Where do you recall Alan Mowbray best? He was a part of some of our best loved thirties screwball comedies appearing as an old acquaintance of William Powell's Godfrey in My Man Godfrey (1936) and as Cosmo Topper's butler, Wilkins, twice in Topper (1937) and Topper Takes a Trip (1938). He was also in a William Powell movie recently covered here, Jewel Robbery (1932), in which he plays a detective with a twist.
He appeared in three different Sherlock Holmes films, each starring a different actor as Holmes: Sherlock Holmes (1932) with Clive Brook; A Study in Scarlet (1933) with Reginald Owen and later Terror by Night (1946) with the screen's best known Holmes, Basil Rathbone.
He played opposite Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp (1935), the first full-length feature film to use Technicolor's three-strip color process. In the classic John Ford Western, My Darling Clementine (1945), he's the soused Shakespearean actor, Granville Thorndyke; he's married to Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman (1941); he's the Devil of the title in The Devil with Hitler (1942). He's been various butlers and society men, characters requiring a bit of respectability primarily by way of their speech and the way they carry themselves.
Later he was all over television, most notably as Colonel Flack, but also in guest shots in a host of shows whose titles bear better remembered names than Mowbray's own. "My TV set must be broken: I haven't been getting Alan Mowbray lately," (213) said Bob Hope about Mowbray's TV exposure in a famed quote reproduced in the appendix to Up From Central Park from a 1964 Screen Thrills Illustrated article.
Alan Mowbray was a beloved character actor but much more the real life character than I'd ever expected upon reading his recently unearthed memoirs, Up from Central Park: Scenes From an Actor's Life, edited by his son, Alan Mowbray, Jr.
Mr. Mowbray, Jr. recently contacted me and sent along a pdf review copy of Up from Central Park. The elder Mowbray's memoirs are even remarked upon in some of the reproduced period articles that appear at the end of this book. Mowbray never managed to do anything with them in his own lifetime, but his son, Alan, Jr., has managed to put everything together into an all-encompassing portrait of a man whose life was both far tougher and more exciting than I ever had imagined.
Alan Mowbray, Jr., Editor of Up from Central Park
Alan Mowbray Jr. is a natural history writer, living in Puerto Rico - He has written five books describing the flora and fauna of the local rainforest. His publications also include essays, scientific papers, magazine articles and website content. He has recently published a personal reminiscence 'Snapshots from the Road', which captures scenes from his very active life, so far. Mr. Mowbray is blind -- his guide-dog Ricky accompanies him to the office and on research trips to the forest.
The bulk of the book are those memories of the actor Alan Mowbray. To be more specific, Mowbray's own words run from pages 11 through 180, neatly divided into sections titled Acts One and Two with chapters inside headed as Scene One, Scene Two, etc. There's also an Intermission comprised of photos in between the acts. A few of the photos are rare family shots of Mowbray while some are more familiar movie still reproductions.
At the conclusion of Mowbray's own original text six articles are reproduced in a section titled Outtakes and Additional Dialogue. The first two of these are by Mowbray, Jr. and are excerpted from his Snapshots from the Road. These provide a very personal look back at the Mowbray family life. The remaining four articles are reproductions from fan magazines which all give a similar view of Alan Mowbray and serve a valuable purpose in backing up many of the stories Mowbray himself tells earlier in Up from Central Park.
Alan Mowbray was born in London in 1896. He does not speak much of his boyhood other than to remark upon his first books as cherished possessions: The Ancient Mythologies of Greece and Rome from his father and his own earliest purchase, The Virginian by Owen Wister. He was born, acquired these books and was soon sent off to school. He'd run away at age 16 and settle into the military after lying about his age. And that's when his story really begins.
Mowbray writes that he had spent 18 months in service making him "already a veteran soldier" (26) when the First World War broke out in 1914. He fought at the Battle of Mons where he "saw a lot of dead and wounded and lots of exhausted soldiers trying to adjust themselves to the reality and squalor of war" (29). He'd see his first dead German close-up about a month later after fighting through the Marne and he'd catch a bullet himself soon after in the Aisne.
"I survived four and a quarter years of the war with a few more minor 'scratches'" (35-36), Mowbray writes. He tells of gas attacks and gas masks, 'Big Bertha' artillery shells and flamethrowers. Mowbray writes in detail of the Christmas truce in which German and British soldiers emerged from the trenches to share seasons greetings, exchange goods and show each other photos of their families.
Mowbray applied for transfer to the Royal Air Force which was granted just six days before the war ended. This placed him in London on Armistice Day. His service came to an end when the Royal Air Force wanted another seven years out of him. "I reluctantly traded my uniform for civvies and started to make a fresh start in life" (45).
It's surely Mowbray's extensive World War I service combined with the presumed timing of his original writing of Up from Central Park which causes a good deal of his memoirs to be given over to the Second World War. Mowbray writes extensively of befriending and even hosting World War II servicemen in Hollywood as they headed off to serve a cause such as the one he served in his own youth.
The Wars, both of them, seem to serve as his central life events, not in the least surprising considering the times he lived through.
But Up from Central Park is more than an old serviceman's memoir. This is, after all, Alan Mowbray, Hollywood actor. It is a time soon after the war that the title makes reference too and so we must see how Mr. Mowbray managed to get from London to New York in order to grasp its meaning.
After the war, Mowbray drifted. In his eloquent way of writing he recalls drinking to excess and running afoul of the law. He was wild. He recounts in detail how he, completely untrained and inexperienced, made his debut as an actor.
One day Mowbray ran into a war acquaintance with whom he made a lunch appointment for the following day. His friend gave him the address of an office to wait for him by and suggested that if it were raining he wait inside. Mowbray found himself seated amongst several other men. A man opened a door into this lobby and selected him from amongst the bunch of aspiring actors. After some quick thinking and creative answers Mowbray signed a contract and found himself as the lead in a play called "The Cinderella Man."
Afterwards Mowbray met up with his friend outside and showed him the contract. "What the hell do I do about this?" (47) he asked. His friend burst into laughter and told him that was the very job he was after. Mowbray explained he didn't know what he was doing and he had to begin work in just five days. His friend generously offered to train him, giving Mowbray enough experience to put on a performance that one of his fellow actors would call "the worst performance ever given on any stage anywhere in the world" (48). This was 1921.
After befriending his fellow players they taught him his earliest acting lessons and his confidence grew. He toured some English towns but eventually the work dried up, times grew hard, and he found himself staring at an advertisement for America on a travel office's window one day. He bought a ticket and applied for his passport.
Mowbray arrived in America in May 1923. After settling in a hotel he'd run out of rent money before finding work. This brought Mowbray to the Central Park of the book's title. He lived there, sleeping on park benches, and took free meals at the Automat made from the scraps left behind by others. About his home under the stars, Mowbray wrote, "My choice was influenced by having spent over four years in the front-line trenches in France during World War I - Central Park was attractive by contrast. No shells, no mud, no gas, no noise, except for the aristocratic hum of the tires of Rolls-Royces as they toiled homeward" (11).
Mowbray would escape Central Park through a chance encounter with Francis Lister, an actor he had known back in England. Lister told him that the English Repertory Company in Boston was looking for a leading man. Mowbray applied for the job at the New York office of the Copley Theatre and got it. No more Central Park after that, Mowbray was a working actor and sometimes writer going forward.
On differences between the crafts Mowbray confesses that acting is easier for him than writing. He elaborates upon that ease: "I am referring, of course, to the normal actor whose training enables him to portray his role with a minimum of headaches, and not to that strange type of actor who suffers labor pains with the birth of each characterization, that strange creature, who cannot portray the role of a Chinese man without eating chop suey for at least a month prior to the undertaking" (80-81).
As Up from Central Park are memoirs we don't have every dot connected for us as we would in a more standard autobiography. Stories are told, sometimes at great length, not always in chronological order but put forth in the order the author wishes to tell them. Mowbray is fond of the excerpt as he's attempting to pass along to the reader the great happenings of his life--those things which affected him--and so we sometimes have a page or two of reading other people's letters. In one case two pages are spent upon a mint julep recipe written from one soldier to another, neither being Mowbray himself. This recipe was shared with General Douglas MacArthur on a flight they shared to the National Air Races at Dayton, Ohio.
Mowbray writes of Hollywood as would any man of less celebrated occupation remembering his own home and work life. A favorite section came when he tells of his three pianos, an instrument which Mowbray had no great talent for himself, but which found themselves played by famed musicians visiting the Mowbray home. Most interesting was his little red piano, as it was used for collecting the signatures of his visitors. Mowbray would burn the inked autographs into the wood after they had signed to forever preserve them. This unusual autograph collection was comprised of many famous names, sometimes in odd groupings:
"People examining it for the first time always spotted the obvious ones, and said with some degree of mirth, 'Oh look, Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot TOGETHER!' and commented similarly about Martha Raye and David Rose, and the many who have dumped or changed their partners since they signed the piano. The face that Irene Castle's autograph is right next to Renee de Marco's invariably brings forth the comment that it took a piano to bridge the gap between World War I and World War II. Gilda Gray, the shimmy inventor, seeing these two together said, 'let's not be high hat,' and signed as close as possible to these other famous exponents of the dance" (106).
"The English people, being somewhat insular, you will find Sir Aubrey Smith, Ronald Colman, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Gladys Cooper, Phillip Merivale, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Sir Sydney Lawford, and his son, Peter, Sid Fields, and many others quite close together" (107).
"John Barrymore signed, and then some months later, forgetting, signed again, which made me doubly happy" (108).
Mowbray was close friends with Barrymore and the Bundy Drive Boys and has included a few stories about him along with writer Gene Fowler and artist John Decker under the chapter heading "The Bohemians." He writes of being on hand when Barrymore played Romeo on radio to Edna May Oliver's Juliet. Leading him away towards his dressing room, Barrymore stopped and stood looking across at Oliver. He whispered, "What the hell is that?" and when told he had just done the balcony scene with her he added, "Her voice has the zither-like quality of a metallic bedpan" (137-138).
Mowbray writes well, his style is polite, sometimes florid and often with a punchline tucked in. The stories he includes do add up to present an overall greater picture of the man. Good humored and given to some high jinks with his famous cast of friends, the Mowbray I got to know was at heart an old soldier. His own battles complete he did his best to comfort the next generation of soldiers and he was genuinely touched by them as human beings soon off to face terrible challenges similar to those he faced during the Great War.
Mowbray heartily enjoyed his friends and wrote with sincere warmth about his wife and children. Since his own earliest years are glossed over I would imagine his relationship with his own parents was not a good one. This makes it all the more satisfactory to see how much his own children were a part of his life. I leave Up from Central Park thinking of them, Patricia and Alan, Jr., by their initialized nicknames of A.M. and P.M.
While usually not the most important performer on the screen, time spent with the words of Alan Mowbray leave you with the feeling that he was likely a man others gravitated towards off the screen. His memberships to clubs such as The Masquer's Club and Britain's Royal Geographic Society, as well as his standing as a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild further back this notion. His is a commanding personality.
Up from Central Park: Scenes From An Actor's Life by Alan Mowbray was published through Createspace by the late actor's son, Alan Mowbray, Jr. I can't comment upon the physical product as I received a copy to review via pdf. I can say that this file includes a lot of white space at the chapter breaks and surrounding the photos of the Intermission, but otherwise comes across as a very professional product. Mr. Mowbray, Jr. has done a fine job of editing and without even knowing how complete of a manuscript he had to work with I can say it is well-structured with a minimum of both typographical or grammatical errors. In fact, if the name of the publisher were left off I would never have suspected this was not a title put out by one of the small publishers best known for film related material.
The inclusion of the period articles at the end of the book, beyond backing up many of Mowbray, Sr.'s own stories, also gives us some more structured biography of his life. Mr. Mowbray's work on film, television and the stage is included in reverse chronological order at the very end of the book.
The way Mowbray's memoirs are referred to by the older magazine articles found in the back of the book one could easily imagine this having been published by one of the better known book publishers from the more traditional publishing climate of say the 1960's. I inherited enough of my grandmother's old Book-of-the-Month club titles to know Up from Central Park could easily pass as one itself!
As it is, Alan Mowbray's memoirs went unshared with the world well beyond the actor's death in 1969. Over 40 years later they emerge as a true labor of love, a father's work completed by his son. Up from Central Park is well-worth adding to your film library and is being offered at an extremely reasonable price.