He was stern on screen, priggish even, playing it straight in comedies as often as dramas. If he was somebody’s dad, he was usually a right guy, even if he was humorless. If he was a businessman, a lawyer, or a politician, look out, this fussbudget may very well be setting the hero up for a fall. Grant Mitchell played supporting roles in some big titles: Dinner at Eight, Wild Boys of the Road (both 1933), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and many others. He appeared in over 120 films, all but two of them released between 1930-1948, and only two more of those before 1932. He was already 56-years-old by the time of his first talkie, Man to Man (1930), but was a veteran actor with 28 years stage experience behind him.
The life of Grant Mitchell appears to be very neatly divided in two, with his acting career filling the bulk of that second portion, beginning 1902. While Mitchell plainly discussed his education and his professional life prior to his acting career, for some reason he never called attention to his family background or other details of his youth in Columbus, Ohio.
He was born John Grant Mitchell Jr., in Columbus, June 17, 1874. The name will ring a bell for Civil War buffs, as his father, John Grant Mitchell (1838-1894) was a Union Army general during the Civil War. General Mitchell was active in many campaigns and was an important enough figure to land in modern Civil War encyclopedias. The elder Mitchell returned to his law practice after the war. His only son would attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps on both counts, but the General was four years gone by the time Junior volunteered for the Army.General Mitchell married Laura Platt (1842-1916) in October 1862. The former Miss Platt was daughter of Fanny Arabella Hayes Platt, whose little brother, Rutherford, was elected President of the United States in 1876. For some reason Grant Mitchell never made public mention of his ties to his great-uncle, Rutherford B. Hayes. Ties too distant to bother mentioning? Well, in a letter to Mark Twain, the former President mentions reading Twain’s latest, The Prince and the Pauper, to little Grant Mitchell and his sisters during an 1882 visit (Rasmussen).
Now, I’m not a big name dropper, but if Nixon or Carter had read me bedtime stories, I’d probably figure a way to work it into many a conversation. The tight-lipped Mitchell not only keep mum about his ties to a U.S. President, I couldn’t find him talking about his well-known father anywhere either. This was no minor figure, in fact, there’s more information available today about John Grant Senior than Junior! Perhaps the young actor kept to himself so he wouldn’t embarrass his family, though by the time the press bothered talking to Grant Mitchell, both of his parents were already gone.
Mitchell Jr. attended the public schools of Columbus before being sent to preparatory school at Phillips Academy, Andover in Massachusetts. He’d later spend a good deal of time on stage in the same state. Not yet though. He next attended Ohio State University before heading to Yale, where he was a member of the International Legal Honor Society, Phi Delta Phi, and graduated as class historian in 1895. Mitchell completed his education in 1897 after a year of study at Harvard Law. Grant Mitchell, he was no dummy. By the same token, he seems to have been a bit of a dreamer, confessing, “I was noted for being a dub (unskilled) at law,” claiming he was always too impressed by both sides of an argument.
I suspect a short-lived stint as a reporter on a New York daily (the Mail mentioned in one place) was next for Mitchell, though it’s hard to pinpoint the timing of that three week run of employment. I feel comfortable placing that brief journalistic run here though, as it would have given him something to do to occupy his time prior to joining the First Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry in response to the Spanish-American War in 1898. Mitchell was mustered in as a Corporal before being promoted to Sergeant on July 20 of that year, but ultimately illness kept him from getting any further than camp in Chickamauga, from where he was sent back to Columbus with Typhoid fever.
In a 1947 interview, Mitchell places his law career ahead of his military service. But he’s documented as finishing Harvard in 1897 and volunteering for service in 1898, so that doesn’t leave a lot of time for a law practice in between. He’s said to have practiced law for three years, and those three years fit most neatly in his timeline after his illness. Those three years came in his uncle’s law office, where he took care of minor chores and watched the clock. “I had no burning urge to act,” Mitchell said, in 1947, but, “After flopping as a journalist, a lawyer, and a soldier, I had to do something to make a living and acting seemed the only field left.”
In 1902, he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Mitchell claimed he didn’t have the $800 enrollment fee, but was told they’d waive it and collect after he graduated and began earning. He wound up spending two semesters at the Academy, later claiming that the superiors decided to cut their losses at that point because was so bad. But before the year was out he landed a bit role as a member of the Roman mob in Richard Mansfield’s production of Julius Caesar, first at the Grand Opera House in Chicago, and then on Broadway at the Herald Square Theatre. Mitchell later said he only needed to answer in the affirmative to one qualification to land that job: “Can you shout?” The part payed either $10 or $15 per week, depending upon when you asked him.
Acting was the profession that would stick for Grant Mitchell, but he still had a long road to recognition.
Mitchell next took to the road in a minor supporting role in Clyde Fitch’s The Girl with the Green Eyes, a Charles Frohman production starring Clara Bloodgood. The part was said to reveal a flair for comedy, which kept Mitchell working, at least for as long as his plays lasted with audiences. “They called me the jinx after a while,” he told The Billboard in 1921. “They would first hear I was in a play, congratulate me, and in a week or two discover that the play was closed. It certainly was tough on me.” Frohman brought Grant Mitchell to Broadway, and kept him busy there, but the titles rarely lasted even a month: Glad of It at the end of 1903, Cousin Billy early in ‘05, The Mountain Climber in ‘06, a stage adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth later that same year, and The Toymaker of Nuremberg late in 1907.
It would take a few more years for Grant Mitchell to find success, but it was time that proved valuable to Mitchell in retrospect. “The more plays I was in the more chances I had to become an all-around actor,” he said in 1919. “That is the practical value of failures. And no one ever held me responsible for the failure, as I always had small parts, so my reputation didn’t suffer.”He was able to appear alongside some big names along the way. He joined the legendary Lillian Russell on tour in The Butterfly in 1907 and earned positive notice far from Broadway, in Minnesota’s Duluth Evening Herald: “When Lillian Russell gets through with Grant Mitchell, if she ever does, he ought to take his representation of a young man with a bad cold in the head, into vaudeville. It is a very effective little turn, and, incidentally, he handles he role of Pitney Killigrew in a very capable manner.” He toured with Maxine Elliott in Bettina and later played in the same production on Broadway for Elliott, another short-lived affair in late 1908.
Mitchell first worked for producers George M. Cohan and Sam H. Harris on a 1909 tour of The Fortune Hunter, then finally landed in a hit for Cohan & Harris back on Broadway in 1910s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford, where he originated the role of hotel clerk Eddie Lamb. He played support in another Broadway hit for David Belasco in Years of Discretion, which had a run that began at the end of 1912 and lasted through the middle of the following year at the Belasco Theatre. Mitchell joined the rest of the cast in road show performances that lasted into 1914, when he returned to Broadway and Cohan & Harris, who gave him a major role in It Pays to Advertise, a hit that lasted two seasons at Cohan’s Theatre.
Grant Mitchell had finally made it. In 1921 he said of all of the difficulties leading up to It Pays to Advertise, “Since then it’s been easy.”Stardom came for Grant Mitchell in the 1917-1918 Cohan & Harris hit A Tailor-Made Man. “In the title role, Grant Mitchell gave the crowning performance in a career that has shown a steady, even advance,” said the anonymous New York Times review of the part he had previewed in Boston earlier that year. “It’s it too funny—my being a star,” Mitchell told the Boston Globe in 1920, while appearing there in The Champion. “It really seems ridiculous. Like the old woman whose skirts were cut off in Mother Goose. I can’t believe it’s me. I start laughing every time I see my face on the billboards. It reminds me of the first time I got a thrill over my own fame.”
He’d continue to star in The Champion on Broadway, where he spent most of the 1920s basking in the greatest success of his career. A few shows still came and went quickly, but the hits came more often now, and Mitchell was often the lead in them. There was The School for Scandal in 1923, followed almost immediately by The Whole Town’s Talking, which ran into the start of 1924. Spooks kept Mitchell busy in mid-1925, and he closed out that year with the start of an even more successful production, One of the Family. In 1927 George M. Cohan’s Baby Cyclone was Grant Mitchell’s last big hit on Broadway. He’d return to the Great White Way for a few quick runs in the later 1930s, but timing paved the way for a new chapter to Grant Mitchell’s career.
Mitchell had played a small role in Essanay’s January 1916 film release The Misleading Lady, starring Henry B. Walthall and Edna Mayo. It’s an odd duck on his resume that presumably was not intended to mark Mitchell’s splash into silent film, but more likely just something that cropped up near wherever he was working as an odd payday or something to keep him busy. His only other silent film appearance was more than that, even landing a place in film history, but it did not lead to any additional film work.
The Man from M.A.R.S. premiered December 27, 1922 at the Selwyn Theatre in New York. It was a 3D science-fiction movie. It was not the first 3D film, but was preceded only a few months by The Power of Love out west. You can find out more about the film and the early 3D process in this Bright Lights article, and also read how the New York Times reported on the technology back in late 1922. The film was also put out in a standard release titled Radio-Mania, as shown in the advertisement above.
“I could never be a matinee idol,” Mitchell said. Like other portions of his past, he never discussed his forays into silent film, but by the time he achieved stardom on stage in the ‘20s, it really was no surprise he didn’t press to appear in more films. In 1921 he was asked what an actor’s most important attribute was. “Diction, first of all,” said Mitchell. “The voice counts for everything. That takes in, of course, pronunciation, enunciation, control and quality of voice.” Not much help on the silent screen.
Near the end of the decade Mitchell revived the play that had made him a star, A Tailor-Made Man, first on the road, before reaching Broadway on an ominous date, October 21, 1929. The IBDB says it ran for eight days, which coincides rather neatly with the Stock Market Crash. On the bright side, for Grant Mitchell at least, talking pictures had taken over Hollywood and the product was getting better and better.
Mitchell made his talkie debut playing Phillips Holmes’s father in the First National-Vitaphone production Man to Man, a late 1930 release. In the film, Mitchell plays a small town barber recently paroled from a murder sentence that threatens to define his son as much as it does him. Mitchell doesn’t appear until twenty-five minutes into the film, but just about all of the talk is about him until he does show up. In his second movie, also at Warner Bros., William A. Wellman’s The Star Witness, Mitchell plays the father of a family who witness gangland murders from their apartment building. As his career progresses we don’t get to see Grant Mitchell play many convicted murderers like Barber John, or take beatings like he does as Pa Leeds, but we do get to see him play a good number of fathers, which is what best defines each of these first two roles.
Mitchell’s film career progressed and he was kept very busy. He played in 8 movies in 1932, 15 in 1933, 10 in 1934, etc. It was the typical busy pace of a contract player in that era. His parts usually weren’t as large as they were in those first two movies, sometimes just a single scene even, but he quickly carved out a niche of fussbudget fathers, henpecked husbands, and finicky and sometimes cranky professionals. Mitchell returned to Broadway three times during the late 1930s, only appearing in 6 or 7 Hollywood films during those years, but he was a Hollywood mainstay more or less from the time he arrived. Other excursions included his heading a a U.S.O. company tour of the Pacific with The Late Christopher Bean after V-J Day. In 1946, he took time off from the movies to play summer stock back east, and the following year he co-starred opposite Billie Burke in Accidentally Yours in the West.
In January 1947, Mitchell suffered a broken ankle when a car hit him near the Hollywood Bowl. That seems to have effectively ended his stage career, though he appeared in a handful of additional movies through 1948.
Mitchell never married and, not surprising given his age, was never really connected with anybody in Hollywood. He was asked about his single status throughout the ‘20s, during his peak, and usually explained that all of the good wives were already taken. Once he replied that he would love to answer by saying, “Because my first two wives cut their throats,” and you can bet he’d have said so with a straight face if he ever did! Instead, Mitchell had a British couple travel with him throughout the ‘20s, probably just a very steady pair of domestic employees, who he was thankful to have on hand: “If they should ever leave me, I would not know what to do. I suppose I should have to return to hotel life. I’m not sure whether I could go on, if I had to select my own meals, do my own packing or arrange for my laundry.”
At the time of the 1940 census Mitchell still resided in his own home on Benedict Canyon Drive in Los Angeles, but shortly after he began an extended residence at the Hollywood Hotel. He was one of its final residents to depart before the hotel was razed in 1956. Earlier that year he collapsed in a drug store, suffering a mild stroke that caused him to be moved to the Wilshire Sanitarium.
Grant Mitchell died a little over a year later, in Los Angeles, May 1, 1957, at age 82.
“Luck plays a big part in success on the stage. Everyone gets his chance if he sticks to it long enough.” — Grant Mitchell, 1921
This article was posted for the 2014 annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula's Cinema Club, and Once Upon a Screen. Please do head to each of their sites to check out all of the other participants. In previous years I've used this Blogathon to write about Hugh Herbert and David Landau.
Sources and Citations:
- “Actor Grant Mitchell Hit By Automobile.” Miami Daily News. 13 January 1947: 5A. Web. Google News. 16 November 2014.
- “A Prince There Was.” Canadian Jewish Chronicle 9 January 1920: 9. Web. Google News 19 November 2014.
- “‘A Tailor-Made Man’ Is Amusing Comedy.” New York Times 28 August 1917. Web. New York Times Archives. 17 November 2014.
- "California, Death Index, 1940-1997," index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/VGR4-WL2 : accessed 17 Nov 2014), John Grant Mitchell, 01 May 1957; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.
- “Failure in Three Fields Made Him an Actor: Mitchell Relates Odd Success Yard.” Pittsburgh Press 11 November 1947: 20. Web. Google News. 16 November 2014.
- “Grant Mitchell Arrives Here To Guest-Star at Playhouse.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 November 1947: 17. Web. Google News. 16 November 2014.
- “Grant Mitchell as He Really Is.” Boston Daily Globe 28 September 1919: 56. Web. Boston Globe Archives. 17 November 2014.
- “Grant Mitchell: Hard Fight to Reach Stardom.” The Billboard. 12 March 1921: 20. Web. Old Fulton NY Postcards. 17 November 2014.
- “Grant Mitchell, Stage Star, Dies. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. 2 May 1957: 5. Web. Google News. 16 October 2014.
- “Grant Mitchell Suffers Stroke.” Sarasota Journal. 20 April 1956:2. Web. Google News 16 November 2014.
- “Here Is One Star Who Is Modest.” Boston Daily Globe 21 November 1920: 51. Web. Boston Globe Archives. 17 November 2014.
- Katzenberger, George A., editor. Catalogue of the Legal Fraternity of Phi Delta Phi. 7th ed. Ann Arbor: Inland Press, 1897. 417.
- “Lillian Russell: Pleases Large Audience in Her New Comedy.” Duluth Evening Herald 8 June 1907: 15. Web. Old Fulton NY Postcards. 18 November 2014.
- “Mitchell in the Talkies.” Boston Daily Globe 7 April 1929: A58. Web. Boston Globe Archives. 17 November 2014.
- Quinquennial Catalogue of the Law School of Harvard University, 1817-1904. Cambridge: Harvard Law School, 1905. 111.
- Rasmussen, R. Kent, editor. Dear Mark Twain: Letters from His Readers. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013.
- The Official Roster of Ohio Soldiers in the War With Spain 1898-1899. Columbus: Edward T. Miller Co., 1916.
- "United States Census, 1880," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/M8M6-BTH : accessed 17 Nov 2014), John G Mitchell in household of John G Mitchell, Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, United States; citing sheet 406A, NARA microfilm publication T9, NARA microfilm publication T9, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.; FHL microfilm 1255017.
- "United States Census, 1940," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/K9HG-4QX : accessed 17 Nov 2014), Grant Mitchell, Councilmanic District 1, Los Angeles, Los Angeles Township, Los Angeles, California, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 60-1321, sheet 65A, family 372, NARA digital publication of T627, roll 377, NARA digital publication of T627, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.