Part of what makes writing my weekly column so enjoyable is the fact that I don’t restrict myself to any one particular subject matter. While there are columnists that specialize in political commentary and others that do celebrity gossip, and still others that review books or movies or TV, I write about whatever the heck I want to in any given week. Everything is open for discussion depending on my mood. One week I might gripe about the proliferation of vulgarity in our society, another week I’ll mention a movie that I found particularly entertaining, and another week I’ll get onto a political issue that I feel needs to be talked about.
Since my background is in comedy and gag writing, many times my column will take that approach. Sometimes, though, I will get deadly serious on certain issues. This time around, I’ve decided to keep it light and write about a few actors that were big household names in their time but, for whatever reason, have now been almost totally forgotten.
Most adults, even youngish ones who may not be all that familiar with old movies, could probably say they’ve at least HEARD OF leading men Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart. But how many adults under the age of 50 have heard the names of Herbert Marshall, Robert Montgomery, Melvin Douglas and Fredric March? These are four fine actors that have been left behind whenever people speak of the classic stars of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Born in 1890 in London, England, Herbert Marshall had trained to become a CPA but decided at some point to go into acting on stage instead. He lost a leg while serving in World War I and was rehabilitated with a wooden prosthesis; however, this did not stop him in his pursuit of an acting career. He used a very deliberate square-shouldered and guided walk, largely unnoticeable, to cover up his disability. His wooden leg was kept a secret from the public for most of his long career.
He spent 20 years in distinguished stage work in London before going into motion pictures. He almost made the transition from stage directly to sound movies except for one silent film, “Mumsie” (1927), produced in Great Britain. Marshall had a charming mellow baritone to his upper crust British accent that gave him uniqueness and a nonchalant ease. His rather blasé, understated demeanor could take on various nuances to fit any role he played.
He was almost 40-years-old when he appeared in his first Hollywood picture, “The Letter,” in 1929. (He also appeared in a more famous second version of that picture in 1940 opposite Bette Davis.) Working steadily throughout the ‘30s, he sometimes starred in five or six pictures a year. One of his most wonderfully comedic roles was in the comedy classic, “Trouble in Paradise” in 1932, the first non-musical sound comedy produced by Ernst Lubitsch. That same year, Marshall did one of his most romantic roles in the Josef von Sternberg classic, “Blonde Venus,” starring opposite Marlene Dietrich.
Into the ‘40s, Marshall did more character and less leading man parts but still had substantial roles. He was terrific as the pre-World War II peace leader actually working against peace for a veiled foreign power (Germany) in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” (1940). His role in “Duel in the Sun” (1946) may not have been large but his performance as Scott Chavez, the put-upon husband of a cheating wife saloon girl was outstanding.
By the ‘50s, Herbert Marshall was doing fewer movies but still a variety of parts. His rich voice and elegant presence were well-suited for some early science fiction flicks like “Riders to the Sky” (1954) and “The Fly” (1958). He also starred in many early live and kinescoped teleplays, as well as doing various TV series shows such as “77 Sunset Strip.”
Herbert Marshall did sophisticated comedy and high drama equally well, adding his own particular touch of class to any role he undertook. His range ran the gamut from romantic lead to dignified military officer to doctor to various heavies. His unemotional quiet demeanor soon became his trademark and it served him well in over 100 movies and television shows throughout his career. Herbert Marshall was a solid actor with a wonderful screen persona that should not be forgotten. He added his own brand of class to the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s.