Saturday, November 21, 2015

Frank Morgan: The Man Behind the Curtain

 (This post is part of the What a Character! Blogathon)

For many today Frank Morgan is best known as the Wizard of Oz from the classic 1939 movie of the same name. Of course, in The Wizard of Oz Frank Morgan played multiple characters, including Professor Marvel, The Gatekeeper, The Carriage Driver, and The Guard. Beyond The Wizard of Oz people might think of the many befuddled, middle-aged characters he played throughout the years. Despite this Frank Morgan actually played a large variety of roles throughout the years, some of them far removed from Professor Marvel or the Wizard of Oz.

Frank Morgan was born Francis Wupperman on June 1 1890 in New York City. He was the youngest of eleven children in a wealthy family. His brother Raphael Wupperman was the eighth of the siblings and would go into show business, taking the stage name "Ralph Morgan". Francis Wupperman attended Cornell University and then followed his elder brother Ralph Morgan into the entertainment industry, taking the stage name "Frank Morgan".

Frank Morgan made his debut on Broadway in the play A Woman Killed with Kindness / Granny Maumee in 1914. It only ran for one performance, but Mr. Morgan would return to Broadway several more times. From 1914 to 1920 alone he appeared in the productions Mr. Wu, Under Fire, Under Sentence, Rock-a-Bye Babym and My Lady Friends. Over the years Frank Morgan appeared in some very notable productions on Broadway. He played the role of Henry Spoffard in the original production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1926, the rich Philadelphian played by George Winslow in the 1953 film. He also appeared in the original production of The Band Wagon in 1931. Among the songs he performed in the revue were "(What's the Use of Being) Miserable With You" and "Nanette". While both the Broadway revue The Band Wagon and the 1953 movie of the same name starred Fred Astaire, there were some significant differences between the two. Aside from the fact that the revue had no real plot, it also featured some songs that did not appear in the movie while the movie has some songs that were not even written at the time the revue appeared on Broadway.
As an actor on Broadway Frank Morgan did receive his share of critical acclaim. In 1923 he was widely lauded for his performance as Count Carlo Boretti in The Lullaby. It was his role in The Firebrand in 1924 as Alessandro, the Duke of Florence that established Frank Morgan's style as an actor. Originally meant to be played straight, through talks with playwright Edwin Justus Mayer the character was made more comic and the play was turned into a farce. Afterwards all of the productions in which Frank Morgan appeared on Broadway would be comedies. In Topaze in 1930 Mr. Morgan actually played the lead role, that of the unlucky professor of the title. Frank Morgan's last appearance on Broadway would be in 1922 in the revue Hey Nonny Nonny!

While Frank Morgan was very successful on Broadway, in many respects it should not be surprising that he ended his Broadway career, as he became very much in demand in films as the Silent Era gave way to talkies. Mr. Morgan made his film debut in 1916 in The Suspect, a film that unfortunately is now considered lost. At the time of his film debut he was still going by the name "Frank Wupperman". For his next two films (The Daring of Diana and The Girl Philippa, both from 1916) he was billed as "Francis Morgan". It was with his fourth film, A Modern Cinderella (1917), that he became "Frank Morgan".

Frank Morgan quickly established himself as a character actor during the Silent Era. Among his most significant roles of the era was that of Bunny Manders, the companion and partner in crime of gentleman burglar Raffles in Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917). In the Twenties Frank Morgan concentrated his career on the stage, so his output in silent films was not particularly large when compared to other performers from the era. Among his most notable silent films were Manhandled (1924), in which the lead was the legendary Gloria Swanson; The Crowded Hour (1925), with Bebe Daniels in the lead; and Love's Greatest Mistake (1927), opposite Evelyn Brent and William Powell.

Frank Morgan would be much more prolific in talkies than he ever was silent films. This should have come as no surprise, as the strength of many of Mr. Morgan's performances was his delivery of words. Frank Morgan's first talkie was the short subject "Belle of the Night", which also marked the film debut of Penny Singleton (who was still going by her given name Dorothy McNulty). His first feature film with sound was the Western comedy Dangerous Nan McGrew (1930), starring Helen Kane. With the Thirties Frank Morgan soon found himself very much in demand in motion pictures. For the entire decade he appeared in multiple movies each year. He reprised his role of Alessandro, the Duke of Florence in 20th Century Pictures adaptation of The Firebrand, retitled The Affairs of Cellini (1934) for the big screen. Mr. Morgan received his first Oscar nomination, this one for Best Actor in a Leading Role, for the film. Frank Morgan was so prized as an actor that MGM gave him a lifetime contract.

Besides the Wizard of Oz, some of Frank Morgan's best performances were made during the Thirties. He was loaned to United Artists for the film Hallelujah I'm a Bum (1933), in which he played  John Hastings, playboy and mayor of New York City (a bit of a departure from his usual roles). In 1936 he was part of the all-star cast of The Great Ziegfeld, playing Flo Ziegfeld's long time friend Jack Billings. Frank Morgan shined in the role, which is much more typical of the parts he played, that of a lovable but bumbling, middle-aged man. Mr. Morgan had the rare chance to play a lead role in Beg, Borrow or Steal (1937). In the film Frank Morgan played conman Ingraham Steward, who, feeling guilty at having abandoned his wife and daughter years earlier, seeks to win them back. In Saratoga (1937) Frank Morgan played  Jesse Kiffmeyer, a man who is allergic to horses who find himself owning one.

Of course, Frank Morgan's most famous roles from the Thirties (indeed, of all time) are that of the Wizard of Oz and Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz. As shocking as it might seem today, Frank Morgan was not initially considered for the role. Producer Mervyn LeRoy initially wanted Ed Wynn for the role, but he turned it down. Arthur Freed, who worked in an uncredited role as associate producer on the film, offered the role to W. C. Fields. Reportedly MGM and Mr. Fields could not agree on his fee for the film, although it has also been reported that he wanted to devote his time to writing the script for You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939). At last on September 22 1938 MGM cast Frank Morgan in the roles the Wizard of Oz and Professor Marvel. As mentioned earlier he also played The Gatekeeper, The Carriage Driver, and The Guard.

In many respects The Wizard of Oz can be considered Frank Morgan's acting tour de force. It is notable that the multiple characters differ somewhat in personality. Professor Marvel was similar to the con men Frank Morgan had played, but at the same time was both warm and wise. The Wizard of Oz ultimately proved to be most similar to the many bumbling but lovable middle-aged men Frank Morgan played through the years, but one who could summon the bluster and bravado to be the Wizard, while at the same time possessing a warmth and wisdom all his own. The Gatekeeper could be firm, but was also sentimental. The Carriage Driver was warm and friendly. Very few actors could have accomplished the feat of differentiating the five characters so well.

Frank Morgan would follow The Wizard of Oz with a lead role in the Western comedy Henry Goes Arizona (1939) and a supporting role in Balalaika (1939) before playing what may be his most famous role besides those in The Wizard of Oz--that of shopkeeper Hugo Matuschek in The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Hugo Matuschek was a slight departure from most of the roles he had played. He was highstrung and could even be imperious at times, but at the same time was lovable and bumbling. Beyond the Wizard of Oz and Professor Marvel, for many Hugo Matuschek may well be Frank Morgan's most memorable role.

It was also in 1940 that Frank Morgan played another memorable, but much more serious role. The Mortal Storm (1940) was one of the few blatantly anti-Nazi films released prior to the United States' entry into the war. In the film Frank Morgan plays Professor Roth, who taught medicine at a Bavarian University. Professor Roth is described as "non-Aryan" (a roundabout way of saying that he was Jewish) and finds the new regime in Germany abhorrent. Unfortunately he also believes that he is safe from harm because he is an academic and pretty much apolitical.

Frank Morgan continued to play remarkable roles into the Forties. In Tortilla Flat (1942) Frank Morgan played the Pirate, an elderly vagabond and dog lover who has saved up a good deal of money. Frank Morgan received his second Oscar nomination for the role, this one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Frank Morgan delivered another impressive performance in The Human Comedy (1943), which was reportedly Louis B. Mayer's favourite film. In the film Frank Morgan played telegrapher Willie Grogan, who both waxes philosophical and drinks. Curiously two of Frank Morgan's best roles in the Forties were, well, Frank Morgan. In the all star revue Thousands Cheer he played Dr. Frank Morgan, more or less Frank Morgan as many movie goers must have always pictured him. In the featurette The Great Morgan he again played Frank Morgan, who is given the opportunity to put together his own film. The film was more or less a revue, with Frank Morgan playing his typical screen persona.

Frank Morgan continued to play interesting roles into the late Forties. He played the shepherd Harry McBain in Courage of Lassie (1946), the drunken Uncle Sid in Summer Holiday (1948), and  King Louis XIII in The Three Musketeers (1948). Unfortunately time was running out for Frank Morgan. A heavy drinker most of his life, he was not in particularly good health by the late Forties. In 1949 he had recently completed the film Key to the City (1950) and had been cast as Buffalo Bill Cody in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), having even completed costume tests and the opening scene of the film. Sadly he died on September 18 1949 at the age of 59 from a heart attack. Key to the City would be released posthumously, while Louis Calhern replaced Frank Morgan as Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun.  Sadly, Frank Morgan was the only member of the cast of The Wizard of Oz who did not live to see its debut on television in 1956.

In addition to his career on film Frank Morgan also had a career on radio. In the Forties, alongside Fanny Brice, he was the star of Maxwell House Coffee Time (also known as The Frank Morgan-Fanny Brice Show). On the first half of the show Frank Morgan would tell outlandish tales of his adventures, quite similar to those for which Baron Munchausen was known. For the second half of the show Fanny Brice took over in her famous role as Baby Snooks. When Fanny Brice left the show it became simply The Frank Morgan Show.  In 1947 he was the star of The Fabulous Dr. Tweedy.  He also appeared on such shows as Good News, The Bickersons, The Don Ameche Show, Command Performance, and Kraft Music Hall.

Frank Morgan was an incredible character actor. While today he is best known as the Wizard of Oz and Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz, he played many other roles throughout his career. And while today he is best known for playing slightly bumbling, middle aged men, he also played a wide variety of roles. He could be an absurd Italian nobleman, as in The Affairs of Cellini (1934), a nervous shopkeeper, as in The Shop Around the Corner (1940), a philosophical telegrapher, as in The Human Comedy (1943), and even King Louis XIII in The Three Musketeers (1948). What is more, he shined in every part he played. Frank Morgan was a remarkable actor with a gift for creating memorable characters. Quite simply, he was a true character actor if ever there was one.


Caftan Woman said...

Fond though I am of the Wizard, etc. my top 3 Morgan performances all have him co-starring with Jimmy Stewart - "The Shop Around the Corner", "The Mortal Storm" and "The Stratton Story". His problems with drink certainly are not evident in the work he left behind.

I have one casting note to MGM: in "When Ladies Meet" I find Frank an odd object of affection for both Ann Harding and Myrna Loy. I would have cast Ralph!

Spiritually Cramped said...

Great profile. For sentiment's sake, Oz is my favourite performance (indeed, I can't imagine anyone else playing the role) but I think he did a great job in Tortilla Flat. He specialised in those endearing characters, but focusing on them doesn't do his talent justice - he had plenty of it!
(Vicki - GirlsDoFilm)

Silver Screenings said...

Wonderful profile of Fran Morgan. You've put a lot of research into this post to present a man we (I) thought we knew!

Toby O'B said...

As I grew older, the character I liked/identified with most from 'Oz' has changed. As a kid, no question, no contest - the Lion. As I matured, it was the Scarecrow. But now, I think I'll exit stage left with this choice still holding firm - Professor Marvel (much more so than the Wizard.)

My second favorite role of his is in "The Wild Man of Borneo". I like to apply my TV crossover tendencies to the notion that his character in "The Wild Man Of Borneo" was actually Professor Marvel, come home to his family.....

tolly devlin said...

Shop Around The Corner has always been my favorite Frank Morgan role.