He's become such a part of pop culture that's hard to imagine William Frawley toiled pretty much in obscurity for over forty years before landing the part of Fred Mertz on one of the most beloved television shows of all time, I Love Lucy. Following that the jump to Bub on My Three Sons is an afterthought even if it's probably the second Frawley role that's going to jump to mind.
You really can't spot William Frawley in a classic film without pointing at the screen and saying, "Hey, it's Fred Mertz." Well, I can't at least, and with TCM having aired a ton of baseball oldies just last month, I've bumped into William Frawley much more than usual lately. First I caught It Happened in Flatbush (1942) where Frawley plays Brooklyn Dodgers G.M. Sam Sloan in a film featuring Lloyd Nolan as Frank Maguire, a former Dodgers ballplayer who one time committed a pennant costing gaffe earning him the nickname of Butterfingers. I'm a huge baseball fan which means I usually groan and grimace through most baseball movies--I'll do so here shortly--but It Happened in Flatbush, despite an entirely fictionalized Dodgerdom, was a very pleasant surprise for about an hour before the need of tying up the romance between Nolan and club owner Carole Landis took us off to sports fantasyland.
Off the screen William Frawley was a huge baseball fan in his private life, a big sports fan in general actually, so he enthusiastically took any part coming his way when the film offered a sports background. That led to more than a few clunkers. The best I could tell here's a complete list of the sports films William Frawley appeared in throughout his career:
William Frawley Sports Films
1. Hold 'Em Yale (1935) Baseball
2. Alibi Ike (1935) Baseball
3. Rose Bowl (1936) Football
4. Touchdown, Army (1938) Football
5. Golden Gloves (1940) Boxing
6. It Happened in Flatbush (1942) Baseball
7. Moonlight in Havana (1942) Baseball
8. Gentleman Jim (1942) Boxing
9. The Babe Ruth Story (1948) Baseball
10. Joe Palooka in Winner Take All (1948) Boxing
11. Kill the Umpire (1950) Baseball
12. Rhubarb (1951) Baseball
13. Safe at Home (1962) Baseball
Some of those titles alone make me shiver, but Alibi Ike was yet another pleasant surprise and definitely the most I ever found myself enjoying Joe E. Brown! The film is also notable as the first film released to feature Olivia De Havilland, just 19 years old when you see her here. Frawley gets a decent amount of screen time in Alibi Ike as Cap, manager of the Chicago Cubs, a go nowhere club at the time which had just dumped it's only good player but is saved by a rookie pitcher, Frank X. Farrell (Brown), enjoying a breakout season. Farrell, who makes excuses for everything, is dubbed Alibi Ike by Cap and his Cubbie teammates. Ruth Donnelly plays Frawley's wife in the film, with De Havilland playing her sister and Brown's love interest.
I can't believe this but I'm pretty sure I just watched The Babe Ruth Story for the first time this week. Perhaps it was years of my father warning me about it, perhaps the Babe was just too familiar, I don't know how it had slipped by my honestly, but after watching it I know I definitely would have remembered it had I previously seen it! Far from the pleasant surprise I label It Happened in Brooklyn and Alibi Ike, I'm shocked to say that I'd be hard-pressed to name a film I disliked more than The Babe Ruth Story. Ever. It does enter that so bad it's good territory, but that was only after I became so exasperated that my teeth grinding gave way to hysterical laughter.
Poor quality aside, I watched The Babe Ruth Story for William Frawley and as expected it was but a very brief appearance as Jack Dunn, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles minor league club that the Bambino stopped over with in between his time at St. Mary's and joining the Boston Red Sox. Frawley shows up in a long fur coat, watches William Bendix perform some of his Babe Ruth superhero act, and then ushers the Babe onto a train with the rest of the Orioles club. What follows is the same exact scene Joe E. Brown played in Alibi Ike: the other players convince the gullible Babe to rest his arm in the pitcher's sling provided by the railroad (actually some netting inside the sleeper car that I'd imagine is meant to hold a passenger's belongings) and the Babe wakes up the next day to an irate Frawley. Exactly like Joe E. Brown did, except that Brown did it first and funnier.
I didn't get to catch Safe at Home (1962) but it's another flop best known for featuring real life New York Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. It's notable as Frawley's last film of any type, though he continued to work in television for a few more years.
William Frawley sounds like a heck of a guy so far, big sports fan, the love of the game so deep within in him that he did his best to bring that across on screen, no matter how terrible the project might be. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but the two best sources I could find about Frawley agreed that he was a miserable S.O.B. Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg in Meet the Mertzes from Renaissance Books and Michael Bernal in his detailed piece inside the September 2000 issue of Classic Images Magazine, both manage to compare Frawley to Archie Bunker at some point in their writing.
The impression I got was a Made for HBO version of Fred Mertz. He's a cranky old guy, tough to get along with, with a truckdriver's mouth who also threw around racial slurs enough to be remembered for doing so. In Meet the Mertzes former I Love Lucy writer Bob Schiller refers to Frawley as "not politically correct" (41) and says, "He was really a character out of the 1920's ... when men were men who would drink a lot and have very little to do with women outside of sex (39). Yup, Frawley wasn't a fan of women either and by all accounts drank to great excess, so much so that he was becoming a tough hire just prior to landing the part of Fred Mertz. In Classic Images Bernal writes "He was considered hard to work with, and his drinking problem gave him a bad reputation within the film community" (13). Both writers seem to agree that the otherwise seemingly miserable Frawley's "bark was worse than his bite" though as Bernal wrote.
The irascible Frawley was one time fired from a Broadway show for punching Clifton Webb in the face. I don't mean to make William Frawley sound like Godzilla when I repeat these items. Certainly Frawley wasn't the only guy in show biz who drank too much or was a racist and likely a misogynist on top. The problem is that in Frawley's case the charges are repeated as his main personality traits and so he becomes even more unpleasant than just a casual mention would have managed. A casual mention would have been casually mentioned here, instead this is my third paragraph about what a jerk Bill Frawley was, maybe because I'm just so surprised myself. Acknowledging his many faults Bernal does finally add that "he could be a warm, wonderful, hearty old Irishman with a great sense of humor," when he found himself with a crowd he liked. Doesn't sound like the usual mood.
William Clement Frawley was born of Irish roots, February 26, 1887 in Burlington, Iowa. He was pegged to work for the railroad and had some early jobs along those lines, but despite his mother's protests the pull of the stage repeatedly overtook him. While the exact circumstances of his discovery appear to be lost to time, one of Frawley's stories was that he was discovered with some friends in a cafe on Chicago's South Side singing some old railroad songs. Yes, it was Frawley's Irish tenor voice which would be the first tool he'd use to entertain and it landed him a job in the chorus of The Flirting Princess at the LaSalle Theater in Chicago in, by the best I could tell, 1907.
Note: It's unsubstantiated, but Frawley later claimed to be the one to introduce both of the songs My Melancholy Baby and Carolina in the Morning. Authors from both sources doubt this claim, but do agree that he was very probably among the first to sing either tune.
From there he and his brother Paul, who actually garnered more initial fame than Bill on Broadway, formed a vaudeville act, not surprisingly billed as "The Frawley Brothers." They tried the act out in East St. Louis before heading back to Iowa. William Frawley would next head out on his own and spend a year as a singer-comedian at the Rex Cafe in Denver. A new partnership was formed in San Francisco with Franz Rath, a piano player, with whom Frawley toured the Pacific Coast and Western U.S. in an act dubbed "A Man, A Piano and a Nut."
After a split with Rath, Frawley, yes, our same woman-hater supreme, married Edna Louise Broedt in 1914. Partnering with his wife in act called "Frawley and Louise" they'd sing and dance and play comedy with Edna as the straight-man, making it as far as the Palace Theater in New York in 1915. Back West in 1916, Frawley made his film debut for the American Film Manufacturing Company in Lord Loveland Discovers America and was cast with his wife later that same year in Persistent Percival produced by that same company. Frawley and Louise separated in 1921, their divorce becoming official in December 1927.
Shortly after the separation Frawley headed back to New York and would become a Broadway regular in musical comedies beginning in 1923. It doesn't appear as though Frawley appeared in any hits throughout the decade, but he did work his way up to handling a few leads by the late 1920's and in 1932 played in the supporting role of Owen O'Malley in original George Abbot production of the hit Twentieth Century (Roscoe Karns plays the part in the film). Not unusual in this time period when the talkies were still establishing themselves out West, Hollywood came a calling with MGM offering Frawley a contract that his temper would cost him out West. According to Bernal an MGM exec made a comment about Frawley's hair, or lack thereof, causing Frawley to storm out of their offices without signing.
Soon after the MGM blowout he'd land an interview with Paramount which turned into the standard seven-year contract. From there Frawley was set as a Hollywood regular but often found himself cast in a lot of lousy assignments. Like many character actors of his time some gems slipped in: The Princess Comes Across (1936), The General Died at Dawn (1936), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Rose of Washington Square (1939), and more, but the flops and more often the bombs which never had a shot at success certainly overwhelmed the classics on Frawley's resume. And like many character actors it was small to tiny parts in A level productions with the better roles coming in much cheaper productions.
But you'll still see him, and I tell you, even if I Love Lucy or My Three Sons never happened I think we classic film fans would still have a certain special spot for William Frawley. His appearance was all his own, in other words, you wouldn't likely mix him up with another similar actor, and while there are many fine character actors who did gruff, Frawley was a master crank, on screen and apparently off as well.
William Frawley died in Hollywood, March 3, 1966, age 79.
Best Known Films Featuring William Frawley
This is the IMDb's Top 10 Frawley films by vote. Not by popularity, just by number of voters, which gives a pretty good idea of what's being viewed most often.
1. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
2. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
3. Going My Way (1944)
4. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
5. Rancho Notorious (1952)
6. Gentleman Jim (1942)
7. The Fighting Seabees (1944)
8. The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
9. Ziegfeld Follies (1945)
10. Roberta (1935)
And 10 is a pretty good place to stop for Frawley as the voting takes a pretty big drop to number 11, One Night in the Tropics (1940). Now these rankings are potentially in constant flux, but they actually tend to remain pretty stable. Basically the only way anything new is breaking into this listing is if a classic receives a fresh DVD release and is exposed to a new mass viewership.
No, Frawley hasn't had too much to drink in the shots above, they make up what is at least a seven photo series of Promotional shots for Paramount's St. Louis Blues. Each of the studio issued images is numbered 1-7 on the back with a brief caption and a Paramount photographer's stamp crediting Don English. They're placed on this page in the order they're numbered, the captions are as follows:
1. Bill Frawley rests comfortably knowing that he has just completed his most important most difficult scene with Lloyd Nolan, Dorothy Lamour and Jessie Ralph in Paramount's "St. Louis Blues." Tomorrow's day will be fairly easy and consequently Frawley oversleeps and will have to rush to the studio.
2. Bill get sup at 8:50 a.m. and smacks right into his none-too-soft bedroom wall.
3. After a hasty shower, Bill's shoe string breaks as the clock ticks 8:55 a.m.
4. A quick drink of coffee and a glance at the morning paper reveals that the Giants lost to Pittsburgh and it appears as if they are out of the running. To make matters worse, in his hast, Bill spills coffee on his shirt.
5. In his hurry to reach his car, Bill trips on his "Welcome" mat and slides down a few stairs.
6. At 9:00 sharp, he reaches his car only to find a flat tire.
7. "But officer, I'm a friend of the President." "Tell it to the Judge and show him those phoney cards" replies the officer who has stopped Bill for speeding.