“…you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter’s Julian Marsh to Ruby Keeler’s Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street (1933).
And despite his receiving only the second ever Academy Award for Best Actor as O. Henry’s The Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona (1928) it’s Marsh that Baxter is best remembered for today, by far. Baxter himself was said to have favored the Kid, a role he’d play two more times in The Cisco Kid (1931) and The Return of the Cisco Kid (1939).
Born in Columbus, Ohio on March 29, 1889, Baxter was an office boy prior to his celebrity. It sounds way too storybook to be believed, but Baxter’s 1951 obituary from the Associated Press credits his own first big break into show biz as very much the same as Keeler’s Peggy Sawyer. Mentioned casually in the summary of his life, without any direct reference to 42nd Street, the AP says Baxter got his start on stage in Columbus in 1910 when a dancer broke his ankle and Baxter replaced him.
While he didn’t come back a star quite yet, he did stick to the theater thereafter with the occasional period as an insurance salesman mixed in, one must assume to make ends meet. He married his first wife, Viola Caldwell in 1911, but it was reported not to have lasted very long at all. In 1913 he joined an Oklahoma Stock Company, but information is sparse about what Warner Baxter was doing between that time and his permanent arrival on the silent screens of the 1920’s.
One potentially interesting note from the A.P. obit relates to Baxter’s first film appearance, Her Own Money. The IMDb dates the film as 1914 and appears to have no other details about it beyond the fact that Baxter appears in an uncredited bit role. The A.P. dates Her Own Money as 1916 and claims that it starred Ethel Clayton.
Baxter shows up in only one Broadway show listed in the Internet Broadway Database, albeit a succesful one. Lombardi, Ltd. was performed 296 times between September 1917 and June 1918, though Baxter doesn’t receive any mention in the notices which concentrate on stars Leo Carrillo and Grace Valentine. Potentially another IMDb error, their credit listing for the film version of Lombardi, Ltd. includes Baxter in an uncredited bit role, but I find this highly unlikely since Carrillo, Valentine, nor any of the other stage actors were used in the screen version. Baxter did however develop into a successful male lead for Paramount and Famous Players-Lasky throughout the 1920’s.
The film for which Warner Baxter won his Academy Award, In Old Arizona, comes with its own Peggy Sawyer story—Raoul Walsh had been set to both direct and star the groundbreaking Western but a jackrabbit jumped through his windshield and blinded Walsh in his right eye. The injury would lead to the eventual loss of Walsh’s eye and he’d sport an eye patch thereafter. Obviously, Walsh was out.
Other popular Warner Baxter titles today seem limited to West of Zanzibar (1928), which let’s face it, like 42nd Street remains popular not because of Baxter, but in this case Lon Chaney; a pair with Myrna Loy, MGM's Penthouse (1933) and Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill (1934) for Columbia; and finally 1936’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, a feature where Baxter is indisputably the star attraction as Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth on his way from the Lincoln assassination. You think Muni had it tough on the Chain Gang? Give Shark Island a try.
What I found interesting about Baxter and led to my writing about him in far greater detail than I had first imagined, is just how big this now all but forgotten star was. If not for cementing his legacy with that 1930 Academy Award Warner Baxter would likely find himself in complete obscurity. The amazing thing is just how very popular he must have been as throughout the late 1930’s he was among the highest paid personalities in Hollywood.
Based on contemporary reports in 1936 Baxter was one of just ten movie and radio stars to make over $200,000, pulling down a salary of $284,384. Gary Cooper led all earners that year at $370,214. The following years saw a dip to $225,961 earned by Baxter but 1938 saw him as highest paid actor at $279,807—Claudette Colbert led all film stars with a reported income of $301,994. Just to give you a little more flavor of the times, Baxter paid $130,000 in income taxes on his 1938 earnings.
So what happened? Well, during the 1940’s Baxter slipped to B status playing the lead, Dr. Robert Ordway, in a series of ten Crime Doctor movies distributed by Columbia Pictures from 1943-1949. Perhaps this descent has diminished his overall legacy?
In his spare time Baxter was a tinkerer and inventor who as reported by Popular Mechanics in 1935 co-created a revolver-searchlight which would cast a light on a target and allow a marksman to fire at it through the dark. Later he invented a radio-controlled device that would allow police and firemen to change traffic signals from up to two blocks away in order to better guarantee them safe passage through intersections. Baxter installed this device at a local Beverly Hills intersection at his own expense in 1940 and it was said to have worked. Said Baxter, “You just push a button on the dashboard of your car and the signals turn red in all directions.” In the same interview Baxter claims that he’s used his earlier invention on hunting trips and has found that it “works perfectly.”
The only other item of interest I could find about Baxter’s personal life is a constant reference of being at William Powell’s side when Jean Harlow died. Baxter and Powell appeared together in three 1926 features at Paramount, Along the South Seas, The Runaway, and The Great Gatsby, in which Baxter played Jay Gatsby, and I can only assume they formed a long-lasting friendship from that time.
Warner Baxter’s own end was filled with pain and suffering. Newspapers report two hospitalizations early in 1951 prior to his death May 7 of that same year. Baxter suffered from terrible arthritis that caused so much pain he wasn’t even able to eat. This developed into a vitamin deficiency and left him on the verge of starvation. In February ‘51 Baxter spent three weeks in a hospital for treatment, improving well enough during that time to be sent home. During his second hospitalization in April, Baxter was given a lobotomy with hopes that the operation would lessen the pain and allow him to eat again. Thankfully he was spared starvation when bronchial pneumonia set in and caused his death at age 62.
Baxter’s obituary says that he was survived by his beloved second wife of 33 years, Winifred Bryson, a veteran of the stage and screen herself through 1928, and his mother, Mrs. Jane Baxter. I could not find any reports of children.
Only seen one movie with Warner Baxter, Squaw man. He was quite good in it. Kinda Ronald Colman-y.
I think it’s interesting how many stars were tinkerers/inventors. Warren William, Warner Baxter and I’m finding out reading “A Dreadful Man” that George Sanders was a tinkerer as well. He famously rewired many friends homes and had a huge workshop in his place. At the time he married Zsa Zsa Gabor he refused to move in with her because her house had no shop and his tiny apartment, adjacent to a large workshop, was too small for her and her daughter and their nanny.
Cliff Aliperti says
That’s funny, I always thought the Ronald Colman thing myself … but for the life of me I don’t know why! The mustache?
Jenny, I was dying to pull Warren William into this because you have the tinkering, the presumed (in Baxter’s case I couldn’t confirm) lack of heirs, and a 1930’s hey day followed by spending the 1940’s in a Columbia mystery series. Then you have the early death and poof!–forgotten. What’s up with that?
The tinkering is getting strange. It’s becoming a common trait. Wonder if they had a secret club or something?
I have a manuscript to the movie “the return of cisco kid” with warren baxter 1938 property of fox television…Found it in a old box of books in a barn.It’s in great condion! It says in the front of book that it wasnt but 3 copies made for them to return after studing their parts, it’s very interesting and wondering how much it may be worth if anything!
Great write up, you sure like the forgotten ones. Couple thoughts on Warner. He is fantastic in West of Zanzibar. I especially get a kick out of the drunken “booty” dance he does. I love him with Myrna Loy both in The Penthouse and Broadway Bill. The latter of the two is one of Capra’s best. Six hours to live has a nice poetic quality. to it. He really was in a nice assortment of movie before settling into the Crime Doctor roles which can be hit or miss. A similar trajectory to our friend Warren William. Died too young but thanks to new availabilty he will hopefully be more appreciated as time goes by.
Cliff Aliperti says
Very similar to Warren William @224733667c82d93d78ecb090ec25b1f8:disqus that still sticks out in my memory from writing this!
Love all the films you mention with West of Zanzibar most recent on my mind and Penthouse sitting on my nightstand at the moment for a refresher sometime soon!
Odd to get a comment on this one tonight as I am right now putting finishing touches on a post about Adam Had Four Sons that I hope to have up before sunrise this morning!
Jeebus, now it may seem like a leap but since you are the author I can’t help but do a Baxter comparison with Warren William. Here is what I’ve got.
Warren William and Warner Baxter both men were:
done with A pics by 30’s end
leads in B crime series in 40’s
never looked young (IMHOP)
married to one woman whole life
largely forgotten in second half of century
written about by Cliff
Cliff Aliperti says
Gold Diggers of 1933 vs. 42nd Street (I could always see Warren as Julian Marsh!)
B crime series, yep, The Lone Wolf vs. Crime Doctor
Along with your points on one woman/largely forgotten, neither had children which I think could have helped kept their names going to some extent.
I found your write up very informative. Believe this or not but I am a relative of Warner Baxter. His second wife was related to my grandmother. I have a few studio pics you may not have seen if interested contact me by email at [email protected]
TOM OBRIEN says
I HAVE FURNITURE WARNER BAXTER HAD MADE FOR HIS WIFE, I BOUGHT IT IN 1986 FROM HIS WIFE, DINING TABLE WITH 6 CHAIRS AND THE SERVER ALSO HAVE A BLUE CHAIR AND FOOT STOOL AND LAMP
Cliff Aliperti says
Sounds wonderful, Tom, would love to see pictures if you have any to share. Thanks for commenting!
BTW for relative who was related to Warren Baxter hey GET TV that new regular tv channel been showing his Crime doctor movies during past March
Steve Foster says
Warner Baxter was my late maternal Grandmother’s cousin. Her maiden name was Rosina Baxter and her last surviving child, my Uncle Len (who turned 90 in May), is quite like Warner (except his hair and moustache are white). I never knew my Grandmother and I don’t think she ever met Warner as she lived here in the UK all her life but I was told she did see many of his films and my late Mother had 42nd Street on DVD and she used to say she could see my Grandmother in Warner. He sadly isn’t very well known these days when compared to contemporary stars of the time but when I’ve mentioned he played the Cisco Kid, some people do react to that.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, Steve. He’s wonderful in 42nd Street. I really like him, good sturdy actor who always gave a fine performance. This post is a few years old, but I wrote about another of his movies recently, Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill co-starring Myrna Loy. Tell them about the Oscar he won as Cisco, that ought to impress them!
So do you think WB got his exotic dark looks from the Baxter side? Looks that way. Funny how some English people, like Cary Grant, don’t look English at all. My dad was an Englishman and he appeared quite typical, violet-blue eyes [like me] and blond hair.
Sorry for late response. Yes I’m sure the dark looks were from the Baxter side, my mother was very dark featured as is my brother and both his children (I’m not, I am fair-haired and blue-eyed as was my father). I can remember my mother telling me her mother’s descendants (not sure if that was grandparents, great grandparents or further back) were from Malta so if that’s the case, it would explain the dark appearance. Hope this sheds some light on the matter anyway, thanks for getting in touch.
NB – I shouldn’t have said descendants, I meant ancestors! D’oh!!!
James Nausley says
I was going through the library and found an article that said that a local boy, Billy Ray Santschi, from Crystal City, MO was going to Hollywood where he was hired to play the son of Warner Baxter in a Columbia picture called “Legacy”. Not sure of the year. He was listed in the movie as just Billy Ray. Have not found the film.
Cliff Aliperti says
Hi James, Legacy was the working title of Adam Had Four Sons (1941), which I actually have covered in some detail on the site HERE. The movie starred Baxter with Ingrid Bergman, Fay Wray, and Susan Hayward. Young Billy Ray grows up to become Richard Denning later in the film. I think it currently plays on GetTV every so often, though I’ve caught it on TCM in the past. Good luck, Cliff
I had never heard of Mr Baxter I found an autographed photo of him in an antique store and just had to buy it there was just something about his eyes.
Cliff Aliperti says
Nice find! I hope you get to check out some of his movies.
Dean S. DeSoto says
My cousin was very close to him. Her stage name was Barbara Lee, real name Ernestine Barber. Discovered letter and signed photograph she kept over 40 years after he died. Seeking more information please. Dean S. DeSoto, San Antonio, Texas. Email [email protected]
I like Baxter a lot in most of the films I’ve seen him in, and think he deserves to be remembered better, so am pleased to find you wrote this bio, Cliff. I’m currently reading the biography of William A Wellman by his son, and have got on to the account of the making of The Robin Hood of El Dorado in 1936, where I think Baxter gives a fine performance.
But Wellman Jr claims Baxter had a “staggering drinking problem” by this time and indeed claims that most of the time an unnamed double (“D”) took his place on set in this and other films, with Baxter appearing only in the close-ups. While of course many actors had drink problems so that aspect is only too believable, I find the claim of a double being used on such a grand scale hard to believe. Especially as 1936 was a good year for Baxter, when he also appeared in The Prisoner of Shark Island and a good Howard Hawks WW1 film, The Road to Glory. Had you ever heard anything about this?
Cliff Aliperti says
Hi Judy, I feel like I’ve come across whispers of this in some old Hollywood bios, but I haven’t picked up the Wellman book yet, so I can’t personally speak to the overall tone and reliability of that specific text. Still, seems like the right people like the book, so there is that. The little I know about Baxter is in this piece written, shoot, almost six years ago now, so I’m due for a little brushing up, I suppose. Still, there’s no “insider” stuff here, nor do I know anything. I haven’t watched Robin Hood of El Dorado yet, but agree, the other two are excellent, as is Slave Ship the following year. Certainly, he had straightened himself out, or at least would have been going through a good period, by the time of Adam Had Four Sons in 1941, where he does an excellent job. Recalling the end of Baxter’s life, well, nothing would surprise me about that time, really terrible stuff as I recall.
Cliff, thanks so much for this reply. Interesting to hear of those mentions in old Hollywood bios. Sadly, it seems as if Baxter had a lot of problems – I remember Capra is scathing about him in his autobiography, not mentioning a drink problem, but talking about his fear of horses.
I think the Wellman bio contains quite a few tall stories, as it seems to be largely based on his own memoirs. So I’d have to say it doesn’t strike me as feeling very reliable overall, but as a fan of his films I’m still finding it worth reading.
Shari Johnson says
I read your biography of Warner Baxter with great interest. I have pictures of Warner Baxter, friends, and family in it. In 1966 we lived in Manhattan Beach CA and my husband found the pictures thrown in a dumpster. He picked them out, put them in a manila envelope and that’s where they have been ever since, until I just recently came across them. I saw in your blog ‘Erik’ wrote he is a relative…he might like to have the pictures, but the email address listed was a dead end. It would be a shame to just throw them, as some go back to 1928. Do you have a suggestion? Thanks
…there are other pictures and clues to some of the history that might be of interest to you Cliff, with your knowledge.
Cliff Aliperti says
Hi Shari, I definitely wouldn’t throw them out, unless the garbage really did a job on them-which I doubt, or you wouldn’t have saved them so long! I don’t know how substantial a trove you have there, but do feel free to email me at [email protected] with details. Thanks!
He was great as Alan Breck in “Kidnapped”.
Cliff Aliperti says
Yep, agree. Under appreciated movie too, glad to see Fox Cinema Archives put it out on DVD a few years ago (my copy predates that and is lousy-I should really upgrade!).
Jeff Rogers says
My mother, Stella Rogers, rented Mr Baxter’s Palm Springs apartment while my father was overseas in WWII. That’s the reason I recognize his name and am watching “42nd Street” right now…
Mark Santa Maria says
Question what ever happened to his academy award?? from a big fan of Mr Baxter