Warner Baxter

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.

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19 thoughts on “Warner Baxter

  1. I am not too familar with his work other than THE PRSIONER OF SHARK ISLAND which is a terrific film, inaccurate as it is. Of course I also saw him in 42nd Street but that is about it. Emjoyed as always.

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  2. The actor starring in this role resembles closely Jean DuJardid in the 2011 Artist which won so many awards. So close you’d think Dujardin is made up to imitate this French film which won so many Oscars.

    E.M.

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    • Ellen, that’s interesting – I loved ‘The Artist’ and thought Jean Dujardin looked a bit like John Barrymore, but others have compared him to Douglas Fairbanks Snr, and now that you have said it I can see there is also a resemblance between him and Warner Baxter. He definitely got the flavour of how a swashbuckling actor looked at this period.

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  3. I haven’t seen too much of Baxter’s work – I’ve caught 42nd Street, which is widely accessible, and his lovely performance in Prisoner of Shark Island, as well as Broadway BIll, but I’ve yet to see In Old Arizona (which I think is on DVD). One reason he may not be better known today is that he was born in the 19th century, so by the time the Talkies/1930s came, he was already in his 40s and maybe a little long in the tooth to play romantic roles. However, one of his silent films has recently come out on a WB Archive DVD (he had an extensive silent career), the 1928 West of Zanzibar. The film actually stars Lon Chaney Sr, but Baxter co-stars with him in a wild performance as a drunken doctor. There was a smoldering intensity to Baxter’s acting, but which came across as ‘inner-directed’ in his 30s films (which I think accounts for the power of his performance in Prisoner of Shark Island). However, in West of Zanzibar he throws caution to the winds and lets it all out. It’s certainly an unusual film — any movie starring the senior Chaney IS unusual — but you might find it interesting as another sidelight on Baxter’s talent.

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    • Thanks very much, GOM – I hadn’t realised that ‘In Old Arizona’ was out on DVD, but I see it is available (and at a modest price) from Twentieth-Century Fox in region 1, so I will treat myself. Thanks also for the information on ‘West of Zanzibar’, which sounds intriguing – I want to see more Chaney, and see it also stars Lionel Barrymore, which is an added attraction for me. I’m interested by the thought of a film where Baxter “throws caution to the winds”. David Thomson has a good entry about him in his biographical dictionary where he says “There was always something subdued about Baxter”, and in the films I’ve seen so far I think there is a feeling of him keeping things under the surface, giving the “smouldering intensity” you describe, so it would be interesting to see him going against this.

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  4. I’d like to add the film One More Spring, a film that uses the Depression. Henry King is often underrated as a director.

    BTW, though they strongly underplay it, in 42nd Street, he’s gay, too.

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    • Thanks very much for the suggestion of ‘One More Spring’ – I will hope to see it. It sounds very interesting from the description at the imdb and I like Janet Gaynor – also I’d agree on Henry King being underrated as a director, judging by the films of his I’ve seen so far. It’s a while now since I saw ’42nd Street’, but I remember there were a couple of scenes implying that Baxter’s character is gay, although, as you say, it is underplayed.

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    • Judy, have you seen _The Artist_ yet? As a film in its own right, it’s superb — it deserved its several Oscars. Begins as an imitation of a sort of feeble silent film but blossoms out to use the range of silence and black-and-white extraordinarily well (helped along by keeping the story to a romantic plot that deludes you as possible until you begin to think about it). I write this though because Jean DuJardin has been made to look like Baxter. I wondered who he was supposed to evoke. I thought it must just be the generic matinee idol – the thin mustache is found on Ronald Colman (who made the transition from a 1925 star into talkies). But no, it’s Baxter. Memories of George Valentine (the name given the character) include Zorro where he looks just like your still. Have a look:

      http://tinyurl.com/cztgh7j

      To be honest, I thought they had Fairbanks in mind, but Baxter is closer.

      Ellen

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  5. Baxter is one of the most charismatic of the early players, and his work is certainly ripe for re-discovery, Judy! His Academy Award for playing Cisco the Kid in OLD ARIZONA is of course a high point, but it is believed that the lost silent film he starred in with Georgia Hale, THE GREAT GATSBY, directed by Herbert Brenon, is one that would have propelled him further had it survived. The 1925 silent THE AWFUL TRUTH is another he is celebrated for. Your overview of his major works is wonderful, and this is a terrific launching of an exciting new series here!

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    • Sam, the silent film of ‘The Great Gatsby’ is one of the lost films I’d most like to see. I’ve read that Baz Lurhmann has just had a hunt for it in the run-up to his own version’s release, but had no luck in turning anything up – all that exists is a very short trailer. I had thought that silent version of ‘The Awful Truth’ was a lost film too, but I see from the imdb that it says a print survives in the UCLA archives, so I suppose there may be hope of it turning up in some form in the future – though who knows what state that print is in by now? Thanks very much for the kind words!

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  6. UCLA has a VHS copy of The Awful Truth (1925) for onsite viewing. Ticket to Los Angeles is extra. I’ve had dealings with UCLA and it’d be better to contact them to confirm before trusting their database.

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    • Thanks for the info – it is good to know that it does still exist, though realistically I’m only likely to see it if it eventually gets transferred on to DVD!

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  7. Ellen, I’m replying down here as the threads have gone a bit haywire on this page – just to say that yes, I have seen ‘The Artist’ and thought it was excellent. I saw it at the cinema on release and will be buying the DVD to watch again. I did write something about it on my blog a while back and was especially interested in the similarities with the ‘A Star is Born’ story and also the feeling of someone being overtaken by technology and changing times. I don’t think Warner Baxter seems quite as similar to Dujardin when you see him in a film, as their ways of moving etc are quite different, but there is a similarity in appearance, as you say – Dujardin seems to have captured the whole look of a leading man at that time. I was very pleased that he won the Oscar. Thanks for your further thoughts and the link.

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  8. Pingback: Stage Play ‘Storefront Church’, The Dictator, Grand Illusion and The 39 Steps on Monday Morning Diary (May 21) « Wonders in the Dark

  9. What a great actor to post about. Wow, didn’t realize Baxter had been in almost 100 films. Haven’t seen too many Warner Baxter flicks, but I have enjoyed the ones I’ve seen him in. Recently watched Penthouse and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the final scene with Baxter and Myrna Loy. I have to wonder if it was ad-libbed. Agree with the comment that Baxter had those swashbuckling looks; they were appealing, off-center moustache and all. About to watch Daddy Long Legs.

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    • Yes, it’s amazing to think that he made so many – I’ve also just seen Penthouse, thanks for suggesting it – I really enjoyed it, just as sharp and funny as ‘The Thin Man’. Also looking forward to seeing the Baxter version of Daddy Long Legs, which I’m keen to compare with the earlier silent version, that as chance would have it I’m about to write about for a Mary Pickford blogathon! And I also like the Fred Astaire version of the same story. Thanks very much for your comment!

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    • Brittaney, I loved ‘Penthouse’ too – Baxter and Loy make a great combination and it has such a strong flavour of ‘The Thin Man’. Thank you for commenting!

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