This is a brief biographical follow-up to my earlier review of Up from Central Park. Thank you to Alan Mowbray, Jr. for contributing it.
Get me Alan Mowbray!
Written by Alan Mowbray, Jr. in 2006.
If you watched Robert Altman’s award-winning 2001 film Gosford Park, you may recall the scene where Bob Balaban, playing Morris Wiesman the Hollywood film director, shouts into the telephone: “Get Me Alan Mowbray,” after being asked by his producer in Hollywood what he needed to make the film Charley Chan in London successful. Although Gosford Park is fiction, for almost half a century the phrase “Get me Alan Mowbray” was a familiar demand by many a movie maker hoping to cast the perfect actor in a pivotal role for an upcoming film.
In case you are not among the enlightened, Alan Mowbray was a British-born actor whose popularity with movie fans has endured to the present day, thanks to cable TV networks such as American Movie Classics (AMC), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and others. His movies are being seen again by those who fondly remember his work in film, and by a new generation of viewers who are enjoying his work for the first time.
He appeared on Broadway in a series of plays in the late nineteen twenties, before succumbing to the lure of Hollywood, where he appeared in nearly two hundred films spanning the nineteen thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. Along with Boris Karloff, Ralph Morgan, Lucille and Jimmy Gleason and a few other actors he founded the first movie actors union, the Screen Actors Guild at the Hollywood actors club the Masquers in 1933.
Although it is hard to imagine today, with screen performers receiving astronomical salaries and percentages of the gross profit, in the nineteen thirties and forties actors were poorly compensated for their work and were virtually “enslaved” by the contract system enforced by most of the big studios. The advent of the Screen Actors Guild, over the bitter objections of the film industry moguls, was to change the industry forever.
As the epitome of the “British stiff-upper-lip” school, he was much in demand, making as many as four or five moving pictures a year. He played a succession of historical figures; in makeup, he had an astonishing resemblance to George Washington and played that role in at least three movies. As middle age approached, he was sought after as the “cultured” comic-relief in some of the madcap movies popular in the late thirties, such as My Man Godfrey (1936), Merrily We Live (1938) and the Topper series. Like Eric Blore and Arthur Treacher, he did his stint as the indefatigable English butler to zany society families in popular thirties comedies.
Between 1939 and 1949 he made 53 movies; by then he was firmly entrenched as a character actor, appearing as the memorable spell-caster Botello in Captain from Castile (1947), the drunken Shakespearean ham actor Garnville Thorndyke in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) and as Vivien Leigh’s husband and mentor Sir William Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman (1941) which is reputed to have been Winston Churchill’s favorite film. Director John Ford liked him so much as Thorndyke in Clementine that in Wagonmaster (1950) he cast him as Dr. A. Locksley Hall, an almost identical character.
By the nineteen fifties, when TV had begun to make its mark, he jumped-in early with appearances on The Robert Montgomery Show, Chevron Theater and The Plymouth Theater. In 1953, just as he had finished making Androcles and the Lion (1952), he was selected by author Everett Rhodes Castle to play the title role in the TV series adapted from the popular Saturday Evening Post series “The Adventures of Colonel Flack.” The series ran for 39 live episodes in 1953 and 1954. The show was so popular with viewers that all previous live episodes of the series were reenacted and recorded for first-run syndication in 1958.
He continued to alternate between TV and movie roles throughout the fifties and sixties, with memorable roles in such films as The Man Who Knew To Much, The King and I and Around the World in Eighty Days (all 1956) among others. In 1963, he returned to the New York stage to star as Marlowe, Alan Arkin’s acting school mentor in the Tony award winning play Enter Laughing, which ran for a year on Broadway.
He is remembered fondly by TV viewers as Stewart Styles the “reformed” gambler and con artist, turned urbane maitre’d on the TV series Dante’s Inferno (1960-61) with Howard Duff as Dante. He continued to appear on TV series such as Maverick, Burke’s Law The Man from UNCLE, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Flying Nun during the sixties.
His last movie appearance was in A Majority of One (1961) with Alec Guinness and Rosalind Russell. He died in Hollywood at the age of 73 in 1969.
About the Author: Alan Mowbray, Jr.
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.
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