a successful modelling career in New York. She was not the most beautiful woman on the lot, or the best actress, but a fortuitous marriage to legendary MGM producer Irving Thalberg helped her to become one of the studio’s leading ladies. Shearer could play light comedy or drama and was nominated for six Oscars®. She won in 1931 for The Divorcée and also the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival for Marie Antoinette in 1938. She led MGM through the first five years of the talkies with a string of hits including Private Lives, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Romeo and Juliet (as a rather too-old Juliet to Leslie Howard’s Romeo).
Thalberg died unexpectedly in 1936, leaving Shearer a major shareholder in MGM and a very wealthy woman. She delivered a witty performance in The Women opposite her MGM rival Joan Crawford before retiring in 1942. Her older brother, Douglas (b. Montreal, 1899; d. 1971), was a brilliant sound engineer and special effects artist at MGM. He founded the studio’s sound department and was responsible for developing a revolutionary recording head at the dawn of the sound era. During his more than 40 years with MGM, he contributed more than anyone else to the perfection of motion picture sound. He won seven Oscars® for sound recording and special effects and was given eight more for technical achievement in addition to 14 other nominations, making him the most honoured Canadian by the Academy.
There was a mass migration of Broadway actors to the warmer climes of Los Angeles in the late 1920s, as studios desperately recruited any and all actors who could speak lines of dialogue rather than possess the skills of a pantomime artist. The only producer capable of bucking the trend was the greatest pantomime artist of all, Charles Chaplin. Two of his best films, City Lights and Modern Times, were made after sound arrived. It was only with The Great Dictator in 1940, when he felt he had something to say about Hitler out loud, did he make a sound film.
Once described as "possibly the best American actor ever," ironically Walter Huston was born and brought up in Victorian Toronto; actually, not far from where Mary Pickford was born. Trained as an engineer, he was drawn to the stage and by 1905 was quite successful in vaudeville. With a magnificent vocal range from the smooth sound of honey to an old man’s cackle, his busy film career began in 1928. He quickly rose through the ranks to play the lead in Abraham Lincoln, Dodsworth, The Devil and Daniel Webster and And Then There Were None. He received four Oscar nominations and finally won for his memorable performance as the grizzled prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948, directed by his son, John. He was the first Canadian-born actor to win an Oscar® since Shearer in 1931, and only one of three to win for best supporting actor (the other two being Harold Russell and Christopher Plummer).
Deanna Durbin was also blessed with a strong and surprisingly mature voice at an early age. Headed for a career in opera, she became, instead, an instant singing star of global proportions when her first feature, Three Smart Girls, rescued Universal Studios from the brink of bankruptcy in 1937. With her next three films – 100 Men and a Girl, Mad about Music, and That Certain Age – Durbin’s stardom rivalled that of 20th Century-Fox’s Shirley Temple. In 1938 she shared an Honorary Academy Award with Mickey Rooney "for bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth." After just over a decade in the limelight, she retired to the south of France in secluded goddess-like fashion. There are still Deanna Durbin fan clubs worldwide.
Born in Nova Scotia and raised in Boston, Harold Russell, who lost both his hands in a hand-grenade explosion while serving as a paratrooper in the Second World War – achieved worldwide fame when he was chosen by director William Wyler to play a key role in The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946. His authentic, heartfelt, one-shot performance won him an Academy Award for best supporting actor. He was also given a second Award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."
Walter Pidgeon worked as a banker in Boston then, at the encouragement of his friend Fred Astaire, he switched careers and landed roles on the Broadway stage. Signed by Hollywood in 1926, he appeared in early musicals, but returned to Broadway to hone his dramatic skills. Returning to Hollywood, Pidgeon emerged as a leading man for MGM in the sound era. Durable, with a commanding presence and frequently cast as a man of principle or the perfect gentleman, his star peaked in the early 1940s during Hollywood’s golden age in Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver and Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie. He garnered Oscar® nominations for his performances opposite Greer Garson in the latter two films.
Raymond Massey, brother of Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada, was being groomed for an illustrious career in the family farm-implement business when, during the First World War, an impromptu minstrel show led him into a post-war acting career on the British stage and film. Because of his lanky taciturnity, he was typecast early on as the embodiment of authority, and one of his first roles was Sherlock Holmes in The Speckled Band. When he arrived in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, he played a number of similar characters, turning in a succession of strong performances. He won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois in 1941 and was also exceptional as James Dean’s father in East of Eden. He is the father of actors Daniel and Anne Massey, and the grandfather of Canadian producer Raymond Massey.
Gene Lockhart first appeared on stage at the age of six and made his Broadway debut in 1916. He played solid character parts in over 300 films, often villains, most notable in Algiers opposite Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, a role that earned him an Oscar® nomination for supporting actor in 1938. But he also had a great succession of ‘good guy’ roles, including Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol and the judge in Miracle on 34th Street. He was the comic bumbling sheriff in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday.
Lucile Watson came to the movies in 1934 after a successful career on Broadway. Typically she played well-bred, haughty matrons. She appeared with Carole Lombard and James Stewart in Made for Each Other, was a member of the stellar ensemble cast of The Women (playing Norma Shearer’s mother), and was nominated for an Oscar® for her role as Bette Davis’s mother in the wartime drama Watch on the Rhine in 1941.
Alexander Knox was educated at the University of Western Ontario and first appeared on the London stage before going to Hollywood at the outbreak of the Second World War. He worked steadily as a distinguished character actor and occasionally as a screenwriter and was nominated for an Oscar® for his lead in Wilson (1944). His left-wing political views caused him to clash with the McCarthyites in Hollywood, so he returned to England in the early 1950s, where he continued to work in film and as a playwright and novelist.
Beatrice Lillie, a popular stage comedienne in England and America, was the daughter of an actress and a British Army Officer who became a Canadian government official. At age 15, Lillie, her sister and her mother toured southern Ontario as the Lillie Trio. Lillie made her London West End debut in 1914. She became known for her quick-witted, inventive comic style (‘the toast of two continents’) and was extremely popular both on stage and on radio, but the few films she made were mainly vehicles that failed to capture her at her best.
An almond-eyed beauty, who was raised on her father’s ranch, ‘Wrayland,’ Fay Wray achieved worldwide fame in 1933 as the shrieking heroine in one of the most famous films of all time, King Kong. Her career began when she was only 16 with Hal Roach comedies then she signed with Universal. She was one of the few actresses from that period still performing in the late 1950s. One of her early successes was opposite Erich von Stroheim in The Wedding March. Like Marlene Dietrich, Wray was paired up with Gary Cooper in a number of star vehicles between 1928–33.
David Manners was a prolific writer as well as a stage and movie actor who claimed lineage that dated back to William the Conqueror. He played the second lead of many of Universal’s horror classics of the 1930s, including the naive Jonathan Harker in Tod Browning’s Dracula and one of the explorers who discover Boris Karloff in The Mummy. He starred with both Bela Lugosi and Karloff in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, and also played opposite Katharine Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement and A Woman Rebels. In the 1940s Manners left Hollywood for the New York stage and a career as a novelist.
Victor Jory was educated at the University of California and entered films from the stage at the beginning of the sound era. He played occasional leads and numerous character roles in a variety of films, mostly B pictures, usually as the evil-eyed heavy: he was King Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Injun Joe in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; he gave Shirley Temple a hard time in Susannah of the Mounties; and he was particularly memorable as the racist husband in The Fugitive Kind, opposite Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward.
Bob Nolan is generally regarded as one of the finest Western songwriters of all time, penning such classics of the genre as “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and “Cool Water.” In 1931, he joined a group called The Rocky Mountaineers, which also included Roy Rogers, “King of the Singing Cowboys.” After the group changed its name to The Sons of the Pioneers, Nolan joined up with Rogers at Republic Pictures, appearing as his musical sidekick in numerous films. As leader of the group and Rogers’s long-time friend, Nolan was often featured in prominent, dialogue-heavy supporting roles. The Sons of the Pioneers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.
At 14, Ruby Keeler (pictured with Dick Powell) appeared on the Broadway stage; at 18, she travelled to Hollywood where she met and married singer Al Jolson in 1928 and began a memorable, if brief, career in film. She appeared in a string of Warner Bros. musicals, including 42nd Street and The Golddiggers of 1933, made famous by the brilliant dance routines created by Busby Berkeley, and was the first true dancing star of Hollywood musicals. She separated from Jolson in 1939 and retired from filmmaking in 1941.
Ben Blue was a rubber-limbed mime and dancer on the New York stage from the age 15 who worked mostly on the stage and nightclub circuit, but his character cameos were the highlight of many features made in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s.
Berton Churchill began his career as a labour leader in New York City before taking bit parts in Broadway plays. He graduated into film in the early 1920s, appearing in over 150 films in less than 10 years. He usually played the sourpuss businessman or the small-town mayor, and is probably best remembered for his role as Gatewood – the banker on the run with the stolen cash – in John Ford’s classic Stagecoach.
An acting late-starter, Douglass Dumbrille sold his southern Ontario onion farm in 1924 when he was 34 years old and left for Hollywood. Versatile, he played lawyers, politicians, judges, dignified villains and evil potentates in more than 250 films. As Mohammed Khan in Lives of a Bengal Lacer, he told Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone, “We have ways to make men talk.”
John Qualen got his start in vaudeville and appeared in more than 100 films, portraying a variety of comic or character roles, often as a well-meaning patsy. He was the father of the Dionne Quints in Five of a Kind, the Norwegian conspirator in Casablanca and part of John Ford’s informal stock company of actors, appearing memorably as the half-crazed Muley Graves in The Grapes of Wrath, also The Long Voyage Home, The Searchers, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Cheyenne Autumn.
Donald Woods, a regular in B movies during the 1930s and 1940s, played mainly nice guys and solid citizens with the occasional second lead in major productions such as A Tale of Two Cities, The Story of Louis Pasteur and Watch on the Rhine.
A Hollywood actress from the age of 15, Ann Rutherford, pictured on the left, secured her first notable role as Polly Benedict, Andy Hardy’s girlfriend in the popular long-running series of Andy Hardy films. She played Polly 12 times between 1937–42. She also played opposite Red Skelton in his series of three Whistling mystery/comedies in the early 1940s, and was Carreen O’Hara, Scarlett’s youngest sister, in Gone with the Wind, the most famous film from Hollywood’s golden age.
Fifi D’Orsay was one of 12 children of a postal clerk, and educated in a convent. She started out as a typist, moved on to vaudeville, and then starred in some of the first movie musicals, usually as a Parisian sexpot. Her first film, They Had to See Paris, was with the legendary Will Rogers in 1929. Trained in opera, Kathleen Howard sang at major houses in Europe and spent 12 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera. In another career move, she went to Hollywood in the 1930s and starred as W. C. Fields’s wife in It’s a Gift and The Man on the Flying Trapeze.
Generally regarded as Hollywood’s best years, 1939–42 was the pinnacle of the American studio system, a period that encompassed MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Warner Bros.’s Casablanca, just to name four of the many films that remain hugely popular to this day. American cinema would not see another period of concentrated creative energy until the 1970s, and my next essay will focus on that period and those Canadians who achieved stardom in post-war Hollywood.
Also see: Biograph, Keystone and the Canadian Connection
Also see: Canucks in Post-War and the Second Golden Era of Hollywood
Wyndham Wise is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Take One: Film in Canada. He is a contributing editor with Northernstars.ca and consultant with The Canadian Encyclopedia online. Visit wyndhamsfilmguide.ca.