As well as writing about films on this blog, I’ve been meaning to write a few postings about the actors and actresses I especially like. While some of the top stars of the 1930s, like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, are still (and deservedly so) household names, others, who were equally popular at the time, have been all but forgotten. One of these is Warner Baxter (1889-1951). He starred in almost 100 films, both silent and talkies, and was said to be possibly the highest-paid actor in Hollywood in his peak year,1936. He was also the very first male star to win the Oscar for best actor, in 1929. But today many film fans have never heard of him at all – and those who have probably only know him for a handful of his films, mainly for 42nd Street and his role as Doctor Samuel Mudd in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island.
So what is it that I like about him? In all honesty, it is partly his looks – but I’m also attracted by his screen personality, in the handful of films of his that I’ve managed to see so far, anyway, and by the demanding roles he took on. Below is a link to a tribute to him on Youtube, which gives a feeling of the range of roles he played, many in films which have now disappeared. He was the original screen Gatsby in a silent film made only a year after the novel was published, but that film is now lost, along with many of his other silents and early talkies.
Here is a brief run-down of the films of Baxter’s that I’ve seen so far, which are only a few. I’d be interested to hear recommendations of others to look for. I know the Crime Doctor films which he made in later life, after suffering a nervous breakdown and other health problems, are said to be worth seeing, but I haven’t had an opportunity to do so as yet. I have found an article which appeared under Baxter’s byline in a German movie magazine which is interesting and I will hope to translate it back into English as a follow-up to this posting – sadly I haven’t managed to find the English original of this piece!
The first film I saw Baxter in was 42nd Street (1933), and I was immediately impressed by his portrayal of driven, tortured producer Julian Marsh, who is suffering from some unspecified illness (it seems to be to do with his nerves), and slumps down outside the theatre at the end after his musical production has triumphed. The film is of course best-known for its astonishing Busby Berkeley production numbers, and for performances by musical stars like Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless, Baxter gets top billing and he also speaks the most memorable line: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” In some ways this seems to be a typical role for him in his talkies – lonely, on the edge, tired, and still so handsome, but with the feeling that those looks could be about to fade any minute.
The other films of his I’ve seen to date are:
Broadway Bill (1934, Frank Capra): For many years this comedy-drama was thought to be a lost film until rediscovered in the 1990s. Baxter plays the son-in-law of a domineering businessman, who breaks away from his life in the family paper business and stakes everything on training a racehorse, supported by his sister-in-law, Myrna Loy. This was actually made in the very early days of the Hays Code, but still feels like a pre-Code, as the in-laws inevitably fall in love while training the horse. Baxter is on the edge at the start of the film, but gradually mellows and is able to have more fun in this than in 42nd Street.
The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford): This may be Baxter’s best-known role. He plays a doctor who innocently treats Lincoln’s injured assassin, and is therefore regarded as an accomplice and sent off to a nightmare island prison ridden with Yellow Fever. The film is said to be highly historically inaccurate, but it makes gripping viewing and Baxter gives one of his most powerful performances as the exhausted, despairing and yet dedicated doctor. R.D. Finch has just written a full review of this film at his blog.
The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936, William A Wellman): Baxter plays a character 20 years younger than he really was in the early sections of this politically conscious Western, and he is also saddled with a cod Spanish accent as he plays a Mexican bandit. (He also played a Mexican bandit in the film he won his Oscar for, In Old Arizona (1928), which I haven’t seen as yet, and reprised that role, as The Cisco Kid, in some follow-up movies.) This little-known film shows the way forward to later Wellman films like The Ox Bow Incident in its powerful indictment of lynch law and prejudice. I’ve previously written a long review of this film on my blog.
The Road to Glory (1936, Howard Hawks): This is a little-known Hawks film, and not on DVD, but I really like it and have been meaning to write a full review of this one, though I will need to watch it again first. It has a lot in common with Hawks’ earlier The Dawn Patrol, focusing on a group of soldiers, here a French regiment in the First World War, with the mood becoming increasingly sombre as replacements turn up and are killed in turn. Baxter plays the stressed-out captain, who is caught up in a love triangle with Fredric March and the woman they both fall for. However, the most touching relationship is between Baxter and his father, played by Lionel Barrymore, who lies about his age and turns up at the front to serve under his son.
I’ll admit I was expecting an awful lot from The Robin Hood of El Dorado – yet another 1930s William A Wellman film (this one made for MGM rather than Warner or RKO) which isn’t as yet officially available on DVD. I knew that it was a socially-conscious Western which had a high reputation, and also that it starred Warner Baxter. He is an actor I admire though sadly many of his films seem to have disappeared (especially the silent ones, like the very first adaptation of The Great Gatsby) or are very hard to track down. This Western is also the first movie where Wellman was credited as scriptwriter as well as director – coming just a year before he won the Oscar for writing A Star Is Born.
So one way and another my hopes were high, but on first viewing I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. I was impressed by the film’s powerful indictment of racism and prejudice, but felt as if the drama falls off in the middle after a powerful start. And I was also slightly taken aback to see Baxter playing a Mexican bandit, Joaquin Murrieta, complete with a heavy fake Spanish accent rather than his own expressive voice. There are many scenes where the Mexican characters speak among themselves in accented English, which I find hard to take at times - though there isn’t much option in a film where some of the actors, like Mexican actress Margo as Murrieta’s young bride Rosita, really are from Latin America and others aren’t.