Oscar Actors: Beery, Wallace–Background, Career, Awards

Research in Progress: Updated October 24, 2020
Wallace Beery Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: middle class, father police officer

Race/Ethnicity/Religion

Family: youngest of 3 boys

Education: ran away from home twice

Training: circus

Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut: silents

Breakthrough Role: Min and Bil, 1930; aged

Oscar Role:

Other Noms:

Gap between First Film and First Nom

Other Awards:

Frequent Collaborator:

Screen Image: character actor

Last Film:

Career Output: 250 films

Film Career Span: 36 years

Marriage: Gloria Swanson;

Politics:

Death: 64

 

Wallace Fitzgerald Beery (April 1, 1885 – April 15, 1949), the American film and stage actor, is best known for his portrayal of Bill in Min and Bill (1930) opposite Marie Dressler, as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1934), as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1934), and his titular role in The Champ (1931), for which he won the Best Actor Oscar.

Beery appeared in some 250 films during a 36-year career. His contract with MGM stipulated in 1932 that he would be paid $1 more than any other contract player at the studio. This made Beery the highest-paid film actor in the world during the early 1930s.

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.

Beery was born the youngest of three boys in 1885 in Clay County, Missouri, near Smithville. The Beery family left the farm in the 1890s and moved to nearby Kansas City, Missouri, where the father was a police officer.

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. 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 joined his older 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.

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 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.

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 one of earliest feature films. Beery also 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 prior to becoming a major leading man during the sound era.

Pancho Villa!

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 5 major releases in 1920: 813; The Virgin of Stamboul for director Tod Browning; The Mollycoddle with Douglas Fairbanks, in which Fairbanks and Beery fistfought as they tumbled down a steep mountain (see the photograph in the gallery below); and in the non-comedic Western The Round-Up starring Roscoe Arbuckle as an obese cowboy in a well-received serious film with the tagline “Nobody loves a fat man.” Beery continued his villainy cycle that year with The Last of the Mohicans, playing Magua.

Beery had a supporting 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 again in Sleeping Acres (1922), Wild Honey (1922), and I Am the Law (1922), which also featured his brother Noah Beery Sr.

Beery had heroic part as King Richard I (Richard the Lion-Hearted) in Robin Hood (1922), starring Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood. The lavish movie was a huge success and spawned a sequel, starring Beery in the title role of Richard the Lion-Hearted.

Beery had an important unbilled cameo as “the Ape-Man” in A Blind Bargain (1922) starring Lon Chaney (Beery is seen crouching, in full ape-man make-up, in the background of some of the movie’s posters), and a supporting 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.. The tagline on the movie’s posters was “Wallace and Noah Beery – The Two Greatest Character Actors on the American Screen.”

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 titular role in Bavu (1923), about Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution. 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, produced by Louis B. Mayer, who would eventually become crucial to Beery’s career. He was reunited with Dean and Browning in White Tiger (1923), then played the title role in the aforementioned 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 supporting role in The Sea Hawk (1924) for director Frank Lloyd. He also appeared in a supporting role for Clarence Brown’s The Signal Tower (1925) starring Virginia Valli and Rockliffe Fellowes.

Beery signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. He played 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), his silent performance most frequently screened in the modern era. 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. This film was shot silent with the voices dubbed in by the actors afterward, which worked spectacularly well with Beery’s resonant voice, although the technique was not used again during the silent era for another full-length feature. Beery then played in Stairs of Sand (1929), a Western also starring Jean Arthur (who would play the leading lady in the Western film Shane twenty-four years later) before being fired by Paramount.

Thalberg signed Beery to MGM as a character actor. The association began well when Beery played the savage convict “Butch,” a role intended for Lon Chaney Sr. (who died that same year), 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), an early widescreen picture in which he played Pat Garrett. He supported John Gilbert in Way for a Sailor (1930) and Grace Moore in A Lady’s Morals (1930), portraying P. T. Barnum in the latter.

Beery was well established as a leading man and top rank character actor. What really made him one of the cinema’s foremost stars was Min and Bill (1930) opposite Marie Dressler and directed by George W. Hill, a sensational success.

Beery made a third film with Hill, The Secret Six (1931), a gangster movie with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in key supporting roles. The picture was popular but was surpassed at the box office by The Champ, which Beery made with Jackie Cooper for director King Vidor. The film, especially written for Beery, was another 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”.

Beery’s career went from strength to strength. Hell Divers (1932), a naval airplane epic also starring a young Clark Gable billed under Beery, was a big hit. So too was the all-star Grand Hotel (1932), in which Beery was billed fourth, under Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford, 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 German wrestler in Flesh (1932), a hit directed by John Ford but Ford removed his credit before the film opened, so the picture screened with no director listed despite being labeled “A John Ford Production” in the opening title card.

Beery was in another all-star ensemble blockbuster, Dinner at Eight (1933), with Jean Harlow holding her own as Beery’s comically bickering wife. This time Beery was billed third, under Marie Dressler and John Barrymore.

Beery was loaned out to the new Twentieth Century Pictures for the boisterously fast-paced comedy-drama The Bowery (1933), also starring George Raft, Jackie Cooper and Fay Wray, and featuring Pert Kelton, under the direction of Raoul Walsh. The picture was a smash hit.

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), described as a box office “disappointment” despite being MGM’s third largest hit of the season, and remains currently as one of Beery’s iconic performances.

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 as the drunken uncle 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), taking second billing under Warner Baxter, a rarity for Beery after Min and Bill catapulted his career into the stratosphere in 1931, during which he received top billing in all but six films (Min and Bill, Grand Hotel, Tugboat Annie, Dinner at Eight, China Seas and Slave Ship).

The status of Beery’s films went into a decline, possibly due to a scandal in which Beery was implicated in the death of Ted Healy in 1937, which was kept out of the newspapers by the studio’s “fixer” Eddie Mannix, who eventually became head of MGM.

After an abrupt European vacation, Beery was in The Bad Man of Brimstone (1938) with Dennis O’Keefe (and Noah Beery Sr. in a cameo role as a bartender), Port of Seven Seas (1938) with Maureen O’Sullivan, Stablemates (1938) with Mickey Rooney, Stand Up and Fight (1939) with Robert Taylor, Sergeant Madden (1939) with Tom Brown, Thunder Afloat (1939) with Chester Morris, The Man from Dakota (1940) with Dolores del Río, and 20 Mule Team (1940) with Marjorie Rambeau, Anne Baxter and Noah Beery Jr., enjoying top billing in all of them.

Wyoming (1940) teamed Beery with Marjorie Main. After The Bad Man (1941), which also stars Lionel Barrymore and future US president Ronald Reagan, and was the remake of a Walter Huston picture, 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 broad 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. Beery received top billing for A Date with Judy (1949), a hugely popular musical featuring Elizabeth Taylor. Beery’s last film, again featuring Main, Big Jack (1949), also lost money according to Mannix’s reckoning.

On March 27, 1916, at the age of 30, Beery married 17-year-old actress Gloria Swanson in Los Angeles. The two had co-starred in Sweedie Goes to College. 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. Swanson filed for divorce in 1917 and it was finalized in 1918.

On August 4, 1924, Beery married actress Rita Gilman (née Mary Areta Gilman; 1898–1986) in Los Angeles. The couple adopted Carol Ann Priester (1930–2013), daughter of Rita Beery’s mother’s half-sister, Juanita Priester (née Caplinger; 1899–1931) and her husband, Erwin William Priester (1897–1969). After 14 years of marriage, Rita filed for divorce on May 1, 1939, in Carson City, Ormsby County, Nevada. Within 20 minutes of filing, she won the decree. Rita remarried 15 days later, on May 16, 1939, to Jessen Albert D. Foyt (1907–1945), filing her marriage license with the same county clerk in Carson City.

In December 1937, comedic actor Ted Healy was involved in a drunken altercation at Cafe Trocadero on the Sunset Strip. E. J. Fleming, in his 2005 book, 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), Wallace Beery. Fleming writes that this beating led to Healy’s death a few days later.

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

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 from 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.”

Child actors recalled unpleasant encounters with Beery. Jackie Cooper, who made several films with him, called him “a big disappointment”, and accused him of upstaging, and other attempts to undermine his performances, out of what Cooper presumed was jealousy.[20] He recalled impulsively throwing his arms around Beery after one especially heartfelt scene, only to be gruffly pushed away.[21] Child actress Margaret O’Brien claimed that she had to be protected by crew members from Beery’s insistence on constantly pinching her.

In his memoir Rooney 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.” Beery, by contrast, described Rooney as a “brat”, but a “fine actor”. Future author Ray Bradbury recalled meeting Beery as a young boy on a Hollywood street and that his autograph request resulted in Beery cursing and spitting on him.

Beery owned and flew his own planes, 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. One of his proudest achievements was catching the largest giant black sea bass in the world — 515 pounds (234 kg) — off Santa Catalina Island in 1916, a record that stood for 35 years.

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.