One of the most popular and lovable character actors of the 1930s and ‘40s, Guy Kibbee specialized in playing goofballs and patriarchs in just over one hundred Hollywood movies. Well past forty, and usually looking over fifty, Kibbee first excelled as pre-Code sugar daddy and come-on king in titles like City Streets, Laughing Sinners, Blonde Crazy (all 1931), Girl Missing, and 42nd Street (both 1933). Sometimes he was lecherous, other times not intended to be taken too seriously: it was the latter personality that caught on and led to Kibbee spending a career playing Pa’s and Pop’s, judges and cops. Folksy, seeming none-too-bright, yet sometimes the smartest man in the room, Kibbee starred in Babbitt (1934), later led a run of a half-dozen Scattergood Baines entries at RKO, and turned up in support in movies as varied as Rain (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), Captain Blood (1935), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Fort Apache. It was a rich movie career for a thirty-year overnight success, who remained optimistic even though he somehow reached “the bottom of the barrel” just before his end.
I’ll keep the tone of this biography informal because the Guy Kibbee paper trail is more about what’s missing than what can be found. It begins with his birth. Guy Bridges Kibbee was born March 6, no doubt, in either 1882—as Wikipedia, the IMDb, his AP obituary, and even his gravestone claim—or 1886, as I’m more inclined to believe based upon the fourteen-year-old Kibbee who shows up on the 1900 US census, and the 1886 birth date written in Kibbee’s own hand on his 1918 World War I registration card. This becomes tough (impossible?) to confirm because of the 1890 US census, which largely went up in smoke in 1921, and the record-keeping in Texas, where births weren’t routinely recorded until 1903. But whichever March 6 he was born on, Guy Kibbee entered the world in El Paso, Texas—though a few times he said it was actually Pecos Valley, New Mexico. He was most definitely born around those parts at about that time.
His father James Kibbee was born in Tennessee in 1858, the third child and eldest son of Dr. George W. Kibbee (a character so rich that he’s earned a separate post) and his wife Temperance. James married Adaline Hurst, called Ada, late in 1878 (possibly on Christmas Day). The Kibbees had six, possibly seven sons, and one daughter—Guy Kibbee was third or fourth born of this group, the last of the clan born in Texas, or so the 1900 census convinces me. The youngest four boys, including youngest brother Milne—Milton Kibbee of the screen—were all born in New Mexico.
Father James was a publisher of small papers such as the Concho Times and Burnet Bulletin around El Paso, Texas, and Roswell, New Mexico. A few of his sons followed him into the trade, and Guy used to help out sometimes too. The experience proved valuable during the early years of his stage career:
“Whenever a show went broke—as they were always doing—I’d head for the nearest print shop,” Kibbee told columnist Hubbard Keavy in 1935, when he was seen setting type by hand in Mary Jane’s Pa for Warner Bros.
While Kibbee left home and began his acting career at a young age—probably fifteen or sixteen—it was also family that led him in that direction. Oldest brother Jim, who the El Paso Herald said gave a fine recitation while a member of Miss Ice’s school of elocution and oratory in 1899, began a stage career that provided little brother Guy with the opportunity to tag along as prop man. An often repeated story was that one of the actors in Jim’s troupe had too much to drink before a performance, so young Guy, under two hundred pounds with a full head of red hair back then, stepped into his place. No matter the circumstances, Kibbee always cited The Convict’s Daughter as his first stage appearance. My best guess puts that sometime between 1900-1904.
Decades of obscurity awaited Guy Kibbee, who can be placed in stock companies from San Francisco to Portland, Denver and Salt Lake City, Lincoln, Nebraska, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Wichita, Kansas. He managed the Wichita company with Frank Hawkins; brother Milton joined that troupe in February 1917. Guy Kibbee played everywhere, taking a break only for the four years (probably just after his first marriage) that he operated his own printer’s shop in San Francisco. “I did go to Broadway once with Hugh O’Connell,” Kibbee recalled in 1932. “That was about fifteen years ago. All that was available was small parts. O’Connell declared to stick it out and he became a big success. I elected to stay in stock where I was known and could always get work.” He wouldn’t play on Broadway until called by an “actor proof part,” Cass Wheeler in Torch Song.
Torch Song playwright Kenyon Nicholson introduced Kibbee to Arthur Hopkins, who was casting the play, though Hopkins got all of the credit for the discovery: “And now Mr. Hopkins magically produces an extraordinary talent in the person of Guy Kibbee,” Ward Morehouse wrote. When mentioning Kibbee in his review of Torch Song for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, critic Arthur Pollock kept it simple: “He is delicious.” It was a performance that brought Hollywood calling and a part that Kibbee would reproduce on a smaller scale in MGM’s adaptation of Nicholson’s play, retitled Laughing Sinners with Joan Crawford, Neil Hamilton, and Clark Gable among those billed over Kibbee.
The movies proved easy work for “quick study” Kibbee, who was happy to settle down in one place for a change. “You can learn, between traffic light changes, all you’ll have to do the next day,” he said of learning his lines. “They do one scene over and over again, so many times that about all you need to do at first is read the part through.”
He was known as a big eater and “loved cards, golf, baseball, football,” remembered a friend, the columnist Henry McLemore. “He was an amazing golfer,” McLemore added (a ten or eleven handicap), and “a tough gin rummy player.” McLemore recalled pal Kibbee as an early riser, reasoning, “There just wasn’t enough time to live, and Guy didn’t want to waste any of it.”
Guy Kibbee married twice, but again, a lot of the specifics about his family just don't seem to exist (especially marriage records). His Wikipedia page claims, though doesn’t verify, that he was married to first wife Helen Shay from 1918-23, and second wife Barbara “Brownie” Read from 1925-56, but I don’t know where they came up with these dates. The same page also says that Kibbee fathered seven children (four by Shea, three by Read), but I’m only coming across two kiddies per wife in the available genealogical records. Actress June Kenney, who shares an ancestor with Kibbee in that fascinating grandfather of Guy’s, wrote that the second Kibbee marriage produced three children, but named one of those as John, who “was never mentioned.” The only John Kibbee I bumped into was the eldest of two sons born to Guy’s first wife, Helen. John was in Saudi Arabia when Helen died, which struck me as odd, but according to ship’s manifests he was associated with Aramco.
Anyway, Guy Kibbee kept busy on screen throughout the 1940s, appearing in that hard-to-find Scattergood Baines series for RKO between 1941-43, and ultimately winding up the Hollywood portion of his career with two appearances in John Ford films, Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers (both 1948). He did a little television after this, but that medium wasn’t Kibbee’s cup of tea:
“I’m not crazy about it. Too much work has to go into preparing for just one performance. I’ll leave that for the younger people.”He much more enjoyed his return to the stage where he headlined stock companies in titles like The Old Soak and On Borrowed Time. “It’s a grand training ground for these youngsters,” Kibbee said of summer stock in 1950. “Takes the place of the old time stock companies in schooling them in the fine points of their profession.”
Kibbee also became a regular on radio late in his career appearing on Mutual’s “Pal Rod and Gun Club of the Air” beginning in 1950. “You’d be surprised at the sympathetic mail I get as a result of the program,” Kibbee said. An avid sportsman, on the Rod and Gun show he posed as a completely helpless fisherman and hunter and spun tall tales that were sent to the show by its listeners. “Around here I can just take it easy, do this radio show and whatever other work I want to take on,” Kibbee said. He was also appearing in night clubs at this time, just getting up on stage and telling stories. “Did a couple of plays on the stock circuit this summer, played a couple of country fairs with my monologue and generally had a good—and profitable—time.”
He continued to appear on the Gun and Rod Club as late as March 1953, but it was later that year that the papers first reported Guy Kibbee was seriously ill with what was ultimately diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease.He spent nine months at the Aurora Health Institute in Rye, New York, where Walter Winchell directed readers to send the lonely actor some letters. Guy wrote back from the Institute thanking Winchell “for the coast-to-coast hook-up.” He said he had received over 3,000 cards and letters, including one from Elsie Janis. Kibbee also joked about missing the clubs writing he “was glad to find out that cigarets [sic] and hard liquor could get along without me.”
From Rye he was sent to the Percy Williams home in East Islip, New York, a home for sick and needy actors that was supported by the Actors Fund of America. “I’ve come to the bottom of the barrel,” Kibbee told the board of directors when he entered on September 24, 1954. He was bedridden at the home for over a year. The superintendent at Percy Williams’ said they always had Kibbee in to watch any old movies he had appeared in. “He loves to watch those movies. Especially the Scattergood Baines ones. He laughed at them, said they’re ‘kinda funny.’”
Guy Kibbee died in East Islip on May 24, 1956, likely at the age of seventy (though possibly seventy-four). “Shed no tears for Guy—he had little use for tears,” his friend Henry McLemore wrote. Despite dying “stony broke,” McLemore knew “of no one who had a better time during his allotted three score and ten. Or gave more generously of his heart and happiness to others.”
McLemore concluded his piece with perhaps the best possible epitaph for Guy Kibbee:
“He was a real, real, sweet man.”
I originally intended to write about Guy Kibbee for the November 2015 “What a Character!” blogathon, but I wound up having to pull out due to time constraints. This fourth edition of “What a Character!” is the first one I’ve missed, but nevertheless I wanted to be sure to direct you to all of the posts that went up time from the talented group of writers who did participate. The entries for each of the three days are spread across each the three host blogs at the following links: Day 1: Paula’s Cinema Club - Day 2: Once Upon a Screen - Day 3: Outspoken & Freckled
Guy Kibbee References
- “An Excellent Entertainment,” El Paso Herald, 26 Jul 1899, 1.
- “Biography: Guy Kibbee,” Alexandria Times-Tribune (IN), 16 Mar 1939, 5.
- “‘Bottom of the Barrel:’ Guy Kibbee Dies in Home for Sick, Needy Actors,” San Bernardino Daily Sun (CA), 25 May 1956, 6.
- Brenham Weekly Banner (TX), 3 Jan 1879, 1.
- Gaver, Jack, “Up and Down Broadway,” Terre Haute Tribune, 20 Sep 1951, 4.
- “Guy Kibbee’s Wife Dies in L.R.,” Hope Star, 8 Dec 1954, 1.
- Keavy, Hubbard, “Screen Life in Hollywood,” Altoona Tribune, 31 Jan 1935, 3.
- Kenney, June, “A Prolific Actor and Mother’s Cousin—Guy Kibbee,” Pahrump Valley Gazette, 22 Feb 2001, 10.
- Kibbee, Guy, “Letter to Walter (Winchell That Is)”, Provo Sunday Herald (UT), 8 Aug 1954, 24.
- McLemore, Henry, “Guy Kibbee Loved Food,” Monroe News-Star (LA), 5 Jun 1956, 4.
- Morehouse, Ward, “Hopkins Digs Up New Stage Talent,” Appleton Post-Crescent (WI), 30 Aug 1930, 18.
- Pollock, Arthur, “‘Torch Song’ Has Broadway Premiere,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 28 Aug 1930, 21.
- Soanes, Wood. “Guy Kibbee Chuckles Over Old Ham Days as He Lolls On Film Lot,” Oakland Tribune, 9 Oct 1932, 17.
- “Summer Theater Is Good Training for Players, Says Star,” Olean Times Herald, 11 Jul 1950, 3.
- “United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MMLM-JXZ : accessed 8 January 2016), Guy B Kibbee in household of James Kibbee, Precincts 1-2 Eddy town, Eddy, New Mexico Territory, United States; citing sheet 5B, family 109, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,241,000.
- “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KXYV-6FB : accessed 8 January 2016), Guy Bridges Kibbee, 1917-1918; citing New York City no 130, New York, United States, NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,754,521.