There weren’t many names on the birthday list for today, but since I had just seen one of those few fall prey to Jenny Wren’s blackmail attempts in The Phantom of Crestwood (1932) I had to follow the trail.
Character actor Robert McWade was born January 25, 1872 in Buffalo, New York. He was the youngest son of Robert McWade, Sr., a famed 19th Century theatrical star who was Joseph Jefferson’s rival Rip Van Winkle throughout the last quarter of the 19th Century. The father, born 1835, also shared his January 25 birthday with his son.
Junior followed in father’s footsteps and took to the stage himself around the turn of the century. Robert McWade, Jr. was a fixture on Broadway between 1903 and 1928 during which time he appeared in nearly 40 productions! The Fourth Estate (1909) was said to be his breakout role with The Country Boy (1910), New Brooms (1924), and The Home Towners (1926) other plays of note.
He then embarked upon a successful career as a Hollywood character actor, appearing in over 80 films before his death in 1938. You’ll usually find Robert McWade pictured left or right of another movie face near the end of the opening credits, just before the movie begins. The freelance actor was said to make in the neighborhood of $800 a week throughout the 1930s.
By the time we’re used to seeing McWade he’s already past 60. He excels at playing cantankerous grouches who typically show up for just a brief scene or two to put a thorn in the side of the lead character. McWade’s characters were more nasty than evil. He played a lot of unlikeable politicians and other fat cat types. Once you spot him you know your hero is in trouble if he needs McWade for anything!
The Phantom of Crestwood was actually a better than usual showcase for Robert McWade. But assuming you haven’t seen that I’ve gone ahead and taken several screen captures of Robert McWade in some of the more famous movies he’s appeared in. I think you’ll find he’s usually the last person you remember from the pre-code classics I've selected, but you’ll undoubtedly recognize him all the same.
Robert’s older brother Edward McWade actually appeared in even more films than him, over 125, typically as a bit player. As their father noted in a 1905 interview, Edward was a writer, not an actor, having recently penned the play Winchester at that time. Sure enough Edward McWade’s IMDb page counts 15 writing credits beginning with an 1897 (!) Edison adaptation of the very same Winchester, then titled The Little Reb.
Father Robert McWade, Sr. remained active long enough to reach the movies himself. Vitagraph brought him to the screen to enact his classic part of Rip Van Winkle in 1912. He’s credited as appearing in 16 Vitagraph films before his death, March 5, 1913.
While the father’s legacy far surpassed either son in his own lifetime, if not theirs, Robert McWade, Jr. certainly beat out the old man at the final curtain. He died on the set of his last film, Clarence Brown’s Benefits Forgot, an MGM production starring Walter Huston and James Stewart that was released as Of Human Hearts (1938) less than a month after McWade’s passing.
The date was January 19, 1938, less than a week shy of McWade's 66th birthday.
After shooting his final scene, in which McWade’s Dr. Crumm presents Jimmy Stewart with a letter from President Lincoln demanding his presence in Washington, McWade headed over to the edge of the set where director Brown joined him.
According to the Associated Press report Brown said, “Good work, Bob, that’s your final,” meaning he had completed his work on the film.
“Yes, that’s my final scene,” replied McWade. His head fell forward.
MGM studio physician Dr. Susan Jones was summoned. Her diagnosis: “It’s no use. He’s dead of a heart attack.”
And so rather than receiving little or no mention in the papers, as quite honestly was destined to be his lot, Robert McWade, Jr., by all reports, left this world a trouper.
- “Dramatic End.” San Jose News 18 Jan 1938: 23. Google News. Web. 25 Jan 2013.
- Heffernan, Harold. “Veteran Actor Plays His Last Scene and Dies.” The Miami News 30 Jan 1938: 4E. Google News. Web. 25 Jan 2013.
- Soanes, Wood. “Curtain Calls.” Oakland Tribune 6 Mar 1929: 71. NewspaperArchive. Web. 25 Jan 2013.
- ”Stage Favorites: Robert McWade.” Washington Post 7 May 1905: 35. NewspaperArchive. Web. 25 Jan 2013.