Raymond Massey – Biography
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher
Raymond Hart Massey grew up in comfort as a member of one of the richest families in Canada at the time. His early life was uneventful, except it is important to mention his time at Appleby College in Oakville, a short drive west of Toronto. It was at Appleby that Massey discovered he just might have what it takes to be an actor. An odd career to consider when you’ve been born into a family that was famous for making farm equipment.
He rounded out his education, first at the University of Toronto and then at Balliol College in Oxford, England. Massey continued acting at both. With the outbreak of “The War to End All Wars,” he enlisted in the Canadian Field Artillery. His brother, Vincent also served during the First World War. While on duty in Siberia, Massey broke the monotony of army life and appeared in an army minstrel show. Later when he was wounded in France, Massey was sent home. While recuperating he decided to join the family business. It was what was expected of him. His brother, Vincent, would also join the family firm following the war, and become its president in the early 1920s. But Raymond Massey missed the stage and made the critical decision to return to acting. It was a decision that would ultimately impact not just on his working life, but on his personal life as well.
Through most of the 1920s he honed his abilities in innumerable stage appearances. And while the stage would always hold a special place for him, he could not help but recognize the rise of the film industry. He had his first chance to act for the camera when he landed a small role in the 1928 film High Treason. But he was quickly back in theatre enjoying the thrill of working before a live audience.
Then comes 1931, which turns out to be a pivotal year for Massey. On Broadway he led the cast in the title role of Hamlet. But from England came an offer to play Sherlock Holmes in the film The Speckled Band. It was during this time that Massey would begin some 10 years of shuttling back and forth between England and the United States in an era when trans-atlantic flights were virtually non-existent.
Not particularly well recieved The Speckled Band, nonetheless served as the launching pad for Massey’s film career. During the remainder of the 1930s he would make a total of 12 films, including starring or co-starring in such classics as The Scarlett Pimpernel in 1934, Things To Come, based on the classic H.G. Wells novel, in 1936, Fire over England also in 1936, and The Prisoner of Zenda in 1937. He also made Dreaming Lips in 1937, playing the role of Miguel del Vayo. He is pictured above in a still from that film with costar Elisabeth Bergner.
On October 15, 1938, Massey was back in the United States and ready to walk on stage at the Plymouth Theatre for the first time in the title role of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, written by the great Robert E. Sherwood. The play would run for more than a year and as war raged in Europe, Massey reprised his role for Hollywood. He is perhaps best remembered for this role because he looked so much like the 16th American president and Sherwood had written the play with Massey in mind. Attached to the photo from the Northernstars Collection is a note from the publicity department at RKO Radio Pictures. In describing this still taken during the scene known as the “famous Lincoln-Douglas debate,” it says in part that this scene contains “A line of dialogue 832 words in length, the longest in the history of recital by an actor.” One of the costars in the film, released in 1940, was fellow Canadian, Gene Lockhart. While Massey’s acting was masterful, and he was nominated for an Oscar®, he didn’t win the coveted Academy Award® for his work on this film.
While Abe Lincoln in Illinois was playing, Massey came north to Canada and put in a powerful performance in The 49th Parallel, the third film made by the British writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Originally conceived to act as a piece of propaganda to urge a reluctant United States to join the war effort, the film was released south of the border as The Invaders. Massey made a number of other wartime films in the early 1940s but also became involved in a number of non-war films. For example he decided to serve as narrator for A Canterbury Tale in 1944 and then accepted a role in the now classic Arsenic and Old Lace, working with Jean Adair and Jack Carson in a film that starred Cary Grant.
But 1944 also brought an important decision in his personal life. After 10 years of travelling back and forth, splitting his career almost equally between England and the United States, Massey made the decision to make his permanent home in the U.S.
Massey’s early military experience served as a solid foundation for his role in 1947 as Brigadier General Ezra Mannon in Mourning becomes Electra. Later that same year he appeared in the cinematic version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He worked steadily throughout the 1950s, and was most effective when he appeared with James Dean in 1955’s East of Eden.
Not limited to just the big screen, with the advent of television and its growth in popularity, Massey appeared in the early suspense anthology series Lights Out, which made its debut in 1949. He also appeared in a number of one-off dramas from the so-called Golden Age of Television that brought quality productions on programs like the Goodyear Television Playhouse, the Kraft Television Theater, the General Electric Theater and Playhouse 90. His also appeared as Dr. Gillespie on the Dr. Kildare (1961–66) series, but he had not turned his back on film. For example, he narrated Jacqueline Kennedy`s Asian Journey in 1962, after having reprised his role as Abe Lincoln in How the West Was Won. Massey is pictured in a publicity photo for his last film, Mackenna’s Gold in 1969, a film that featured an all-star cast and was narrated by Victor Jory. His career was nearly over, appearing in a few made-for-television movies, the last in 1973.
Raymond Massey died in California of pneumonia in 1983. Although he had been an American citizen for almost 40 years, he remained, largely because of his name, distinctly Canadian. The family name graces Toronto`s Massey Hall, a historic concert hall his grandfather paid to have constructed in 1894 for $150,000. And the history of Canadian farming is forever tied to the farm implement company that began life as Massey-Harris.
Raymond Massey was married three times. Children Daniel Massey and Anna Massey, both born in England in the 1930s, became successful actors. It is interesting to note that while Raymond Massey eventually became an American citizen, his brother, Vincent Massey, acquired his own special place in Canadian history. After running the family business for a number of years he accepted the post as ambassador to the United States from 1926 to 1930. He later became Canada’s High Commissioner in London, England, from 1935 until 1946, and went on to be the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada, serving from 1952 to 1959. Raymond Massey published two autobiographies: When I Was Young, in 1976, and A Hundred Lives in 1979.
Looking back at his career it is safe to conclude that Raymond Massey made quite a name for himself in Hollywood and beyond, leaving an extensive list of films, many of them classics, which will serve to keep his name and reputation alive for generations of cinephiles yet to be born.
Also see: Raymond Massey’s filmography
This biography is Copyright © 2015 by: Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without prior written permission. Click here for more information about copyright. All of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in The Northernstars Collection.