Wallace Beery

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Wallace Beery
Wallace Beery-publicity.JPG
Wallace Beery circa 1930
Born Wallace Fitzgerald Beery
(1885-04-01)April 1, 1885
Clay County, Missouri, United States
Died April 15, 1949(1949-04-15) (aged 64)
Beverly Hills, California, United States
Cause of death Heart attack
Burial place Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
Occupation Actor, singer, director
Years active 1913–1949
Spouse(s) Gloria Swanson
(m. 1916; div. 1919)

Rita Gilman
(m. 1924; div. 1939)
Children 1 (adopted)

Wallace Fitzgerald Beery (April 1, 1885 – April 15, 1949) was an American film actor.[1] He is best known for his portrayal of Bill in Min and Bill opposite Marie Dressler, as Long John Silver in Treasure Island, as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa!, and his titular role in The Champ, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Beery appeared in some 250 movies during a 36-year career. His contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stipulated in 1932 that he would be paid $1 more than any other contract player at the studio, making him the highest paid actor in the world. He was the brother of actor Noah Beery Sr. and uncle of actor Noah Beery Jr.

For his contributions to the film industry, Beery was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a motion pictures star in 1960. His star is located at 7001 Hollywood Boulevard.[2]

Early life[edit]

Beery was born in Clay County, Missouri, near Smithville.[3] The Beery family left the farm in the 1890s and moved to nearby Kansas City, Missouri, where the father was a police officer.

Wallace Beery attended the Chase School in Kansas City and took piano lessons as well, but showed little love for academic matters. He ran away from home twice, the first time returning after a short time, quitting school and working in the Kansas City train yards as an engine wiper.[3] Beery ran away from home a second time at age 16, and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus as an assistant elephant trainer. He left two years later, after being clawed by a leopard.


Wallace Beery circa 1914
Beery as Sweedie the Swedish maid (1914)

Early career[edit]

Wallace Beery joined his brother Noah in New York City in 1904, finding work in comic opera as a baritone and began to appear on Broadway as well as summer stock theatre. He appeared in The Belle of the West in 1905. His most notable early role came in 1907 when he starred in The Yankee Tourist to good reviews.[4]

Comedy Film Star - Essanay Studios[edit]

In 1913, he moved to Chicago to work for Essanay Studios. His first movie was likely a comedy short, His Athletic Wife (1913).

Beery was then cast as Sweedie, a Swedish maid character he played in drag in a series of short comedy films from 1914-16. Sweedie Learns to Swim (1914) co-starred Ben Turpin. Sweedie Goes to College (1915) starred Gloria Swanson, whom Beery married the following year.[5]

Other Beery films (mostly shorts) from this period included In and Out (1914), The Ups and Downs (1914), Cheering a Husband (1914), Madame Double X (1914), Ain't It the Truth (1915), Two Hearts That Beat as Ten (1915), and The Fable of the Roistering Blades (1915).

The Slim Princess (1915), with Francis X. Bushman, was a feature. Beery did The Broken Pledge (1915) and A Dash of Courage (1916), both with Swanson.

Beery was a German soldier in The Little American (1917) with Mary Pickford, directed by Cecil B. De Mille. He did some comedies for Mack Sennett, Maggie's First False Step (1917) and Teddy at the Throttle (1917), but he would gradually leave that genre and specialize in portrayals of villains.

Villainous Roles[edit]

In 1917 Beery portrayed Pancho Villa in Patria at a time when Villa was still active in Mexico. (Beery reprised the role 17 years later in Viva Villa!.)

Beery was a villainous German in The Unpardonable Sin (1919) with Blanche Sweet. For Paramount he did The Love Burglar (1919) with Wallace Reid; Victory (1919), with Jack Holt; Behind the Door (1919), as another villainous German; and The Life Line (1919) with Holt.

Beery was the villain in 813 (1920); The Virgin of Stamboul (1920) for director Tod Browning; and The Mollycoddle (1920) with Douglas Fairbanks.

Beery returned to comedy with The Round-Up (1920) starring Fatty Arbuckle, though Beery was again the villain. He went back to straight villainy in The Last of the Mohicans (1920), playing Magua.

Beery had a support part in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1920) with Rudolph Valentino. He was a villainous Tong leader in A Tale of Two Worlds (1921) and was the bad guy in Sleeping Acres (1922), Wild Honey (1922), and I Am the Law (1922).

Historical Films[edit]

Beery had a then-rare heroic part as King Richard I in Robin Hood (1922), starring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. The movie was a huge hit.

Beery had a cameo in A Blind Bargain (1922), and a support role in The Flame of Life (1923). He played another historical king, King Philip IV of Spain in The Spanish Dancer (1923) with Pola Negri.

Beery starred in an action melodrama, Stormswept (1923) for FBO Films alongside his elder brother, Noah Beery Sr..

Beery played his third royal, the Duc de Tours, in Ashes of Vengeance (1923) with Norma Talmadge, then did Drifting (1923) with Priscilla Dean for director Browning.

Beery had the lead part in Bavu (1923). He co-starred with Buster Keaton in the comedy Three Ages (1923), the first feature Keaton wrote, produced, directed and starred in.

Beery was a villain in The Eternal Struggle (1923), a Mountie drama, which was produced by Louis B. Mayer who would become crucial to Beery's career. He was reunited with Dean and Browning in White Tiger (1923), then played the title role in Richard the Lion-Hearted (1923), a sequel to Robin Hood based on Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman.

Beery was in The Drums of Jeopardy (1923) and had a support role in The Sea Hawk (1924) for director Frank Lloyd, and The Signal Tower (1925).


Beery signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. He had a support role in Adventure (1925) directed by Victor Fleming.

At First National, he was given the star role of Professor Challenger in Arthur Conan Doyle's dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925). Beery was top billed in Paramount's The Devil's Cargo (1925) for Victor Fleming, and supported in The Night Club (1925), The Pony Express (1925) for James Cruze, and The Wanderer (1925) for Raoul Walsh.

Beery starred in a comedy with Raymond Hatton, Behind the Front (1926) and he was a villain in Volcano! (1926). He was a bos'n in Old Ironsides (1926) for director James Cruze, with Charles Farrell in the romantic lead.

Beery had the title role in the baseball movie Casey at the Bat (1927). He was reunited with Hatton in Fireman, Save My Child (1927) and Now We're in the Air (1927). The latter also featured Louise Brooks who was Beery's co star in Beggars of Life (1928), directed by William Wellman, which was Paramount's first part-talkie movie.

There was a fourth comedy with Hatton, Wife Savers (1929), then Beery starred in Chinatown Nights (1929) for Wellman, produced by a young David O. Selznick and Stairs of Sand (1929). He then left Paramount.


Chester Morris and Wallace Beery in The Big House (1930)
Jackie Cooper, Edward Brophy, and Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931)

Irving Thalberg contracted Beery to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a character actor. The association began well when Beery played the savage convict "Butch", a role originally intended for Lon Chaney Sr. in the highly successful 1930 prison film The Big House, directed by George W. Hill; Beery was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Beery's second film for MGM was also a huge success: Billy the Kid (1930) where he played Pat Garrett. He supported John Gilbert in Way for a Sailor (1930) and Grace Moore in A Lady's Morals (1930), playing P.T. Barnum in the latter.


Beery was well established as a leading man and top rank character actor. What really made him a star was Min and Bill (1931) opposite Marie Dressler, and directed by Hill, a huge success.[6]

Beery made a third film with Hill, The Secret Six (1931), a gangster film with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. It was popular but not as much as The Champ, which Beery made with Jackie Cooper for director King Vidor. The film, especially written for Beery, was a box office sensation. Beery shared the Best Actor Oscar with Fredric March. Though March received one vote more than Beery, Academy rules at the time—since rescinded—defined results within one vote of each other as "ties".[7]

Beery's career went from strength to strength. Hell Divers (1932), also starring a young Clark Gable, was a big hit. So too was the all-star Grand Hotel (1932), in which Beery was billed fourth, one of the very few times he would not be top billed for the rest of his career. In 1932 his contract with MGM stipulated that he be paid a dollar more than any other contract player at the studio, making him the world's highest paid actor.

Beery was a wrestler in Flesh (1932), a minor hit, then was in another all-star ensemble blockbuster, Dinner at Eight (1933), with Jean Harlow holding her own as Beery's comedically bickering wife.

Beery was loaned out to the new Twentieth Century Pictures for The Bowery (1933), also starring George Raft and Fay Wray, under the direction of Raoul Walsh.

Back at MGM he played the title role of Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1933) and was reunited with Dressler in Tugboat Annie (1933), a massive hit. He was Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1934), a box office disappointment.[8]

Beery returned to Twentieth Century Productions for The Mighty Barnum (1934) in which he played P.T. Barnum again. Back at MGM he was a kindly sergeant in West Point of the Air (1935) and was in an all-star spectacular, China Seas (1935), this time billed beneath Clark Gable.

O'Shaughnessy's Boy (1935) reunited Beery and Jackie Cooper. He had the lead in MGM's adaptation of Ah, Wilderness! (1936) and went back to Twentieth Century - now 20th Century Fox - for A Message to Garcia (1936).

At MGM he was in Old Hutch (1936) and The Good Old Soak (1937) then he was back at Fox for Slave Ship (1937).

Beery was in The Bad Man of Brimstone (1938), Port of Seven Seas (1938), Stablemates (1938) with Mickey Rooney, Stand Up and Fight (1939) with Robert Taylor, Sergeant Madden (1939) with Tom Brown, Thunder Afloat (1939), The Man from Dakota (1940), and 20 Mule Team (1940).

Marjorie Main[edit]

Wyoming (1940) teamed Beery with Marjorie Main. After The Bad Man (1941) MGM reunited Beery and Main in Barnacle Bill (1941), The Bugle Sounds (1941), and Jackass Mail (1942).

Beery did a war film, Salute to the Marines (1943) then was back with Main in Rationing (1944). Barbary Coast Gent (1944), a Western comedy in which Beery played a bombastic con man, teamed him with Binnie Barnes. He did another war film, This Man's Navy (1945), then made another Western with Main, Bad Bascomb (1946), a huge hit, helped by Margaret O'Brien's casting.

The Mighty McGurk (1947) put Beery with another child star of the studio, Dean Stockwell. Alias a Gentleman (1947) was the first of Beery's movies to lose money during the sound era. A Date with Judy (1949) was a hugely popular musical featuring Elizabeth Taylor. Beery's last film, again featuring Main, Big Jack (1949), also lost money.[9]

Personal life[edit]

20 Mule Team (1940)
The Bad Man (1941)

Beery's first wife was teenaged actress Gloria Swanson; the two had co-starred in Sweedie Goes to College (1915) and married in 1916.[5] Although Beery had enjoyed popularity with his Sweedie shorts, his career had taken a dip, and during the marriage to Swanson, he relied on her as a breadwinner. According to Swanson's autobiography, Beery raped her on their wedding night, and later tricked her into swallowing an abortifacient when she was pregnant, which caused her to lose their child.[10]

In 1924, Beery married actress Rita Gilman.[11] The couple adopted Carol Ann, daughter of Rita Beery's cousin. Both marriages ended in divorce. In December 1937, comedic actor Ted Healy was involved in a drunken altercation at Cafe Trocadero on the Sunset Strip. E. J. Fleming, author of The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine, asserts that Healy was attacked by three men — future James Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, local mob figure Pat DiCicco (who was Broccoli’s cousin as well as the former husband of Thelma Todd and the future husband of Gloria Vanderbilt) and Wallace Beery. Fleming writes that this beating led to Healy's death a few days later.[12]

In December 1939, the unmarried Beery adopted a seven-month-old infant girl Phyllis Ann.[13] Phyllis appeared in MGM publicity photos when adopted, but was never mentioned again.[14] Beery told the press he had taken the girl in from a single mother, recently divorced, but he had filed no official adoption papers.[15]

Brother Noah Beery Sr. ca. 1920s

Beery was considered misanthropic and difficult to work with by many of his colleagues. Mickey Rooney, one of Beery's few co-stars to consistently speak highly of him in subsequent decades, related in his autobiography that Howard Strickling, MGM's head of publicity, once went to Louis B. Mayer to complain that Beery was stealing props off of the studio's sets. "And that wasn't all," Rooney continued. "He went on for some minutes about the trouble that Beery was always causing him ... Mayer sighed and said, 'Yes, Howard, Beery's a son of a bitch. But he's our son of a bitch.' Strickling got the point. A family has to be tolerant of its black sheep, particularly if they brought a lot of money into the family fold, which Beery certainly did."[16]

Nephew Noah Beery Jr. ca. 1970s

Child actors, in particular, recalled unpleasant encounters with Beery. Jackie Cooper, who made several films with him early in his career, called him "a big disappointment", and accused him of upstaging, and other attempts to undermine his performances, out of what Cooper presumed was jealousy.[17] He recalled impulsively throwing his arms around Beery after one especially heartfelt scene, only to be gruffly pushed away.[18] Child actress Margaret O'Brien claimed that she had to be protected by crew members from Beery's insistence on constantly pinching her.[19]

Rooney remained an exception to the general negative attitude among child actors. In his memoir he described Beery as "... a lovable, shambling kind of guy who never seemed to know that his shirttail belonged inside his pants, but always knew when a little kid actor needed a smile and a wink or a word of encouragement." He did concede that "not everyone loved [Beery] as much as I did."[20] Beery, by contrast, described Rooney as a "brat", but a "fine actor".[21]

Beery owned and flew his own planes,[22] one a Howard DGA-11. On April 15, 1933 he was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Reserve at NRAB Long Beach.[23] One of his proudest achievements was catching the largest black sea bass in the world off Santa Catalina Island in 1916, a record that stood for 35 years.[citation needed]

A noteworthy episode in Beery's life is chronicled in the fifth episode of Ken Burns' documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea: In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order creating Jackson Hole National Monument to protect the land adjoining the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Local ranchers, outraged at the loss of grazing lands, compared FDR's action to Hitler's taking of Austria. Led by an aging Beery, they protested by herding 500 cattle across the monument lands without a permit.[24]


Grave at Forest Lawn Glendale

Wallace Beery died at his Beverly Hills, California home of a heart attack on April 15, 1949. He collapsed while reading his newspaper and magazines.[25] He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The inscription on his grave reads, "No man is indispensable but some are irreplaceable." When Mickey Rooney's father died less than a year later, Rooney arranged to have him buried next to his old friend. "I thought it was fitting that these two comedians should rest in peace, side by side," he wrote.[26]


For his contributions to the film industry, Wallace Beery posthumously received a motion pictures star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. His star is located at 7001 Hollywood Boulevard.[2]

Beery is mentioned in the film Barton Fink, in which the lead character has been hired to write a wrestling screenplay to star Beery.[27]


Hell Divers (1931)
The Bowery (1933)
China Seas (1935)
Hollywood Steps Out (1941), left to right: William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Ronald Colman and Errol Flynn. Seated: Wallace Beery and C. Aubrey Smith.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Film Result
1930 Academy Award for Best Actor The Big House Nominated
1932 Academy Award for Best Actor The Champ Won ("Tied" with Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde although in reality March received one more vote than Beery.)
1934 Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor Viva Villa! Won

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, April 20, 1949.
  2. ^ a b Walk of Fame Stars-Wallace Beery
  3. ^ a b Dictionary of Missouri Biography, Lawrence O. Christensen, University of Missouri Press, 1999.
  4. ^ https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-yankee-tourist-6354
  5. ^ a b Sonneborn, Liz (2014-05-14). A to Z of American Women in the Performing Arts. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438107905. 
  6. ^ Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Robson, 2005, p. 191 ISBN 9781861058928
  7. ^ History of the Academy Awards: The Fifth Academy Awards, 1931/32. About.com archive. Retrieved April 2, 2015.
  8. ^ THE YEAR IN HOLLYWOOD: 1984 May Be Remembered as the Beginning of the Sweetness-and-Light Era By DOUGLAS W. CHURCHILL.HOLLYWOOD.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 30 Dec 1934: X5.
  9. ^ The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  10. ^ Swanson, Gloria (1980). Swanson on Swanson. Random House. pp. 69–75. ISBN 0-394-50662-6. 
  11. ^ Katchmer, George A. (2002-05-08). A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses. McFarland. ISBN 9781476609058. 
  12. ^ "A nyuk on the wild side". tribunedigital-chicagotribune. Retrieved 2017-09-03. 
  13. ^ Milestones, Dec. 4, 1939, Time.com
  14. ^ A Certain Cinema, Acertaincinema.com
  15. ^ Beery Will Add To Adopted Family, Google News
  16. ^ Rooney, M. Life is Too Short. Villard Books (1991), p. 77. ISBN 0679401954.
  17. ^ Cooper, Jackie. Please Don't Shoot My Dog. Morrow, 1980, pp. 54–61. ISBN 0-688-03659-7
  18. ^ Bergan, R (May 5, 2011). Jackie Cooper Obituary. The Guardian archive. Retrieved August 20, 2012.
  19. ^ Private Screenings: Child Stars|date=March 2009
  20. ^ Rooney, M. Life is Too Short. Villard Books (1991), pp. 76–7. ISBN 0679401954.
  21. ^ Marx, A. The Nine Lives of Mickey Rooney. Stein and Day (1986), p. 68. ISBN 0812830563.
  22. ^ Dmairfield.com
  23. ^ Heiser, Wayne H., "U.S. Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Aviation V. I, 1916–1942." p.78.
  24. ^ Episode Five: 1933–1945 Great Nature
  25. ^ http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-wallace-beery-19490417-story.html
  26. ^ Rooney, M. Life is Too Short. Villard Books (1991), p. 239. ISBN 0679401954.
  27. ^ Rafferty, Terrence (July 27, 2003). "FILM; He's Nobody Important, Really. Just a Movie Writer". The New York Times. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Wise, James. Stars in Blue: Movie Actors in America's Sea Services. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. ISBN 1557509379 OCLC 36824724

External links[edit]