Adolphe Menjou’s Mustache … and Legacy

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I was thinking about putting together a big Adolphe Menjou post, which this is not, and discovered upon my first Googling of his name that he'd written an autobiography back in 1948. Well, I just had to order that, so currently any serious Adolphe Menjou post is on delay, at least until my copy of Menjou's It Took Nine Tailors arrives and is read.

But that didn't stop me from running Menjou's name through NewspaperArchive.com to see what kind of fun period articles might crop up about him. There seemed to be two running themes to the Adolphe Menjou stories published throughout his lifetime: red-baiting and his mustache.

A quick word on the first of those, as I do my best to steer clear of politics, especially when the politics are not of my time. To me, that's history. But in the case of Adolphe Menjou it's too big a part of his legacy to be completely ignored. Certain actors who were big back then, who retain undeniable talent when viewed today, have not enjoyed the legacies they would have had had they not spoken out during the Red Scare (Robert Taylor springs to mind). Obviously there's another very well weighted side to this coin, which I do understand.

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Adolphe Menjou was absolutely unapologetic about his politics. After testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee he famously referred to himself as "a Red-baiter," adding that, "I make no bones about it. I'd like to see them all in Russia. I think a taste of Russia would cure them." Menjou cheerfully named names before the committee and described his method of spotting a Communist: "Anyone attending any meeting at which Paul Robeson appears, and applauds, can be considered a Communist," he said.

Menjou didn't soften over the years either. In a 1960 article headlined "Debonair Adolphe Sees Red" he said of the wealthy and famous, "These millionaires should be down on their knees and waving an American flag in both hands." On his own legacy, Menjou said, "Several years ago ... I printed a list of 235 books everyone should read if they are to understand Communism and distributed it here. As a result I've been referred to as a madman and a crackpot."

But "madman" Menjou was not typically who we see on the screen and it's that screen persona I choose to remember. Suave and caddish on the silent screen before talkies often cast him as a slick and fast talking man of power, there was always one constant with Adolphe Menjou over the years, and that was the famed Menjou mustache.

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Except, that is, in the case of The Sniper (1951). As Gene Handsaker reported from Hollywood in November 1951, "Adolphe Menjou Horrified At Himself Without Mustache." At the time Menjou planned to grow it back as soon as possible saying, "I'll lose my wife if I don't. In 18 years of marriage she's never seen me without it." Menjou's wife, by the way, was actress Verree Teasdale, seemingly a perfect match based on her snooty patrician accent of the screen combined with what would eventually be nearly 30 years of marriage that left her as Menjou's widow in 1963.

Menjou admits taking to producer Stanley Kramer's idea of shaving off his trademark with the idea that the new look would provide him with a new face and new opportunity. But as soon as it was gone Menjou said it was "a little like feeling naked," and fans agreed. The article reports Menjou's mustache was born in 1921 and Adophe estimated it would take about six weeks to return it to its former glory.

In early 1942 columnist George Tucker traced Menjou's mustache back to even more distant origins, a January 1916 film release, and brings John Barrymore into the legacy. According to Tucker, Menjou was originally hired by the Brooklyn Vitagraph studios at $5 per day based upon the fact that he looked like Barrymore. When Barrymore entered the set of Nearly a King, Tucker claims he exploded and demanded Menjou leave the set because he looked too much like him. After calming down Barrymore is said to have approached Menjou, suggest he grab a beard from the makeup department and he'd get him a part in the picture. According to Tucker that's how that worked out and "that's why Adolphe Menjou has always worn a heavy moustache in pictures."

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My own favorite Adolphe Menjou movies cast him as a little more roguish than he's typically remembered in Little Miss Marker (1934) and Roxie Hart (1942), though I am also pretty partial to his S.O.B. of a General in Paths of Glory (1957). That last title does leave me to wonder how well he got along with star Kirk Douglas, who'd soon thereafter see that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo gain credit for his work on Spartacus (1960).

Adolphe Menjou Says:

Well, It Took Nine Tailors has arrived and I've just reached Chapter 4: The Growth of a Mustache, which I think should stand as the final word on the origins of Menjou's mustache. From page 30:

During my junior year at Cornell, on the morning of February 18, 1911, I woke up too late to get to my eight-o'-clock class, which was not at all unusual; but when I looked in my mirror, I saw that somehow a subtle change had come over me. At first I couldn't realize what it was. Then, suddenly I remembered. It was my birthday! I was twenty-one years old.

"Adolphe," I said to myself--probably with gestures--"you must do something about this."

So that morning I left my upper lip unshaved, and I have never shaved it since.

Sources:

Handsaker, Gene. Adolphe Menjou Horrified At Himself Without Mustache. Newport Daily News 6 Nov 1951: 17.

Jobst, Lou. Debonair Adolphe Sees Red. Independent Press-Telegram 24 Jul 1960: 27.

Menjou, Adolphe and M.M. Musselman. It Took Nine Tailors. New York: Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. 1948.

The Congress: Hollywood on the Hill. Time Magazine. 3 Nov 1947.

Tucker, George. Man About Manhattan. Denton Record-Chronicle 29 Jan 1942: 8.

Other Sites of Interest:

Dali's Mustache by Isabella Pepper includes Salvador Dali's famous Menjou's mustache quote, plus images from the book.

Adolphe Menjou: Continental Touch by John Roberts from the Classic Images archives gives a complete look at Menjou's career with no mention of politics, though scroll to the bottom of the page for Bob King's brief article, Menjou and the Blacklist.

Finally Kate Gabrielle's Tumblr site, Is that mustache really necessary, is always good for a laugh. Check it out if you want to see some of your favorites looking a little over the top thanks to their upper lips!

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Comments

  1. says

    Fun Adolphe Menjou fact: my husband works with his grandson. So I’m always especially interested to learn more about Adolphe’s background. Thanks for an interesting post. :)

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  2. says

    Cliff,
    I always enjoy your posts but this one had me tickled…no offense to Adolph’s stache.
    Great photo’s. He certainly had a look that others could not have gotten away with. I suspect many cartoon characters have been created in his likeness.
    Page

    • says

      Thanks, Page! I get the idea that Menjou’s mustache would be more likely to stab than tickle! I restrained myself from calling it a “soup-strainer” based on the fact that I think it would repel liquids.

    • says

      Thank you for reading it! By the way, be sure to see the brand new section just above the sources “Adolphe Menjou Says” for the final word from the man himself about the origins of his famous mustache!

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