If you raise your voice when discussing Trouble in Paradise (1932) then you’re likely arguing Kay Francis versus Miriam Hopkins, but never Herbert Marshall. Marshall’s gentleman thief Gaston Monescu is the heart of that Ernst Lubitsch classic every bit as much as the director’s famed touch. Marshall’s own imprint is lighter, call it less intrusive, than Lubitsch's in what I've come to regard as the actor's signature role.
Just prior to Trouble in Paradise we typically took charming Cary Grant’s side over a moody Marshall when it came to Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932). Shortly before, back in his native Britain after a successful run on Broadway, Marshall starred for Alfred Hitchcock in Murder! (1930). Ten years later, Marshall had the top supporting role in one of Hitchcock’s bigger Hollywood films, Foreign Correspondent (1940). He had two more classic turns at the beginning of the ‘40s for director William Wyler opposite Bette Davis in each The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941).
Herbert Marshall enjoyed a long run as movie star whether as leading man or otherwise.
With his heavy eyelids and sleepy voice, London born Herbert Marshall came to movie stardom in his early forties as a romantic leading man, who gained his greatest appreciation from his female audience. He shifted to character roles as his romantic traits aged into the essence of the distinguished British gentleman.
Marshall was the perfect embodiment of characters hatched from the mind of W. Somerset Maugham, perhaps the most popular and prolific writer during Marshall’s own peak years on the screen. Not only was Marshall the perfect fit for some of Maugham’s fictional creations, as he was when playing different parts in each the 1929 and 1940 versions of The Letter and playing the cuckold again as Garbo’s husband in The Painted Veil (1934), but he was the perfect screen representation of Maugham’s own fictionalized version of himself. Marshall played Geoffrey Wolfe, the slightly fictionalized embodiment of Maugham in the author’s slightly fictionalized novel of Paul Gauguin, in The Moon and Sixpence in 1942. A few years later Marshall played support in yet another masterpiece when he played Maugham’s narrator from The Razor’s Edge (1946), a character also called W. Somerset Maugham.
There were numerous additional movie roles, sometimes as star, more often leading man, and later lending distinguished support. Prior to Hollywood, Marshall enjoyed an earlier theatrical life on both the London stage and Broadway. Later his career extended into radio and then, like so many of his aging peers, guesting on television throughout the 1950s until just a few years before his death in 1966.
He was born Herbert Brough Falcon Marshall in London, May 23, 1890. He graduated from St. Mary’s College in Essex and soon took a job as an accounting clerk. While Marshall did not set out to become an actor, he did work in theater, first as technical assistant before becoming backstage stage manager. Eventually he was asked to play a part on stage out of necessity. This came in 1911, though the most colorful report I saw of Marshall’s earliest days would have placed his walk-on role two years earlier, when he was just nineteen (Cohen).
He continued playing small parts with the same company for two years before being starred in Brewster’s Millions at Prince’s Theatre in London. By this time Marshall had decided to pursue acting as far as it could take him, but that path was soon interrupted by the First World War.
In what was likely the most important event in a colorful and productive life, Marshall was shot in the right knee by a sniper during the war. He spent thirteen months in the hospital during which time he underwent several operations before his right leg was ultimately amputated above the knee, somewhere along his hip. What is disappointing, in terms of the historical record, is that there is very information available about how Herbert Marshall overcame this handicap to go on to become such an important and busy actor for nearly fifty years.
Marshall’s movie success and his popularity as a romantic leading man kept his missing limb from being discussed in any detail by the press or with the public. By the same token, it wasn’t completely secret either. Marshall’s artificial leg featured quite prominently in a 1938 column by Eddie Cohen and, according to writer John Monk Saunders, was referenced as early as 1934, the peak of Marshall’s popularity as leading man, by Walter Winchell (Wray 163). But there does not appear to be any report from Marshall himself about his loss of his limb and what it meant for him. It must have taken a great adjustment for him to return to acting after the War, especially on the stage. He obviously managed it, but how? What physical and mental challenges did he have to overcome to perfect his craft?
When it comes to his screen work in Hollywood, fans are typically shocked to find out about Marshall’s lost limb and use of a wooden leg. Upon discovery, the polite thing to do is to say you still don’t notice.
While Marshall himself is never seen to struggle or even barely limp in his films, it is mostly noticeable when a stand-in takes over for him in more strenuous parts. I say this just having viewed Trouble in Paradise again as inspiration for this post. Late in the movie Marshall’s Gaston races up and down the stairs of Madame Colet’s home. We only see the back of a Marshall-like figure when he’s actually on the run and it is obviously not the same man. Similarly, Marshall put on the boxing gloves to go one-on-one with Barbara Stanwyck in a scene in Breakfast for Two (1937). Marshall parries and throws jabs facing the camera, but when he employs any bit of footwork to dance around Stanwyck, we again only see the back of another actor.
Luckily, most of Herbert Marshall’s films don’t call for even that much physical activity. He is no action hero. But the fact that such care was taken to protect the actor’s image in more unenlightened times goes to show just how valuable a property he was in a business ruled by the bottom line.
In his private life Herbert Marshall, called Bart by friends and loved ones, was married five times. He widowed one wife, was widowed by wife number five, and counted three actresses of various standing among the women he married. Additionally, his daughter, Sarah Marshall (1933-2014), spent sixty years on stage and screen. Marshall achieved some notoriety in the British press when he split with first wife Mollie Maitland to marry actress Edna Best, who had her own divorce proceedings progress on a time line similar to Marshall’s. Somehow less scandalous was Marshall’s open affair with Gloria Swanson during a two year period of separation from Best in the mid-1930s.
In her autobiography, Swanson mentioned Marshall having a reputation with the Hollywood women and even named Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins as being among his better known conquests. I couldn’t corroborate that information anywhere and more then half suspect that the aging screen legend had recently watched a revival of Trouble in Paradise when she wrote that. While I’m not completely convinced of Swanson’s reliability as a source, she does spend several pages recounting her affair with Marshall and offers more insight into his private life than any other source.They met at a party thrown by Richard Barthelmess and his wife and fell madly in love within just a week’s time. Swanson said that Marshall told him the split with his wife happened because Edna Best did not want to live in California and Marshall had to be in Hollywood for work. Swanson said he drank a bit, but wasn’t a drunk: “He was essentially a social drinker, but a heavy one” (441). Among their friends and social companions were Carole Lombard, Grace Moore, and Hollywood couple Rod La Rocque and Vilma Banky.
Marshall left Swanson to reconcile with Best, but their marriage was short-lived by that point. Best married Nat Wolff on the very day that she and Marshall were granted their divorce in 1940. Marshall didn’t wait much longer himself, marrying a third time to model and bit actress Lee Russell within just a few weeks of his split with Best being made official. Friends La Rocque and Banky accompanied Marshall to Las Vegas to witness his marriage to Russell, twenty years his junior. After their 1947 divorce Marshall married for a fourth time that same year to actress Boots Mallory. That marriage lasted until Mallory’s death in 1958. A month before his seventieth birthday Marshall wed once more. Wife number five was the former Mrs. Dee Ann Kahmann, a department store buyer.Herbert Marshall had a heart attack and died January 22, 1966 in Beverly Hills, California. He was survived by his widow, Dee Ann, and two daughters by previous marriages.
Like many of his peers from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who survived and remained active through the rise of television and the death of the studio system, Herbert Marshall longed for the days gone by. In a 1963 interview with Hollywood journalist Bob Thomas he said, “Somehow I miss those days of the Rolls-Royce and the beautiful evening gowns. Hollywood had lot more flavor then.” Beyond the lifestyle, even the movies he had specialized in had disappeared: “They don’t seem to make my type of pictures anymore — the type that was termed ‘drawing room’ for lack of a better name.”
Somehow, despite starring or lending support on between at least three to seven all-time classics, no matter how strict your count, Herbert Marshall was never even once nominated for an Academy Award. Or any other award. While his trophy case was empty, he did receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
He played in major movies, flourishing in a time of glamor despite an artificial limb. His private life was, at the very least, busy. His modern reputation among most classic film fans will never approach the level of fame and stardom he enjoyed in the early 1930s, a time when gossip columnist Louella Parsons reported, “the vogue at the moment is for Herbert Marshall.”
But Herbert Marshall remains an actor well worth remembering if only to rediscover the vast output of quality classic movies that he appeared in. Most every old time movie star has to live down their own version of Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble (1944), the title I’m picking as Marshall’s biggest dud and certainly his most miscast role. They all have those, but not nearly as many have the number of classics under their belts to counter those few bombs as did Herbert Marshall.
- Cohen, Eddie. “For Your Amusement.” Miami Daily News 16 Jun 1938: 4-A. Web. Google News 14 Aug 2014.
- ”Herbert Marshall, Lee Russell Wed in Nevada.” Reading Eagle 28 Feb 1940: 1. Web. Google News 14 Aug 2014.
- Parsons, Louella O. “Herbert Marshall Much In Demand As A Leading Man.” Milwaukee Sentinel 3 Apr 1934: 8. Web. Google News 14 Aug 2014.
- Swanson, Gloria. Swanson on Swanson. New York: Random House, 1980.
- Thomas, Bob. “Herbert Marshall Misses Filmland’s Good Old Days.” Reading Eagle 18 Sep 1963: 62. Web. Google News 14 Aug 2014.
- Wray, Fay. On the Other Hand: A Life Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.