I first really noticed Dudley Digges when his Bartholomew Pratt blew me away in Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942), where Digges threatened to steal the entire picture from Tyrone Power just by sitting in a room with him. Pratt is one of the kinder characters I’ve seen Digges play though kind may be a bit of a stretch since Pratt leaves us, and Blake, on tenterhooks as to his true nature until the final scene of Son of Fury.
The Dudley Digges that has attracted my special notice since the time I’d caught Pratt is probably best remembered for what I’d describe as cranky screen portrayals. Pratt fits that bill as do two of his better known character portrayals, Dawson of China Seas (1935), who’s hell bent on making sure a repentant Lewis Stone suffer for past indiscretions, and as the Chief Detective in The Invisible Man (1933) where he’s equally determined to expose Claude Rains’ title character.
He’s in better spirits as one-legged Bacchus, lightening up Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) with his several versions of the tale of his missing appendage. He’s fantastic as Caspar Gutman in the original screen version of The Maltese Falcon (1931) featuring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, but Sydney Greenstreet’s later portrayal in John Huston’s iconic 1941 version of the film is so masterful that it effectively sweeps Digges’ earlier portrayal under the rug and well out of view for the casual film fan.
But I prefer my Digges cranky and his mood is even worse in The Mayor of Hell (1933) where as reform school warden Mr. Thompson he does his best to wrest control of the boy’s prison back from Cagney’s slick Patsy, only recently reformed himself by Madge Evans’ sweet prison nurse, Miss Griffith. While Miss Griffith can flip the corrupt Patsy and inspire him to bring an end to Thompson’s violent reign, Thompson only has contempt for the well-intentioned nurse and Digges heaps it on her throughout. But possibly the most seething portrayal by Dudley Digges that I’ve caught yet comes in The Voice of Bugle Ann (1936) where his Jacob Terry is so unneighborly that he spends most of his time threatening to shoot his neighbor’s dogs and his neighbors too if need be. Needless to say things don’t end very well for either of these practically evil Digges’ characters.
So where did this often humorous, sometimes downright scary heel come from? After all, Digges, born June 9, 1879, didn’t just show up as a movie actor one day after age 50. I wasn’t too surprised to discover his acting roots, after all, Digges practically has stage actor stamped across his face, but I was happy to discover that his origins were somewhat important and his stage career was more distinguished than I had imagined.
The earliest reference I could find to Digges on stage came from an article he wrote himself about The Abbey Theatre where he recalls “I looked in an old Dublin magazine and saw that on 17 March 1900, in the Coffee Palace Hall, in Townsend Street, Dublin, I gave a commendable performance of the part of Charles in The Irish Tutor.”
Born in Dublin, Digges would play an important role in the origin of the Abbey Theatre which is still active today. Cobbling a brief history from several sources, the Abbey grew out of the Irish Literary Theatre, founded 1899 by William Butler Yeats among others. The Irish Literary Theatre failed to captivate crowds despite critical praise because of their usage of English actors in Irish roles in performances for Irish audiences. According to Digges, Yeats was invited to a performance of a short play by the Irish nationalist writer Alice Milligan that was put on by William and Frank Fay with their troupe of Irish amateur actors, including Digges. Yeats so enjoyed the performance that he decided Fay’s group were the performers he needed to make a success of what would become the National Theatre of Ireland, which opened it’s doors at the Abbey at the end of 1904.
According to the August 1919 issue of Theatre Magazine, Digges came to America and made his Broadway debut in George Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island at the Garrick Theatre in October 1905. A more important work would be The New York Idea which was staged by Minnie Maddern Fiske and her husband and featured both Mrs. Fiske and Mr. George Arliss in the cast. Dudley Digges would appear opposite both Mrs. Fiske and Mr. Arliss several times into the next decade and would spend seven years serving as George Arliss’ stage manager.
Sources point to 1919’s John Ferguson as Digges’ first Broadway hit with that same issue of Theatre Magazine noting that Digges played the part of the coward. John Ferguson, originally slated for just 5 performances by the Theatre Guild, which had all of $20 in its coffers as of opening night, saved the Guild from bankruptcy when it ran for a stunning 135 performances! Dudley Digges would eventually perform between 3,000 and 3,500 times for the Theatre Guild over the course of his career. He also staged four plays for the Guild including a 1927 revival Shaw’s Pygmalion. A far from perfect image of Digges as the coward in John Ferguson follows below:
Very active on the stage through 1930, after which came a five year period which was his most active on the screen, Digges would not receive top bill on Broadway until after he returned from Hollywood to star as Grandpa in On Borrowed Time in 1938, a role played on screen the following year by Digges’ old Voice of Bugle Ann nemesis Lionel Barrymore. A year after his success in On Borrowed Time Digges would be awarded a gold medal by the American Irish Historical Society in recognition for his achievements as an Irish-born American.
Digges remained active on the stage throughout the close of the 1930’s and during World War II, only appearing in 5 movies released between 1937-1942, and just one more after that, but playing in 11 Broadway productions from the time of his return to the New York Stage in 1936 until the year of his death in 1947.
Digges also appeared in the original stage production of Kaufman and Hart’s zany George Washington Slept Here (1942) playing the part of deadbeat Uncle Stanley which was taken over by Charles Coburn in the screen version starring Jack Benny that same year.
Dudley Digges final stage appearance was in the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1947 where he received a great deal of critical praise playing the part of saloonkeeper Harry Hope. Eminent stage critic Brooks Atkinson wrote:
“To anyone who loves acting, Dudley Digges’ performance as the tottering and irascible saloon proprietor is worth particular cherishing. Although the old man is half dead, Mr. Digges’ command of the actor’s art of expressing character and theme is brilliantly alive; it overflows with comic and philosophical expression.”
Dudley Digges suffered a stroke and died in New York on October 24, 1947 at the age of 68. His wife, the actress Mary Quinn Digges, predeceased him and the couple had no children. At the time of his death Digges was the Vice President for the Actor’s Equity, a role which would subsequently be voted to Basil Rathbone. Digges was also a member of both the Lambs and the Players Clubs.
From a now anonymous New York Times Editorial published two days after Digges’ death, the author writes:
“Few character actors achieve greatness. They tend to slip into a special category of ‘types.’ Dudley Digges never did. Apparently with effortless perfection he could humanize any role for which he was cast.”
With well over forty years of stage work largely lost to the memory of all but what must be only a small and certainly elderly remaining audience, it’s the film career of Dudley Digges we have to judge him by today. And while I make a good case at the outset for saying he was typed as an old crank, albeit an extremely effective one, that Times Editorial indicates there was much more to a man whose career was far longer and better represented than the several hours of always enjoyable film we have remaining to represent him today.
Other sources not linked within the article itself:
"Dudley Digges, 68, Noted Actor Dead,” The New York Times 25 October 1947.
"Dudley Digges,” Review of the Week Editorials. The New York Times 26 October 1947.