Ask someone who the "greats" of the silent screen were, and you'll hear Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney and probably a long list of others. However, it's very unlikely the list would include three character actors without whom the silent screen would not have been the same.
This lumbering 6'4" giant of a man could portray the epitome of evil as he did in "Tol'able David" (1921) or a big "softie" as he did in "Mantrap" (1926). He was never the star of a film himself, but he contributed immensely to the stardom of people such as Richard Barthelmess, Betty Bronson, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert and Buster Keaton with his supporting roles.
Torrence came to America from Scotland. He was a veteran of the stage, and it was actually one of his stage performances that led to his first film role as the brutal Luke Hatburn in "Tol'able David." The film's director, Henry King, saw Torrence perform on Broadway in 1920, and selected him for the role. He was an immediate hit as Richard Barthelmess' evil nemesis.
Just as intensely as they had hated him in "Tol'able David," audiences fell in love with him as the crusty veteran of the plains, Bill Jackson, in "The Covered Wagon" (1923). Although the film boasted many stars such as J. Warren Kerrigan, Lois Wilson, Alan Hale and Tully Marshall, it is Torrence who consistently gets the acting honors in this film. As the tobacco-chewing best friend to Kerrigan's character, Will Banion, Torrence gets to play a tough guy when he urges Will to go ahead and gouge Sam Woodhull's (Alan Hale) eyes out in a "free" fight and a comedian when he begs Will to let him throw Woodhull back in the quicksand from which he was just rescued.
He was cast as Captain Hook in Betty Bronson's "Peter Pan" (1925). James Card, author and founder of the George Eastman film archive, said, "And Ernest Torrence as the 'not altogether unheroic' Captain Hook after his triumph as the dust-encrusted scout of 'The Covered Wagon' was brilliant casting."
In "Mantrap" (1926), he plays a lovable backwoodsman in need of a wife. The most unlikely coupling imaginable comes about when Torrence's character marries city girl Clara Bow. Even in a role such as this, Torrence could switch convincingly to a menacing hulk of a man in a moment's notice when he goes looking for his errant wife and the man with whom she has run off. In the end, she realizes she really loves him and comes back to him, and, somehow, Torrence makes us believe this is possible.
His performance as Steamboat Bill in Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) is a gem! Torrence was a master at portraying frustration (he did this well in "The Covered Wagon" at Will Banion's reluctance several times to go ahead and "finish off" bad guy Sam Woodhull). Again, he's a crusty old coot who is constantly frustrated at his attempts to make a man out of his son, portrayed somewhat effeminately by Keaton. He means well, though, and you can't help but love him.
Some of Torrence's other films include "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) with Lon Chaney, "The King of Kings" (1927), "The Ruggles of Red Gap" (1923), "Twelve Miles Out" (1927) with John Gilbert, and his final film, "I Cover the Waterfront" (1933) with Claudette Colbert.
Torrence died May 15,1933, at age 55.
Cigar chewing Theodore Roberts was also a veteran of the stage, which is where he and Wallace Reid became good friends. Roberts worked in support of Reid in many of his pictures including "Nan of Music Mountain" (1917), "The Source" (1918), "The Roaring Road" (1919), "Hawthorne of the U.S.A." (1919), "Double Speed" (1920), "Excuse My Dust" (1920), "Too Much Speed" (1921) and "The Affairs of Anatol" (1921).
Roberts gives one of his trademark performances in "The Roaring Road" as J.D. "The Bear" Ward. He provides the perfect antagonist for Reid constantly snarling and chewing on a cigar impatiently with smoke billowing around his head. A Motion Picture Magazine review of the picture said, ". .. according to the number of close-ups of Theodore Roberts smoking a cigar, I should say it was starring a new brand of tobacco." Photoplay said, "Theodore Roberts is excellent as the blustering J.D. . . ."
Around this same time, Roberts was being used by Cecil B. DeMille in some of his most popular films such as "Don't Change Your Husband" (1919) and ""Male and Female" (1919). In the latter, he still has the cigar, but, in contrast to his aggressive character in "The Roaring Road," he plays the passive Lord Loam who lets his daughters (played by Gloria Swanson and Mildred Reardon) rule the roost. When they are all stranded on a desert island, he willingly concedes to rule by his butler (played by Thomas Meighan).
He does add a comical touch to the film, though, such as the scene where the shipwrecked party panics when they see something rustling in the undergrowth. While the women recoil in fright and the men pull out their firearms, out comes Roberts, whom they had presumed dead in the shipwreck, on hands and knees - still in his bathrobe, glasses down on his nose, and, of course, the ubiquitous cigar clenched tightly in his teeth.
The role by which Roberts will be most readily remembered is as Moses in DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1923). It is a tribute to this old veteran's talent that he could play the clueless patriarch four years earlier in "Male and Female," and turn in a first-rate performance of dignity and earnestness in this Biblical epic. Of course the make-up helped, but it's hard to believe this is the same actor who did such comedic roles as he did in "The Roaring Road" and other films. A December 22, 1923, New York Times review said of Roberts' performance, "Theodore Roberts, who recently was seen in the character of a businessman with a cigar in his mouth, gave an excellent portrayal of Moses, the Lawgiver. His make-up was faultless, and the sincerity with which he acted this part made the whole affair doubly effective. "
Roberts' health began to go downhill in the mid-twenties, and his his film work was reduced accordingly. He didn't make a single picture in 1924, only one each in 1925 and 1926, and two more in 1928. He died December 14, 1928, at the age of 67 probably depriving the coming sound era of one of the best character actors ever.
George Fawcett is one of those actors who seems to keep popping up in film after film. He made 129 pictures between 1915 and 1931, an amazing record for a 16-year period!
D.W. Griffith was apparently fond of Fawcett, because he used him quite often in his films of the late 'teens.
In the World War I drama "Hearts of the World" (1918), he is the good-natured and lovable village carpenter who takes money from M. Cuckoo's purse to give to the Little Disturber, hugs and kisses "The Boy" when he meets his fellow villager in the trenches, and laughs while having dinner as the little boys stick items from the table in his ears and mouth.
In contrast to this performance, he effectively plays the stern, pious father of Bobby Harron in "A Romance of Happy Valley" (1918). John Logan Jr. (Harron) wants to go to the city to try and make his fortune. Because his father's objections are so emphatic, he decides to steal away one night to fulfill his dream. His father discovers this deception, and a tense, emotional confrontation ensues between the two of them. Fawcett, Harron, and Kate Bruce, who played Harron's mother, handle the dramatics well.
The end of the movie is less effective with an episode of misunderstandings in which Fawcett thinks he has mistakenly killed his son. Fawcett's performance does, nevertheless, rise above this melodrama.
Before definitely deciding on the casting for "Broken Blossoms" (1919), Griffith had begun rehearsing Fawcett in the role of the Yellow Man which Richard Barthelmess made famous. Barthelmess commented later, "I can state that after having watched Fawcett rehearse. . . I merely went into rehearsal myself and copied every mannerism that he had given the part. I couldn't have done better, as Fawcett was a fine actor."
Fawcett also appeared for Griffith in "The Girl Who Stayed At Home" (1919) again as Harron's father, "True Heart Susie" (1919) as a stranger, "Scarlet Days" (1919) as a sheriff, and for the third time as Harron's father in "The Greatest Question" (1919). He returned to work for Griffith for the last time in 1929 in "Lady of the Pavements" as Baron Hausemann. Of this final performance, Griffith historian Edward Wagenknecht said, "Indeed, the only player who suggests anything that had appeared in earlier Griffith films is George Fawcett, who performs valiantly in what he has to do, which is not enough notably to affect one's final impression."
Fawcett proceeded through the 1920's being called on by a variety of stars and a variety of companies. He played an eccentric tramp in one of the Johnny Hines' comedies, "Burn 'Em Up Barnes" (1921). Cecil B. DeMille called on him to play a judge in "Manslaughter" (1922). He was Blanche Sweet's father in her 1924 version of "Tess of D'Ubervilles."
A typical role for Fawcett was in "The Mad Whirl" (1924). His rugged face, large nose, piercing eyes and intimidating scowl made him the perfect, old-fashioned, Victorian parent, somewhat reminiscent of his role in "A Romance of Happy Valley" but without the religious bent. He is a simple country store owner who is trying to raise his daughter (played by May McAvoy) properly among the Jazz Age party goers, one of whom she is attracted to, a young man named Jack Herrington (played by Jack Mulhall) whose wealthy parents not only condone the all-night parties, they participate in them. In the end, the old-fashioned values of Fawcett's character win out, but not before he has the opportunity to give the Herringtons a severe tongue-lashing about their lifestyle.
One delightful scene has young Jack come into Fawcett's store looking for the daughter but without admitting the real reason he's there. So he spends his time ordering ice cream he doesn't want and dawdles around while Fawcett squints, frowns and snarls and generally intimidates the young man.
MGM used Fawcett effectively in some of their biggest pictures of the late twenties. In "Flesh and the Devil" (1926) with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, he is Pastor Voss who christened Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hansen) and has watched the two young men's friendship continue to grow over the years. However, Felicitas (Garbo) comes along and creates the first division in this friendship.
After a lengthy trip away, Leo returns to find Felicitas married to Ulrich. In a very intense scene, Pastor Voss surprises Leo by telling him he must end the friendship with Ulrich - because he is still in love with Felicitas. Leo certainly must realize he is still in love with Felicitas, but to hear the Pastor say it is extremely disconcerting. Gilbert's character looks expressionless, and somewhat still in shock over the surprise marriage. Fawcett's turned down mouth, cold, steely eyes and chiseled face seem to say, "You will do as I say!" but without a word passing between the two men.
Fawcett appeared the year before with Gilbert in "The Merry Widow" (1925) as King Nikita which was directed by Erich von Stroheim, and once more with Gilbert and Garbo in "Love" (1927) as the Grand Duke. He played a final time for von Stroheim in the 1928 disaster "The Wedding March."
By the time Fawcett made his last film in 1931, he had been acting for 43 years, having started out on the stage in 1888 as a young man of 28. He passed away June 6, 1939, at the age of 79.
A 1928 Motion Picture Magazine article commemorating Fawcett's 40 years as an actor stated, "Fawcett has on the screen today few rivals" - an understatement, most certainly.
As silent film buffs sit in awe of the performances of Barthelmess, Gish, Garbo, Gilbert, Reid, Keaton, Chaney and so many others who were the stars of the day, it's easy to overlook the character actors who portrayed the judge, the king, the tramp, the pastor, the carpenter, the father or the businessman in these films. But also try to imagine the loss, too, if superb actors such as Ernest Torrence, Theodore Roberts, or George Fawcett hadn't been there to lend their great talents to these cinematic gems!
copyright 1998 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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