Gruff. No word better describes David Landau. His characters are typically angry, bitter men. Even when he’s not playing the villain Landau is never very likable. But David Landau’s villains were usually very human.
This post is part of the What a Character! Blogathon being hosted by Paula's Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon A Screen. Visit today's other entries HERE
You’ll find him about fifth or sixth billed. Just after the names you know and remember. And he was only in movies for four years. Not counting one silent excursion, that is. David Landau appeared in 33 films during those four years, 1931-1934, including an astounding 18 credits in 1932 alone!
I have no doubt you’ve seen him.
He’s made memorable appearances in a handful of classics and he’s played villain to some of the biggest legends in screen history. He was in a Mae West movie. He was in a Marx Brothers classic. He was sympathetic but surly in a Will Rogers film. He had one memorable scene tearing Paul Muni to pieces--off camera, of course—in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Yes, David Landau is that despicable fellow. The nasty S.O.B. with the giant leather strap whom prisoner Muni takes objection to.
David Landau was born David Magee in Philadelphia, PA, March 9, 1878. His father, Robert Magee, came over from County Derry, Ireland and listed his occupation as gardener on the 1880 census. His mother, Maryann, was Pennsylvania born but also of Irish as well as English roots.
Young Magee grew up in Philadelphia and studied law at the University of Pennsylvania. In order to improve his diction he took a class in dramatics and, as happens, he was hooked. In 1932 a very busy David Landau remarked that “I gave up the study of law when I was twenty-one and began hanging around stage doors because I was too lazy to buckle down to my law course” (Roosevelt).
It would be a long road from a turn-of-the-century Quaker City stock company to Hollywood in 1931, but Landau kept busy over the intervening three decades.
After his death Landau’s wife would claim that she suggested he change his name from David Magee to David Landau sometime in 1908. Mrs. Landau’s memory appears faulty on this count. A Palo Alto Reporter article had Mr. and Mrs. David H. Landau opening in the leads of something called For Her Children’s Sake as early as September 1903.
Even prior to that an actor named David Landau got into a fistfight with co-star Wallace Worsley in Milwaukee while playing in The Pride of Jennico in April 1902. I believe that’s our man.
Mr. And Mrs. Landau did not even marry until April 15, 1903.
How David Magee became David Landau thus remains unclear. Landau is remembered by both names on his tombstone at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA. Landau’s marker gives 1879 at his date of birth, but 19th Century documents make a much better case for 1878. By the 1930 census Landau had shaved another year off of his age.
As is made obvious by the fact of their early stage appearance together, Mrs. Landau was also an actress. Born Sarah Frances Newhall in Worcester, MA, she met Landau while both were acting in a stock company owned by her father, Charles B. Newhall (Actor’s Widow).
Cedar Lake, NJ claims itself as home of the Landaus throughout the 1910s and into the next decade, when Frances would gain an impressive screen credit herself. Acting under the name of Mrs. David Landau she played Lillian Gish’s mother in D.W. Griffith’s classic Way Down East (1920). She appeared in a couple of other films during this period as well.
The Landaus separated on March 29, 1922 and in June 1923 Frances obtained a maintenance order in New York for $1,500 per year. While that amount was later reduced to $1,200 annually, payments were made until the time of Landau’s death in 1935.More to come on Mrs. Landau when we reach 1935.
David Landau played in stock companies across the U.S. throughout the 19-aughts and ‘10s. In 1906 he was a member of The Gambler of the West company of Trenton, NJ; 1908 saw him as leading man of the Poll Stock Company in Worcester, MA playing in The Heart of Maryland opposite Irene Timmens.
In what is perhaps his most interesting of all credits, Landau played in George M. Cohan’s The Yankee Prince out in Burbank, CA in 1910. “The biggest hit by all odds is the quartet, consisting of Percy Bronson, Peter Land, David Landau and Roscoe Arbuckle,” reports the Covina Argus. They continue, “Better singing or funnier business could not be found in a quartet of seasoned comic opera stars.”
David Landau’s first bit of real acclaim came beginning in 1913 when he played the part of the Beachcomber in Richard Walton Tully’s The Bird of Paradise. This was a production with a strange history, opening on Broadway in 1912 and being considered a bit of a flop when it only lasted 112 shows. But the show, which included “an erupting volcano, hula dancing and authentic Hawaiian music” (Cottrell) was a hit across the rest of America where it played throughout the decade. The story was lousy, but the world it introduced was something entirely new. Landau, often incorrectly credited as originating the Beachcomber role that Guy Bates Post previously played on Broadway during the 1912 run, always gathers positive press from papers reporting on his playing the part between 1913 and December 1916.
Like so many of the later talkie stars imported to the movies via Broadway, David Landau also managed a single stray silent film credit while on the East Coast.
His came in the George Kleine company’s 1915 five-reel film Bondwomen starring Maude Fealy. The Edwin August film got a huge push with a two-page ad including full-page photo of star Fealy spreading an issue of Moving Picture World in December that year. Landau played chemist David Power, a friend of the Ellis family that the film centered on. He supplied the cocaine that helped further turn the Ellis family upside down. Moving Picture World said the part was “manfully represented” by Landau.
David Landau would finally make his way to Broadway in 1919 when he appeared in two plays that made Burns Mantle’s list of the best of 1919-1920. He first appeared in The Challenge, which ran from August through October of that year and next, as Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, got to stand over Lincoln’s body and deliver the line, “Now he belongs to the ages” in Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was played by Frank McGlynn, Jr., who would play the part several times on stage and screen.
Landau disappeared from Broadway until 1923, presumably playing stock for someone somewhere, but once he was back in town he was a regular there through 1930.
Sticking to 19th Century history Landau played Stonewall Jackson in Robert E. Lee featuring future film co-star Berton Churchill in the title role. Reviews concentrated their praise on co-star Alfred Lunt. Lunt couldn’t have been that great: the show lasted just 15 performances.
Next, he was next reunited with Frank McGlynn, Jr. in Catskill Dutch, also featuring Louis Wolheim. That one last just seven performances. 1925’s Ruint did a little better lasting 30 performances. Co-stars included Sam Jaffe and John Huston. Later in 1925 The Mud Turtle did better yet, stretching over 50 performances. He worked for John Cromwell in 1926’s Devils and later that year appeared in The Humble. Each came and went within a few weeks.
The Witch sounded interesting, but it only lasted 28 performances at the end of 1926. Alice Brady had the lead and Landau played her cold and strict husband. Brady’s mother had been burned at the stake as a witch in the 16th century and now her character suspects she may be a witch herself. Most intriguing is an appearance by Maria Ouspenskaya who is burned a the stake early in the show (Kabatchnik). Wish we had film on this one!
Landau’s past connections seemed to pay off when he was cast in Women Go On Forever in the Fall of 1927. Alice Brady’s father, William A. Brady, was one of the producers, as was Mud Turtle director John Cromwell, who also directed this one. Besides Landau the cast included Mary Boland, Douglass Montgomery, Osgood Perkins (Anthony’s father), and young James Cagney, whom Landau would later appear with in a film, 1932’s Taxi!.
Women Go On Forever lasted well over 100 performances until the end of 1927. Next up were a couple of quickies, The Golden Age with Warren William and a revival of The Octoroon. Then came the big one, in 1929.
Elmer Rice’s Street Scene ran for 601 performances on Broadway during 1929-30. The part of Frank Maurant was originated by Robert Kelly, but his New York Times obituary says that Landau took over some time in 1929. On the heels of its Broadway success Street Scene went overseas and was a hit at London’s Globe Theater where it opened in September 1930 and ran for 147 performances. Samuel Goldwyn purchased the screen rights to Street Scene and several of the stage players would appear in the 1931 film including not only Landau but popular character actors John Qualen and Beulah Bondi, each in their film debut.
The story is about a cross-section of characters living in a working class New York neighborhood. There’s an Italian couple, a Swedish couple, a Jewish family. There’s Beulah Bondi's obnoxious gossip. And there is Landau as shadowy underworld figure Frank Maurant. Landau’s Mr. Maurant is a short tempered man of conservative values who has most definitely heard the gossip about his wife (Estelle Taylor) and the milk man. While daughter, and star of the film, Sylvia Sidney, tries to keep the peace, Landau is an angry man who comes unhinged after returning home unexpectedly one morning soon after the milkman arrives.
Once he made his way to the movies David Landau would never return to the stage. His time was short but it was to be extremely busy.
Just prior to Street Scene Landau is credited with appearing in Paramount’s I Take This Woman starring Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard. Afterwards he’d have a small role in John Ford’s adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (1931).
Then came those 1932 releases. 18 of them.
First up was This Reckless Age for Paramount followed by Landau’s performance as no-nonsense G-man, Kendall, in Alfred E. Green’s fantastic Union Depot for Warner Brothers-First National. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Blondell star.
Taxi! finds Landau especially nasty as he takes out Loretta Young’s father and goes toe to toe with old Broadway mate James Cagney during the city’s taxi wars.
He’s the circus manager in Polly of the Circus starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable, a Hearst Cosmopolitan production for MGM. Then It’s Tough to Be Famous at First National; Amateur Daddy for Fox; The Roadhouse Murder at RKO. Back to Warner Brothers for another nasty performance in The Purchase Price where Landau does his best to pry Barbara Stanwyck away from George Brent.
Of course, Landau is the heavy in The Marx Brothers’ classic Horse Feathers where he sics college widow Thelma Todd on the boys. Landau then sticks at Paramount for 70,000 Witnesses before heading back to Warner Brothers for The Cabin in the Cotton. That one finds Landau in one of his more sympathetic roles as a tired-out sharecropper. An especially early exit for Mr. Landau in this one where he’s briefly father to Richard Barthelmess.
Heritage of the Desert was a Henry Hathaway western starring Randolph Scott for Paramount with Landau as the villain. Next up, Lowell Sherman’s False Faces for short-lived K.B.S. Productions, then Air Mailfor Universal before that classic bit mentioned above from Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Yes, it’s still 1932, but we’re winding down the calendar with the December release of Paramount’s Under-Cover Man starring George Raft and Nancy Carroll followed by the late December premiere of Universal’s They Just Had to Get Married. The year closes with the Christmas Eve New York premiere of Lawyer Man starring William Powell with Landau as the crooked political boss trying his best to get Powell’s streetwise lawyer to join his team. A strong part for Landau where he plays friendly, yet dangerous, rival to Powell.
Landau slowed down in 1933, but the classics kept coming. She Done Him Wrong is important not only as Mae West’s second film but the movie that got Cary Grant noticed. David Landau gets a good amount of screen time as one of has typically hard villains. Landau next appeared in The Crime of the Century for Paramount.
Then Gabriel Over the White House for MGM. This was yet another early exit for Landau, as a labor leader who seemed pretty important for awhile. Jean Parker plays Landau’s daughter in this fascinating political tale starring Walter Huston.
Landau stuck at MGM for The Nuisance before heading to RKO for No Marriage Ties as well as One Man’s Journey starring Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore plays the country doctor who delivers and raises farmer Landau’s daughter (Dorothy Jordan) after her mother dies in childbirth. Landau begins as angry as ever, rejecting a daughter as impractical, before not necessarily redeeming himself as much as giving Barrymore’s character an unexpected hand.
David Landau’s final year on film would contain yet a few more high spots.
Bedside sees Landau as a former doctor who has picked up a morphine habit and trades his name and diploma to Warren William in exchange for the occasional fix. Landau shines as a pathetic ghost who past haunts William in this outrageous pre-code medical drama from First National. Bedside co-star Jean Muir would also star in the next film Landau appeared in, As the Earth Turns.
Wharf Angel finds Landau as a hard San Francisco detective who rides the tragic Dorothy Dell’s character as she protects love interest Preston Foster. I found this Paramount pre-code title quite ripe for rediscovery.
Landau shows up late in The Man with Two Faces from Warner Brothers-First National, where he plays a detective trying to solve the murder of an extremely pompous Louis Calhern. The character is quite cheery, especially by Landau standards! Edward G. Robinson stars with Mary Astor, Ricardo Cortez and an especially charming Mae Clarke.
Death on the Diamond finds Landau playing manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in a better than average baseball mystery from MGM. Madge Evans is Landau’s daughter, love interest of Robert Young, Pop’s star player.
Landau goes out on a high note in support of Will Rogers in Judge Priest, directed by John Ford for Fox. Landau’s Bob Gillis is so bitter that he winds up spending the final part of the film on trial for stabbing a local who rubbed him the wrong way. Okay, the local jumped Gillis and with a pool cue as well. Landau doesn’t show up for awhile in Judge Priest, but once he does the story revolves around him.
Surly, angry, bitter. Very rarely outright evil though. David Landau’s film characters are never one dimensional. There’s always something there to relate to.
A heart attack claimed David Landau’s life on September 20, 1935. There weren’t many obituaries. Only a couple of big city papers picked up the Associated Press’ brief write-up. His name just disappeared from the movie magazines who hadn’t really mentioned him all that much to begin with.
But he did have one last round of national press coming his way.
David Landau left his entire estate to “the best friend I ever had … in payment for her loyalty in spite of adversity,” Delight Howell (Actor Will).
Frances, still calling herself Mrs. David Landau, said that she “will make no fuss” unless Howell actually tries to claim Landau’s $3,803 estate. Described by the Oakland Tribune as a “slim, white-haired woman of 66,” Mrs. Landau claimed to be destitute at the time of her husband’s death. Frances also claimed that she was still Landau’s legal wife when he passed away.
Meanwhile, Landau’s funeral announcement in the Los Angeles Times referred to him as “beloved husband of Delight Landau.” His New York Times obituary noted that “Mrs. Delight Landau, his widow, survives.” I could not find anything beyond those notices to either prove or disprove a Landau marriage to Delight Howell.
It took some digging but the 1930 census, pre-Hollywood for Landau, places him in New York as head of household with one other occupant at his residence. “Lodger” Delight Howell. When he had first met the lodger, I don’t know, but I presume it would have been some time in between when the Landaus had separated in 1922 and that 1930 census.
In his will David Landau questioned whether Frances had obtained a legal divorce from her previous husband, Edwin T. Emory, in 1900 before she had married him in 1903. Frances claimed that Delight Howell had taken advantage of her husband’s mental incompetence, caused by excessive use of liquor, to make him believe that he and Frances had never been legally married (Mrs. Landau Fights).
If Frances could prove her previous divorce from Emory, David Landau then willed her “the smallest legal amount” possible (Actor Will). The latest report I could uncover, from December 16, 1935, states that the court had recognized Frances as the legal Mrs. David Landau. This recognition set the stage for Frances to legally contest David’s will. When and if that ever occurred I do not know.
While Landau garnered more off-screen press in the three months after his death than he had during all of his living days, he did seem to invite trouble himself by way of the spiteful wording of his will. While Landau’s own generation likely poked fun at his expense the barrier of time has repaired his reputation for us. Those three months are gone now. We can remember the films.
Like so many of his contemporaries a certain amount of Landau’s work, that on the stage, is lost to history. We can never know his famed Beachcomber of Bird of Paradise, though thankfully we can experience his performance in Street Scene through King Vidor’s film.
David Landau leaves us just four years of work to judge him by. Those four years were jam packed with his tired, no nonsense characters.
30 of his 33 talking pictures were released prior to the enforcement of the Production Code and so David Landau’s collection of heels often sport an edge which could not be replicated for decades on film. Sometimes his characters weren’t bad men. But they were never satisfied nor content men.
- ”Actor Will Fight Looms.” Los Angeles Times 25 Sep 1935: A1.
- "Actor's Widow Bares Poverty." Oakland Tribune 24 Sep 1935: 16. NewspaperArchive. Web. 3 Sep 2012.
- ”Bondwomen.” Moving Picture World 25 Dec 1915: 2382. Media History Digital Library. Web. 23 Sep 2012.
- Cottrell, Steve. “NC Native Made Waves with Revue.” Nevada City Advocate. 31 Jul 2012. Web. 23 Sep 2012.
- ”David Landau, Actor, Dead in Hollywood.” New York Times 22 Sep 1935.
- ”Deaths with Funeral Announcements.” Los Angeles Times 22 Sep 1935: 36.
- ”Heart Attack Is Fatal To David Landau, Actor.” The Washington Post 22 Sep 1935: 14.
- "In the Theaters" Syracuse Post Standard 20 May 1908: 4. NewspaperArchive. Web. 3 Sep 2012.
- Kabatchnik, Amnon. “Blood on the Stage, 1925-1950.” Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009.
- "Landau Formerly on New York Stage." The Daily Star 16 Jul 1932: 8. Old Fulton New York Postcards. Web. 3 Sep 2012.
- ”Mrs. Landau Fights Will.” Los Angeles Times 11 Oct 1935: A2.
- ”Mrs. Landau Recognized.” Los Angeles Times 16 Dec 1935: A3.
- "Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Births, 1860-1906," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/VBTX-64F : accessed 24 Sep 2012), Magee, 1878.
- “Real Battle on Stage.” Oshkosh Daily Northewestern 17 Apr 1902: 7. NewspaperArchive. Web. 3 Sep 2012.
- "Roosevelt and Jackson Theaters" The Daily Star 10 May 1932: 8. Old Fulton New York Postcards. Web. 3 Sep 2012.
- "Some Theatrical Odds and Ends" Palo Alto Reporter 24 Sep 1903: 3. NewspaperArchive. Web. 3 Sep 2012.
- "Theatrical Notes." Covina Argus 12 Nov 1910: 7. NewspaperArchive. Web. 3 Sep 2012.
- "United States Census, 1880," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/MWJ1-5F9 : accessed 24 Sep 2012), David Magee in household of Robert Magee, Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States; citing sheet 247D, family 2, NARA microfilm publication T9-1186.
- "United States Census, 1930," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/X4KG-5M4 : accessed 24 Sep 2012), David Lander, Manhattan (Districts 0251-0500), New York, New York; citing enumeration district (ED) 0389, sheet 26A, family 336, NARA microfilm publication T626, roll 1553.
How cool! I am a Fugitive from a Chain gang is one of my favorites, and David was great in it. Nice to know that his wife was in Way Down East, another superb movie.
I loved to learn more about him!
Don’t forget to read my contribution to
the blogathon! :)Greetings!Le
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks @59a8e22a7e326eeb9b63ea260a334f81:disqus , I figured Chain Gang would be the best reminder of who I was talking about. Yes, I was surprised to discover his wife in Way Down East.
Hoping to check out all of the contributions to What A Character! over the next few days. I’m sure I won’t miss you!
What a truly fascinating story. What a hard-working actor, especially in the brief time in ‘talkies.’ You did an AMAZING job in research here, Cliff! I had NO CLUE about any of this. His performance in SHE DONE HIM WRONG with Mae West stands out the most for me. The whole mess with his wife/ex-wife fiasco was especially interesting. How crazy?! Thanks again for contributing your hard work to our lil blogathon. Hope you enjoyed!… Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled aka @Irishjayhawk66
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks @e80af7ca0b56bde97e64be7b404d08df:disqus and congratulations on an amazingly successful Blogathon–what an incredible list of entries including several others I’d love to cover myself!
Tonya Rice says
Wow, Cliff, this is some interesting stuff. Whew… a soap opera of his own! I recall him in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang with Paul Muni. Who could forget him in that???! Superb post!
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks @twitter-184246074:disqus , soap opera for sure–I can’t get it out of my head that one or even both of the Landaus may have been bigamists!
Glad Chain Gang recalled him to mind for you–he’s very intimidating with that leather strap. The only character who stands out more for me is the guy who knocks the sweat off Muni’s brow for him! But I can’t name him, Landau I can name.
Hi Cliff, sorry for delay! This is another actor where I TOTALLY know his face, in this case as the bad guy in THE PURCHASE PRICE. I didn’t connect him with UNION DEPOT, my goodness, that’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I have got to check out STREET SCENE with Beulah Bondi. What a saga with the will…but as you say…we have the films. Thanks for this very informative post. I’m going directly to your UNION DEPOT post 🙂
Cliff Aliperti says
Hi Paula, yes “the bad guy in …” is good short description for David Landau! Street Scene is great, it does feel like a stage play much of the time, though King Vidor has a few tricks up his sleeve to keep it visually interesting. It does feel like a bit of stage history has been captured for us though, which is good overall for David Landau! Thanks again! Cliff
That’s some damn good writing, Cliff. Thanks for sharing!
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks @696796afc4c581c11cad70e044eca801:disqus I’m flattered by the compliment! Glad you liked!
Your hard work is so appreciated! Thank you for researching, writing and posting these fascinating pieces on character actors. They are very impressive!
Cliff Aliperti says
Very glad you enjoyed it, @689d23f98a6505d39a2122355de3682d:disqus , thanks for the kind words!
John Bickler says
I hope this will be taken in the spirit it’s written: I truly appreciate the detailed research that went into writing this Landau piece. I have attempted similar profiles on early film personalities, so I do know the twists and turns and disappointments involved. And now the “BUT” – –
I cannot watch a David Landau performance without wondering, “How did this guy get into the film business as an actor? Did he “know” somebody?” I’m aware he was very busy in the early’30s; was his “type” so scarce that there was no one else to enlist for those parts? Overacting, broad gestures, mugging – he had it all, alright.
Possibly Landau saw a film in 1917 and decided then & there “THAT’S the way to act.”
I’ll stop here; no disrespect to you or your readers in any way. I’m in the miniscule minority, no doubt – just wanted to be heard.
Cliff Aliperti says
Say it ain’t so, John … but I do understand and appreciate the tone of your criticism. I’m never insulted by something like this, every old-time performer isn’t going to hold up the same for everyone–after all, there’s a reason David Landau isn’t a household name!
That said, I like what Landau brings to a movie. A lot usually. I’m sure there’s an exception here or there, but I typically expect a natural performance out of him, especially when placed in a contemporary setting, as I do see him as being very of his time. I probably like him least in the Mae West movie, where he’s out of his usual time, and the baseball murder mystery, in which he’s miscast.
On the whole I think he wears bitterness very well. Favorites include Street Scene, Lawyer Man, and Bedside.
Suellen Raymaley Crabbe says
MY great-grandmother was David Landau’s wife, Sarah Frances Newhall. She had a son from a previous marriage, Harold Weston Head. Anyhow, in my family’s stuff I found a cool postcard addressed to David. Turns out it is a very clever pan on a play in Harlem. Would you be interested in seeing this?
Cliff Aliperti says
Sure, feel free to email me. Thanks!