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Thursday, January 24, 2013

CAST AWAYS: A 'Big' Favor Between Friends

Wallace Beery gets tough in The Champ.

Wallace Beery remains a controversial figure in cinematic history. Far from the typical, handsome leading man, the beefy Beery became a success regardless of, and perhaps because of, his rough mug. On the one hand, you have his acting talent, which brought him great acclaim for his performances in some of the most enjoyable, popular and nostalgic films of the early, burgeoning studio era, such as The Champ, Tugboat Annie, and Dinner at Eight. On the other, you hear stories of his notorious temper, penchant for violence, and general jack-ass tendencies. Co-stars like Jackie Cooper and Jean Harlow claimed that Beery was less-than-friendly between takes on the various projects on which they worked together. Of course, this could be chalked up to insecurity-- a common, human frailty. But then there is Gloria Swanson's horrendous account of her wedding night with Beery, who in her description, essentially raped her. Their marriage was, needless to say, brief. There are also those nagging rumors about the death of Ted Healy, whom Wallace may or may not have beaten to death in a drunken brawl at the Trocadero with the help of Pat DiCicco and Albert R. Broccoli. The public was told that a trio of college boys had been responsible for the death of Ted, the creator of "The Three Stooges." Clearly, Beery was a complicated individual, perhaps even dangerously so. Yet, despite his hardened edge, he had a multitudes of fans, one of whom was another co-star, Louise Brooks, a woman who was not prone to pretense or bull-sh*tters.

Further complicating the Beery mystery-- was he a misunderstood good guy or a temperamentally evil bad seed?-- is the friendship he shared with Lon Chaney. If anyone could sniff out a fake, it was Lon, who kept his closest friends at arms' length and his enemies in the Ozarks. If he had felt that Wallace was a menace, he would have avoided him like the plague. However, these two fellows hit it off when they met doing work in silent pictures, including their collaboration in Victory. In addition to sharing a birthday-- April Fool's Day, with Lon two years Wallace's senior-- the duo both had roots in theater and were notorious hams between takes, often clowning around together. Lon had a profound effect on Wallace, who must have looked up to him, not only as an incomparable actor, but as a genuine human being. Lon's saintlike, Monkish, and oh-so-private existence stood in sharp contrast to Wallace's hard-drinking, hard-playing bitterness and mommy issues. Lon perhaps saw in Wallace a man struggling against demons and felt compassion for him.

Lon indulges his evil side, in a publicity still for The Unknown.

In any case, after Lon's surprising, premature death in 1930, Wallace was one of many to speak out in candid reverence for his friend: "Lon Chaney was the one man I knew who could walk with kings and not lose the common touch." Therefore, it must have been an odd feeling when he usurped the role of "Butch" in The Big House, which it is said had been intended for Lon before he succumbed to the illness that would claim his life. Certainly, Wallace must have enjoyed the success that the film achieved, and certainly he would have been honored to have fulfilled an obligation for his deceased friend. Still, it must have been hard saying the lines, going through the motions, when he knew that they were intended for another man, one of few whom he apparently held dear. (Interestingly, Wallace would also appear in 1941's The Bugle Sounds, which bore the same title as a silent film slated to be a Chaney picture that never came to be. In the original, Wallace and Lon were to be cast opposite each other as rival sergeants).

Insert Lon HERE: ---------------------------------------------^
Chester Morris and Wallace in The Big House.

In a way, Beery picked up where Lon left off. Though very different types-- Lon the master emotional and physical contortionist, and Beery the big lug with usually menacing intentions-- Beery's career skyrocketed with the advent of sound, and he portrayed a slew of memorable character roles that Lon himself may have been offerend as well. The bonds of friendship are strange, but Wallace's relationship with Lon at least earns him one point in an otherwise questionable life.


  1. Wow ! I did't know about this friendship. Leave it to you to find it though. When I was a kid, I always thought of Beery as this great big lovable lug. My opinion change of him as I got older and started hearing the bad stories. Surely Lon must have known about his abuse of Swanson. There's no doubt in my mind that he was involved in Healy's death. Think about it. 3 college boys from where ? UCLA? Management of the Troc and MGM knew what happened and Beery was banished to Europe til the heat was off. I pulled up the LA Times article of Healy's funeral and Eddie Mannix himself was a pallbearer. Can you imagine that? Well anyways, I do love George W Hill's The Big House. Thanks Meredith.

    1. I know! It is all too crazy. I really liked Beery's performances too, so the news was shocking and unsettling when I discovered that there was more brimming beneath the surface. As for his friendship with Lon, I think it would be more appropriate to say that they "got along." I don't think they were bosom buddies or deeply invested in each other's lives. Still, it is so strange. Did Lon turn a rare, blind eye, or did Beery wear a different face when he was around him? Mysteries, mysteries...

  2. One word “DUMFOUNDED”… I’m surprised! Surprised! Surprised! Thanks for sharing!