Louis Wolheim's 1931 obituaries drew attention to the two things we still remember him for today: his unique face and his defining role Katczinsky in Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Of course there was a lot more.
A Cornell graduate who stayed on in Ithaca, New York to tutor students in math, it was pure chance that brought Wolheim to stage and screen when a pair of brothers visited Ithaca on location with Essanay and decided to base their own film company in the picturesque town located in Central New York.
A big star from acting's royal family took a shine to Wolheim and assisted him in getting film and stage roles back in Manhattan. Wolheim would originate two major stage roles in the 1920's and play small, typically villainous, roles in many films, several of which are considered classics today.
He'd head to Hollywood in 1927 and reach the peak of stardom playing Kat in All Quiet on the Western Front. Another big part loomed on the horizon, but Wolheim would be removed from the role when he fell ill, replaced by one of his former Ithaca students. He'd die just a few weeks later.
Most sources state that Louis Robert Wolheim was born in New York on March 28, 1880. All except the census records, that is, which show that through 1905 Wolheim would give his birthplace as Russia and that he and his family would emigrate to New York in 1888.
Wolheim's parents, Elias and Lena, had married around 1870 and according to the 1900 census Lena was mother to ten children total, just three living at the dawn of the twentieth century. Of the three only two, Louis and younger brother Morris, were living with them at that time. Louis Wolheim would be very proud of his Jewish heritage and according to drama critic Ashton Stevens had disdain for Jews in theatre who changed their names to better appeal to the marquee.
The bright Wolheim attended the City College of New York before heading off to Cornell where he'd earn a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1906. The stories are a bit hazy because Wolheim himself was quite the yarn spinner, but his famed mashed up face is typically credited to a injury received while playing football at Cornell.
In Jack Spears' biography of Wolheim that appeared in the March 1972 issue of Films in Review he notes that Wolheim was never more than a second stringer on the Cornell team, but the October 5, 1904 issue of the Syracuse-Post Standard bluntly states that "Wolheim was transferred from the scrubs to the Varsity as fullback," and he appeared among the starters in game reports from that time forward.
He'd tutor Cornell students in math over drinks in the Dutch Kitchen bar of the Ithaca Hotel, among them, supposedly, Adolphe Menjou, who did attend the school for three years. Menjou claimed that "My instructor in mathematics at University Prep was the late Louis Wolheim. He had a mind like a calculating machine and a face that looked as though it had been run over by a truck" (26). Menjou added that he suspected Wolheim made more profitable use of his mathematical mind gambling with cards and dice.
According to Spears, Wolheim's tutoring sessions "usually ended with an inebriated Wolheim telling fanciful tales of an imaginary childhood in Russia or Germany." I have a feeling those tales might not have been so imaginary!
Wolheim spent three years in Mexico, 1910-1912, as an engineer for a U.S. mining firm but eventually settled back in Ithaca where "Wally," as he was known in town, settled into a position clerking at the cigar counter of the Ithaca Hotel. It was during this time, the mid-1910's, that filmmaking came to Central New York.
Brothers Leopold and Theodore Wharton had traveled to Ithaca in 1912 to film Dear Old Girl (1913) starring Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne for Essanay. They loved the beautiful surroundings and interesting topography of the area and would base their Wharton Film Company in Stewart Park in Ithaca where they made over seventy films between 1914-1920.
Among the earliest was the Pearl White serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914) which featured Lionel Barrymore among the cast. The story goes that Barrymore spotted Wolheim while working in Ithaca and was immediately drawn to his face, urging him to enter films. The June 20, 1915 edition of Elmira, NY based Evening Telegram mentions Wolheim as an extra in The Exploits of Elaine, but makes mysterious reference to an injury which forced him to withdraw from the film. The Spears biography credits Wolheim's film debut as an Indian extra in an unnamed Wharton film (apparently The Shanghai Man) on July 9, 1914 with his first bit role coming soon after that as a policeman in The Warning (1914).
Wolheim followed Barrymore to New York a few months later and Lionel got him extra work at Fort Lee and in some of his own films at Metro. He made his stage debut in September 1919 with a small part in The Jest featuring both Lionel and John Barrymore and would gain his first attention from Broadway critics the following year in The Broken Wing. He was uncredited but quite prominent in the film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) starring John Barrymore, where he played the proprietor of the seedy club Hyde visits. The following year he had a small role as the executioner in D.W. Griffith's classic Orphans of the Storm and soon after that he'd appear as a villain in another big John Barrymore film, 1922's Sherlock Holmes.
Stardom came to Wolheim on the stage in 1922 when he played the lead in Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape.
Wolheim first met O'Neill by chance at a Barrymore party thrown to celebrate the opening of The Claw which starred Lionel and opened in October 1921. Performing O'Neill author Yvonne Shaffer didn't think it was by chance so much as the shy O'Neill setting up the meeting to get a feel for Wolheim. Wolheim and O'Neill became fast friends during rehearsals when Wolheim entertained the playwright with his funny stories. According to Shaffer Wolheim was "famous for his witty Yiddish dialect anecdotes," and these went over big with O'Neill.
Wolheim earned wide praise for the part which he'd told critic Ashton Stevens "I didn't want to take ... at first. It was too damn important. Hell, why give it to me and take a chance on wrecking the whole damn production?" (Stevens 26). Nevertheless he was such a hit with O'Neill that the author refused to see the 1944 screen adaptation starring William Bendix in the Wolheim role. O'Neill wrote in a letter to Theresa Helburn, "I remember Wolheim was practically perfect as Yank and was also a pal of mine. I don't want to have that memory spoiled" (Stevens 29).
Following his success in The Hairy Ape Wolheim signed a one-year contract with William Randolph Heart's Cosmopolitan Pictures, where he appeared in the mystery The Face in the Fog (1922) starring his old pal Lionel Barrymore. Wolheim also played for Cosmopolitan in a film starring the company's crown jewel, Marion Davies, in 1923's Little Old New York.
Louis Wolheim married the Australian born actress Ethel Dane in 1923. Dane, born Ethel Spiller, was formerly the wife of actor Cyril Keightley. She gained her fame on the London stage and met Wolheim when she was touring New York. Dane, also a skilled sculptor and painter was described in her prime as having "small features and rounded face and ... masses of golden hair." About her husband Dane is quoted in an Australian obituary of the actor as saying, "Louis was not intended for the theatre ... He was a mathematician at Cornell University and graduated as an engineer. He took to the stage 'just for fun' following a bet with some undergraduates."
In 1924 Wolheim earned a larger part in another D.W. Griffith film, America, a story of the American Revolution which featured Wolheim's pal Lionel Barrymore as the heavy, Captain Butler, who torments the lead, Griffith paramour Carole Dempster. Wolheim has a featured role as Captain Hare, Butler's even more sadistic sidekick, who gets to intimidate Dempster a couple of times himself in between killing revolutionaries.
Wolheim next had his biggest hit on the stage originating the role of Captain Flagg in Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings' What Price Glory? which opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York on September 5, 1924 and ran for over a year, 435 performances, through September 12, 1925.
Wolheim played Flagg opposite William "Stage" Boyd's Quirk, in parts that are best remembered today as being performed by Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe in Raoul Walsh's 1926 screen version for Fox.
The September 15, 1924 edition of Time Magazine said Wolheim "has the toughest face in the American Theatre, the toughest part as Captain Flagg, and he blends them irresistibly." Of the play itself Time reported that "The extraordinary feature of this amazing play is its persistent wit. It had to be shortened after the opening night because laughter in the audience stretched the evening until 11:30. It is humor close to the soil; sometimes it shocks; always it bites."
After Zoe Atkins' play Pardon My Glove starring Billie Burke misfired and failed to make it to Broadway, Wolheim left the stage behind and finally headed west to Hollywood where he'd star with the other William Boyd, the one later beloved as Hoppy, in Howard Hughes production of Two Arabian Knights (1927). The successful comedy would win Lewis Milestone an Oscar as Best Director, Comedy Picture in 1929.
Those first Academy Awards included nominations for several films Wolheim appeared in after landing in California including Herbert Brenon's directorial nomination for a Dramatic picture with Sorrell and Son (1927); William Cameron Menzies winning the award for Best Art Direction for films including Tempest (1928) starring old Wolheim crony John Barrymore; and perhaps most notably for Wolheim's career a Best Picture nomination for The Racket (1928) which lost out to the William A. Wellman classic Wings (1927).
The Racket, also directed by Lewis Milestone, is an early gangster movie starring Thomas Meighan as a police captain tormented by mob figure Nick Scarsi, played by Wolheim (Much more on The Racket here). Meighan's McQuigg looks bland in comparison to Wolheim's Scarsi, a Capone like gangster who causes mayhem throughout the silent thriller. Some less remembered titles followed before Milestone gave Wolheim the part which earned him an enduring legacy unlike his classic stage roles would have ever allowed. Wolheim stole the show as good natured Kat in the classic All Quiet on the Western Front starring babyfaced Lew Ayres.
"Katczinsky. He's uncanny," says one of the older soldiers when Ayres and his fellow young soldiers come to them starving.
We first meet Kat licking his lips while hiding out and watching a chow truck deliver pigs to another group of soldiers. After creating a distraction he stands with his arms out and catches one of the full pigs that he carries back to the men. He's tough at first making the kids barter for their share of the grub, but he quickly endears himself to Ayres' Paul, who comes to worship Kat, and audience alike. War wise Kat is sensitive when he can relate, good-natured around his boys, but with a short fuse when something doesn't make sense to him.
All Quiet on the Western Front premiered in Los Angeles in April 1930 and went into general release throughout the country in August of that year. By that point Wolheim, riding the peak of his popularity, had about six months left to live.
After completion of All Quiet Wolheim signed a contract with RKO that was to give him star billing and the opportunity to direct one film. That film was The Sin Ship, starring Wolheim with Mary Astor, Hugh Herbert and Ian Keith. It has it's moments, including a nice nod when Astor's character, giggling after shaming Wolheim's Captain out of a rough encounter, remarks to Keith that "our noble captain just pulled The Hairy Ape gag--on me!"
But despite the film not going into release until after Wolheim's death he'd seen enough to know he wasn't happy with his work behind the camera and planned never to direct again.
Wolheim also appeared in the railroad thriller Danger Lights (1930) with Robert Armstrong and Jean Arthur. This one's available in public domain and can be viewed pretty easily online.
While The Sin Ship was Wolheim's last release, Gentleman's Fate (1931) starring him as a gangster opposite silent legend John Gilbert, his unlikely brother, was the last film he worked in in November 1930. Gentleman's Fate is interesting to see Wolheim put voice to a gangster type character such as he played silently in The Racket, though a bit depressing knowing Gilbert's eventual fate. While the Gilbert voice isn't bad here, I have a feeling it only seems strong in retrospect--he reminded me of Ronald Colman, which is fine, but likely not what people were expecting at that time.
Wolheim was next set for a reunion with Lewis Milestone when Milestone selected him to play the part of Walter Burns in The Front Page (1931), but Wolheim was unwell and overweight at the time he was cast.
He went on a crash diet and lost 30 pounds in under a month in anticipation of the role, but collapsed on the set on February 4, 1931. Wolheim was replaced in the film by his former pupil from his Ithaca days, Adolphe Menjou, and Menjou, Milestone and the film itself would go on to be nominated for Academy Awards. The Charlie MacArthur-Ben Hecht script is better remembered today for the 1940 film version, His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Louis Wolheim underwent an exploratory operation at the Los Angeles Osteopathic Hospital which revealed widespread stomach cancer. A second operation was scheduled to attempt to remove the cancer, but Wolheim was too weak. He slipped into a coma and died February 18, 1931, age 50.
While Wolheim's Yank of The Hairy Ape and Flagg of What Price Glory? are now relegated to old books and second or third hand oral histories, he will always be remembered for his defining screen role of Kat in All Quiet on the Western Front.
As for the face, he was sensitive about it.
There were newspaper reports announcing a plastic surgery intending to fit him with a profile resembling John Barrymore. Tracy Hammond Lews article "Louis Wolheim's Nose Caused Much Trouble," quoted by Yvonne Shaffer in Performing O'Neill, claimed that at one time very early in Wolheim's acting career he did get his nose fixed at his mother's insistence. Supposedly he went out to celebrate his handsome new appearance that night, got into a brawl and promptly had the nose re-broken.
As for the looming surgery in 1927, which was to be performed by the same doctor who had fixed heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey's nose, Shaffer writes that United Artists stepped in with an injunction to halt any procedure because they wanted the same face that they signed to a contract (29).
- "Adelaide Girl Is Widow of Louis Wolheim." Sunday Times (Perth, WA: 1902-1954). 7 June 1931: 6.
- Beale, George H. "'Homeliest' Film Actor to Have Face Rebuilt." Oakland Tribune. 26 October 1927: 25.
- Britt, George. "'And I was a x-! xx!! Good Teacher, too!' says Louis Wolheim." The Sandusky Star Journal. 25 July 1925: 2.
- "Cook Back in the Game, Wolheim Plays Fullback" Syracuse Post-Standard. 5 October 1904: 3.
- "Famed Cornellian: Louis R. Wolheim One of the Real Leaders of the Big University" Elmira New York Evening Telegram. 20 June 1915.
- Ki-Ki of Adelaide: Ethel Dane Chats. The Mail (Adelaide, SA: 1912-1954). 21 November 1914: 12.
- Menjou, Adolphe and M.M. Musselman. It Took Nine Tailors. New York: Whittelsey House, 1948.
- "Louis Wolheim's Widow Here." Advertiser and Register (Adelaide< SA: 1931). 26 May 1931: 8.
- Shafer, Yvonne. Performing O'Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.
- Spears, Jack. "Louis Wolheim." Films in Review. March 1972: 158-177.