Friday, June 10, 2011

Oh, What a Character! Part Six: Morgan the Pirate, Stealer of Scenes

Immortal to cinephiles everywhere for his participation in The Wizard of Oz (in which he played the title figure and more), Mr. Frank Morgan had a significant and prolific career beyond that and was one of the great supporting actors of his (or any!) time. A highly-mannered (an aspect that sometimes costs him admirers) man with a twinkle in his eye, he added zest to countless roles. Not one to sleepwalk through a performance, his fellow actors needed to be fully engaged and on their toes if they wanted to register on-screen opposite him!

Morgan was born into wealth, the youngest of eleven children from a family that distributed bitters (the drink flavoring used in cocktails.) Born Francis Wupperman in New York, NY in 1890, he and a couple of his siblings would eventually augment their last name to Morgan and further simplify their first names as well. His brother Raphael Wupperman, older by nearly seven years, changed his name to Ralph Morgan and pursued an acting career, successfully appearing on Broadway and, in time, films. (He is perhaps best known now as the gentleman in the original Magnificent Obsession who introduces a life-changing philosophy to Robert Taylor.) Another brother, Carlos, changed his named to Carlyle Morgan and was a playwright and poet before being murdered while serving in the Army Corps of Intelligence in 1919.

Following his brother Ralph's lead, Frank Morgan, after first attending Cornell University, took to the boards himself. Between 1914 and 1932, he would work in about two-dozen (!) Broadway plays and musicals. Among them were Seventh Heaven, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Rosalie and The Band Wagon. For this last one, he was placed with Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, an exceedingly popular dance team. That's Adele in the middle. In time, she would retire and Astaire would become frequently partnered on-screen, in legendary fashion, with Ginger Rogers.

Prior to this, however, Morgan balanced steady stage work with silent films made in New York City. He married his wife Alma Muller (a successful realtor and woman's suffragette) in 1914 and their union would last until his death, producing one child. As the sound era dawned, Morgan's stage-trained voice allowed him to seamlessly transition to the new brand of film-making. In fact, Morgan's voice, along with his expressive face, would become a very important part of his screen persona. He became a contract player at MGM, the most beautifully-appointed and well-run studio of the day. Offering “more stars than there are in the heavens,” he worked alongside most of the greatest screen actors of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Far from being considered just another actor on the payroll, he had the rare distinction of being offered a lifetime contract at the elite studio!

He'd done one silent film with his friend, the legendary actor John Barrymore, in 1917 and they worked together again in 1933's Reunion in Vienna (shown here with Diana Wynard.) Morgan played a psychiatrist whose wife Wynard is attracted to Barrymore, a Russian prince forced by the revolution to work as a taxi cab driver. Morgan also worked with Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy and Ann Harding in the first film version of When Ladies Meet that same year.

1934 brought The Affairs of Cellini and the showy role of a Duke whose wife (Constance Bennett) is taken with Cellini (Fredric March.) This was based on a Broadway play called The Firebrand in which Morgan had played the very same role. He brought, perhaps, a bit too much of the theatre's overemphasis to the screen (depending on who you ask), but was nevertheless given a Best Actor Oscar nomination (his only competition being William Powell for The Thin Man and Clark Gable for It Happened One Night, the winner that year.) Just three nominees total, there was, at this point in time, no such thing as the Supporting Actor category!

An early version of Enchanted April was released in 1935, based on a stage play of the famous novel. Morgan was loaned to RKO Studios in order to play the husband of Ann Harding, at the time a major RKO star, though this fairly uninspired film's failure did much to diminish her standing. Morgan's role underwent shifts in character during the course of the story that he was able to handle adeptly, but the play-like structure seemed to rob the actors of the chance to demonstrate any changes themselves versus just suddenly being different in a subsequent scene.

The biographical film The Great Ziegfield, in 1936, was a prestige picture (it won the Best Picture and Best Actress Oscars that year) and Morgan had a prime supporting part in it as the crafty competitor of the famed show-businessman Florenz Ziegfield. William Powell, Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer starred. Loy portrayed Billie Burke, an actress who Morgan knew and worked with and who one day would be tied forever, like him, to one everlasting film.

That same year, the busy Morgan made Picadilly Jim as the father of Robert Montgomery. The screwball plot line called for Morgan to don a false beard and mustache and affect a phony accent. (His duplicity is revealed near the end when an irate Cora Witherspoon tears off his disguise.) His love interest here was Miss Billie Burke, making the amusing film a fun curio for Wizard of Oz fans.

Another one of his five films in release in 1936 was Dimples, starring one of the greatest child stars ever to exist, Miss Shirley Temple! They came very close to being cast together later in The Wizard of Oz, but Shirley's home studio, 20th Century Fox, wanted a lot of money in exchange for letting her play Dorothy. In time, MGM went with their own Judy Garland and Temple wound up in the colorful and similar, but far less successful, movie, The Blue Bird.

Film after film was churned out in these glory days and Morgan remained actively utilized. In 1938, he played the shifty father of upright boxer Robert Taylor in The Crowd Roars. Who knew ol' Robert had such hairy legs! This was one of a series of Taylor films designed to steer him from his pretty boy image and prove to the world that he was a real man. You would not believe the silly hubbub that went on in the era's gossip columns and fan magazines over Taylor's chest and whether it was hairy enough (manly enough) or not!

1938 brought Morgan a zestful, fun role in the film Paradise for Three. The story concerned a millionaire (Morgan) who allows himself to win a soap jingle contest sponsored by his own company, resulting in a trip to Vienna, Austria. He, incognito, is then treated shabbily by those who believe that the other winner, Robert Young, is actually the rich man. Meanwhile, Mary Astor is out to land a rich man and proceeds to work on Young before turning her attentions to Morgan. None of it is to be taken seriously, however. The story is all in fun.

Many film historians consider 1939 the single greatest year for enduring, classic motion pictures. The list of greats goes on and on and includes Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Beau Geste, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Women and Wuthering Heights. Strangely enough, though it was nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture, The Wizard of Oz was not really the sensation that it later became. Upon release, its success was only modest, but a 1949 re-release was terrific, raking in more money than the initial run. Still, the film didn't become an absolute legend until it was shown on TV, where it was a stunning success and became an annual tradition for families. Astonishingly, folks were annually glued to their sets to watch this visually-arresting color film in black & white until color TVs came into vogue in the mid 1960s!

The role of The Wizard was first offered to W.C. Fields, who wanted $25,000 more than he was offered and had precious little interest in it anyway as he was working on a screenplay of his own. Figuring that the part was too slight to be attractive to an actor of any standing, it was decided that whoever won the role would also be disguised to play a doorman and a carriage driver (along, of course, with the part of Professor Marvel, shown, like most of the other Oz characters, in the introductory scenes.) When they settled on Frank Morgan, he delivered each of these characterizations in spades!

When selecting just the right coat for the Professor character, the costume department bought an entire rack of vintage jackets from a second-hand store and offered them to Morgan for perusal. He, along with the head of wardrobe and the director, settled on the one they felt best only to later discover, quite by accident, that the coat had been expressly made just for L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books, and his name was found on a label in one of the pockets!

It's still being debated as to whether Morgan is the face of the projected Wizard, you know, the scary, imposing visage that first greets visitors to his hall. All I know is that, while I found Margaret Hamilton terrifying as the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys even more so, that sequence in Oz's great hall outdid even them! The swirling smoke and the severe face paired with that deep voice bellowing had me shivering under the afghan!

The Wizard was initially supposed to sing as he handed out his gifts to the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion, but (even though Morgan was able to carry a tune) it was eventually declared that the sequence would be more effective if spoken. Hamilton, who had worked with Morgan on three previous movies yet shared no scenes with him in this one, claimed that this part of the film always made her tear up because the generosity demonstrated by Morgan in this segment was precisely the way she knew him in real life.

I had the profound pleasure once to play this role (under heavy age make-up mind you!) in a low-budget stage production of the story and found that same section to be very moving as well. What the Wizard is giving each of the heroes is something that each of them already had, in bulk, but simply didn't know it. The message that we all are like this, and have unknown and untapped resources, is one I cannot approve of more heartily! (These are backstage and rehearsal shots, by the way.)

My most hilarious memories, though, are of my scenes with Toto. We had a (female) Cairn Terrier whose name really was Toto and she stole every scene she was in! All through rehearsal for the campfire scene, I had a little doggie treat on the end of a stick to “train” her to want it by the time we opened. But on opening night, when I put a Vienna sausage on the stick instead, she practically dragged Dorothy through the audience and up on the stage where she proceeded to jump and charge for the stick long before she was supposed to! It was cicada season and she used to go outside and eat them (!) and then come in and vomit them up backstage.

I made my exit (quite dangerously, in retrospect) in a cherry picker that had skirting around it to resemble the basket of a hot air balloon and would whirl upwards as a hefty woman shoved and pulled the devise away as quickly as she could! The citizens of Oz, mostly children who had doubled as Munchkins, would say my lines if I took too dramatic a pause at any time. Ah.... children and animals, children and animals...... Anyway, enough about me.

Mr. Morgan was appearing in four or five films per year, so this really was just one more, for the most part. In 1940, she joined Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in another classic, The Shop Around the Corner, all about two coworkers who dislike each other intensely, but who are, unwittingly, anonymous pen pals to each other through a letter service. Morgan played the owner of the title establishment.

It was the last of three films Morgan made with Sullavan. He frequently appeared with Clark Gable (who became a lifelong friend), too, and in Boom Town, amongst a nearly all-star cast, costarred with Gable and Spencer Tracy as well as Claudette Colbert and Hedy Lamarr. The story of wildcatting in the oil business gave Morgan a role as an executive and associate of the two men.

Morgan, certainly not an Irishman by birth or heritage, was taken in as an honorary member of the so-called "Irish Mafia," a clatch of Hollywood actors of Emerald Isle descent who were known for their hard-drinking ways (and Morgan was no slouch in that department, himself.) Chief participants included James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Frank McHugh (another very busy character actor) and Pat O'Brien. Irish tenor Dennis Day even sang at Morgan's funeral.

A year later in Honky Tonk, he played opposite Gable again as his father-in-law, a judge trying to rein the fast-talking con-man in. His daughter in the film, playing Gable's wife, was none other than pretty, blonde Lana Turner. Awesome character actresses Claire Trevor and Marjorie Main rounded out the cast.

A rare (for this stage) leading role came with The Vanishing Virginian, a nostalgic and sentimental movie about life in Lynchburg, Virginia in the early part of the 20th century. Spring Byington played Morgan's wife while Kathryn Grayson costarred as his daughter. Despite the color lobby card shown here, the movie was in black and white.

Spencer Tracy, John Garfiled and Hedy Lamarr's 1942 film Tortilla Flat yielded Morgan another character part in heavy disguise. He played a Mexican firewood seller called The Pirate who might be sitting on a hidden fortune. It's not quite as bizarre as it sounds when you know that all three stars were also playing Mexican peasants! Such was the time of its making... For this role, he was nominated once again for an Oscar, this time in the relatively new Supporting Actor category. The winner, however, was Van Heflin for Johnny Eager.

Morgan's workload diminished a little bit in the mid-'40s, but he still appeared in from one to three movies a year. In 1946, he was cast alongside one of THE biggest and most powerful bitches the screen has ever known. Yes, Morgan was set to costar with Lassie, the loveable collie movie star! Ha! Lassie starred as “Bill” in The Courage of Lassie and little Elizabeth Taylor was the top-billed human. After a series of adventures, Lassie is given aid from Morgan, who also testifies in court in order to save the dog's life.

Some sort of public appearance in 1947, presumably having to do with the U.S. Navy, led to this fun-loving photograph that I felt I simply had to include here. I feel certain that, had he lived, Frank Morgan would have made a delightful guest star as one of Samantha's relatives on Bewitched. He just had that same hilarious, sparkling sensibility that many of the other performers on that show possessed. As it turned out, he never once appeared as an actor (or perhaps even as himself!) on any television program.

After working with Lana Turner again in 1947's Green Dolphin Street (a period piece that features a rousing earthquake as its climax), he made his third film with her in 1948. The Three Musketeers cast her as the evil, but lusciously beautiful, Milady de Winter against Gene Kelly's D'Artagnan. King Louis XIII and his Queen Anne were portrayed by Morgan and Miss Angela Lansbury. (Lansbury, who looked lovely in the splendid color film, was unhappy with her role, coveting Lana's juicier part, but seems to have had a fun time working with Morgan as the exasperated monarch.)

In 1949, Morgan worked for the third and last time with James Stewart in The Stratton Story. Morgan played a baseball scout who discovers Stewart, leading him on the path to success, only to have him lose a leg in an accident. Frank brought plenty of assurance and warmth to his role even though the part was different than the somewhat more affluent, executive types or fussy period characters he tended to play.

Any Number Can Play, with Clark Gable and Alexis Smith, came out the same year. His next film, Key to the City, was also with Gable. Here, Gable played one of two mayors who fall in love with each other at a convention, the other mayor being Loretta Young. This was dicey because the two had not costarred since The Call of the Wild, fifteen years prior, during which their affair had produced a little girl who Young kept secret and soon “adopted” in order to avoid scandal. Young was reluctant to costar with Gable again, but ultimately did because refusal to accept the job might create gossip as to why she did so. It all turned out fine on that front, though the now-married Young did endure a miscarriage during filming. Morgan played a fire chief who is part of the shenanigans of the story.

This wasn't supposed to be Frank Morgan's final film, but it was. He signed on to play Buffalo Bill Cody in the colorful musical Annie Get Your Gun, reuniting him with Judy “Dorothy” Garland, but was killed by a heart attack early on (with only the opening number in the can), to be replaced by Louis Calhern. That was a minor concern to the studio when compared to the firing of the film's troubled star, Garland, whose role was then taken over by Betty Hutton. Sadly, Morgan died before ever knowing that The Wizard of Oz would soon become one of the world's most beloved movies of all time, enjoyed by generation after generation.

Undeniably capable of being hammy and over-the-top, he nevertheless could deliver the dramatic goods when they were required, as well. A sparkling, dedicated actor from the greatest days of movie-making, he seems a perfect person to highlight in this little series of tributes I've been doing on character actors.

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