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Wallace Beery Movies: Anomalous Hollywood Star

Wallace Beery Marie Dressler Min and BillWallace Beery movies: TCM offers a glimpse into Beery's extensive filmography (image: Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery in 'Min and Bill')

According to the IMDb, the Wallace Beery Filmography features nearly 240 movie titles, including shorts and features, spanning more than three decades, from 1913 to 1949 – the year of his death at age 64. You'll be able to catch about a dozen of these Wallace Beery movies on Saturday, August 17, 2013, as Turner Classic Movies continues with its “Summer Under the Stars” series. (See “TCM movie schedule: Wallace Beery from Pancho Villa to Long John Silver.”)

Wallace Beery, much like fellow veteran Marie Dressler, with whom he co-starred in Min and Bill and its sequel, Tugboat Annie, was a Hollywood anomaly. At age 45, the ugly, coarse-looking actor became a top box office draw in the United States after languishing in supporting roles, usually playing villains, throughout most of the silent era. Beery and Dressler, in fact, became MGM stars the same year, 1930, chiefly thanks to the success of George W. Hill's Min and Bill, a highly sentimental waterfront-set comedy-melodrama that earned Dressler the year's (1930-31) Best Actress Academy Award.

Now, when people talk about “dated movies,” they must be thinking of something along the lines of Min and Bill: the story is pure goo, while the mugging – ahem, acting of the two leads makes Jim Carrey's and Ben Stiller's seem like a model of underplaying. You don't believe me? Then take a quick look at the Wallace Beery / Marie Dressler picture above. (See also: “Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery: Q&A with Dressler biographer Matthew Kennedy.”)

Min and Bill's little waif, I should add, is Dorothy Jordan. A pretty MGM ingénue in the late '20s / early '30s, Jordan was featured in three popular Ramon Novarro movies at that time (Devil-May-Care, In Gay Madrid, Call of the Flesh) and might have gone places had she danced with Fred Astaire – as originally planned – in RKO's 1933 musical Flying Down to Rio. Instead, Jordan opted to drop out of the film to marry King Kong co-director Merian C. Cooper. In true 42nd Street-style (minus the temperamental star's broken leg), Ginger Rogers stepped into Dorothy Jordan's shoes and became a star. Jordan's movie career came to an abrupt halt at that time, though she would make a brief comeback in minor supporting roles in a trio of John Ford movies of the mid-'50s (The Sun Shines Bright, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles).

Wallace Beery in 'Grand Hotel,' 'Viva Villa!': An expert at phony international accents

Wallace Beery does some additional mugging (and grunting) in Edmund Goulding's Best Picture Academy Award winner Grand Hotel (1932), notable as the sole Best Picture winner that failed to receive any other Academy nods. (Granted, there were fewer categories and fewer nominees per category back then.)

Despite the film's reputation as the (or one of the) crowning jewel(s) in the career of MGM's second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg, I'm not a big fan of Grand Hotel – to put it mildly. Edmund Goulding could be a reliable actors' director (Fay Bainter in White Banners, Miriam Hopkins in The Old Maid, Mary Astor in The Great Lie), but here he allows four of his MGM stars to do as they please, and the results are mostly disastrous.

Greta Garbo delivers what could well be the worst performance of her career (well, alongside her sex worker in the English-language version of Anna Christie), while John Barrymore sleepwalks through his role, Lionel Barrymore whines incessantly, and Wallace Beery sports the phoniest German accent this side of Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno. Meryl Streep he was not. Grand Hotel's one outstanding cast member is Joan Crawford, proving what a sensational actress she could be when given the chance.

Viva Villa! (1934) was one of the biggest box office hits of Wallace Beery's career; in fact, this highly fictionalized film version of Pancho Villa's life and times was a worldwide blockbuster. That could be because Viva Villa! has a lot happening on screen, what with executions, uprisings, a King Kong-less Fay Wray, and Beery playing Pancho Villa as if the bandit-cum-revolutionary leader were a petty five-year-old sporting a Mexican accent that would have given stomach cramps to Ramon Novarro, Gilbert Roland, Lupe Velez, and Dolores del Rio.

Apparently, during the making of Viva Villa! there was a lot happening behind the scenes as well. As the story goes, Lee Tracy was fired from the project for, while inebriated, urinating from his hotel balcony on a Mexican military parade. That, in turn, reportedly led to the firing of original director Howard Hawks. Lee Tracy was replaced by Stuart Erwin, while Jack Conway was the newly assigned director. Tracy's career would never recover from the debacle, though he would land a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination three decades later, for his role as the U.S. president in Franklin J. Schaffner's The Best Man. (I haven't read Viva Villa!'s co-cinematographer Charles G. Clarke's autobiography, but in it he supposedly asserts that the urinating incident never happened, accusing a Mexican tabloid of causing an uproar following a minor altercation between Tracy and a local.)

A curiosity: Wallace Beery had played Pancho Villa once before, in the William Randolph Hearst-produced 1917 serial Patria, a sort of anti-Japan, anti-Mexico Red Dawn of the 1910s, somewhat incongruously starring ballroom dancer Irene Castle.

[“On TCM: Wallace Beery Movies” continues on the next page. See link below.]

Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery Min and Bill photo: MGM.

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