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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

My Favorite Herbert Marshall Performances

Herbert Marshall is another one of those names that will elicit blanks stares from most everyone today.  When Turner Classic Movies (TCM) included him their lineup of featured stars in the 2014 edition of 'Summer Under the Stars," it was the first I'd heard of him, but after I saw a just few of those films, I became a big fan. Many will cite his fine, deep velvety baritone voice with the upper class British accent as his best asset, and perhaps rightly so.  But given the right vehicle and quality direction, he was a compelling, strong screen presence with ability to portray so much more than the staid, suave, and often cuckolded gentleman roles into which he was typecast.  I noted with distinct pleasure that TCM had scheduled a day of his rather obscure 1930s films tomorrow (Jan 19th), and I will be looking forward to watching the ones I haven't yet seen -- Make Way for A Ladyand Woman Against Woman on DVR, of course.   In honor of Mr. Marshall, and in celebration of his recent turn on TCM, I was inspired to share my favorite five performances of his here.
 Marshall was born in England in 1890 to a theatrical family, but came to the profession only after he gave up a career in accounting shortly after college.  He then enlisted to fight in WWI and was a casualty of fighting in France, where he lost a leg (some reports say it was his right, but observing his movements closely, it seems to me it may be his left; he never really discussed it publicly). He resumed his acting career after a long convalescence and learning to walk with a prosthetic.  He came to Hollywood in the early 1930s and rose to relative stardom with leading man roles as a free-lance actor who never signed a long term contract. Later in life he had numerous character roles and starred in many radio programs. He was known as a polite, charming, if not an attention-seeking personality. He had five marriages, and a somewhat scandalous romance with Gloria Swanson in the mid-1930s, which broke up his marriage to English actress Edna Best.  He had two daughters, the first his daughter with Best, who became actress Sarah Marshall.  He continued to work almost until the end of his life; he died at age 75 in 1966.

Here are five performances of his I've enjoyed the most, so far, in chronological order.

Jeanne Eagels as Leslie Crosbie
and Herbert Marshall as Geoff Hammond
1) The Letter (1929, D.: Jean de Limur)  This is not the much more famous 1940 William Wyler film of the same Somerset Maugham novel, which Mr. Marshall also starred alongside Bette Davis.  No, this early talkie was a pre-code version starring doomed actress Jeanne Eagels, and Marshall as the lover.  (In the 1940 version, the lover was not an actual role on screen).  This was a very early film role for Marshall, and he sinks his teeth into the few moments of screen time he has -- he comes across as a caustic, privileged young cad who is eager to move on from his dalliance with Mrs. Crosbie (Eagels). He does have a few moments of tenderness with his new lover, Lady Tsen Mei.  I wasn't as impressed with Eagels, and thought Reginald Owen was one-dimensional as the husband, but it's interesting to watch in comparison to the later version; the ending, in particular is distinctly different.

Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins
in Trouble in Paradise
2)  Trouble in Paradise (1932, D.: Ernst Lubitsch)  This sophisticated comedy is considered one of the best pre-code films and one of Lubitsch's best, as well.  It's in my top five favorite films of all time; in fact, it may just be perfect.  From the romantic love triangle, to the clever visual and verbal innuendo, some sight gags, terrific pacing, and spot on performances that were ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek, you absolutely cannot go wrong with this film.  In the first example of Marshall's talent being brought to the fore by the skill of a good director, as jewel thief Gaston Monescu, he is perfectly understated, yet slyly comic here.  He's more than handsome and charming enough to cause two gorgeous women (Kay Francis & Miriam Hopkins) to fall for him, believably so.  His line readings are a delight.  One of my favorite exchanges: Lily:  "Who ARE you?"  Gaston: "You know the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?" Lily: "Monescu!"  Marshall worked for Lubitsch again in 1937's Angel, but that did not have nearly the same magic.

Marshall and Margaret Sullavan bond over coffee in The Good Fairy
3) The Good Fairy (1935, D.: William Wyler). Another comic role of a different kind came to Marshall in this William Wyler film, starring Margaret Sullavan in the "title" role.  It's a screwball gem, scripted by soon-to-be director Preston Sturges -- if that provides context about the quality of the writing -- from the play by Ferenc Molnar.  Marshall is a delight as a poor legal scholar who is too "honest" to be successful and becomes the unwitting beneficiary of Margaret Sullavan's 'good deed'.  He is definitely NOT suave, and has a nervous habit of running a comb once or twice through his beard.  He also has a hilarious solo scene in which he prattles excitedly about a new pencil sharpener (!).  His chemistry with Sullavan is very strong, and the two make a very lovely couple.  Frank Morgan and Reginald Owen are amusing as variations of their stock comic characters.

4.  The Little Foxes (1941, D.: William Wyler).  Another Wyler film -- he clearly was a terrific director for Marshall.  This one was his second film with Bette Davis, and he played victimized husband Horace Giddens to her poisonous Regina Giddens in this adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play about a dysfunctional Southern family.  The tone is mostly dark throughout, but it's a riveting production with good performances by the entire cast.  Marshall, by turns warm and sympathetic, then angry and righteous, plays the role of a dying man so convincingly that you feel his pain almost viscerally.  His subtlety as an actor is revealed when you know he wants to trust his family, but because he's smart, he cannot hide the growing realization of dishonest motives and crimes being perpetrated.  Interestingly, Davis and Marshall had a warm relationship off-screen.
Davis & Marshall in The Little Foxes
5.  High Wall (1947, D. Curtis Bernhardt).  In this noir, Robert Taylor is a veteran with PTSD, employed by Marshall, who finds himself accused of murder.  It's a psychological thriller as well, with Audrey Totter as the doctor who tries to help Taylor.  In this one, Marshall shows his ability to be slimy, two-faced, and scary.  It takes some questionable narrative turns, and I'm not enamored of Taylor's performance particularly, but it showcases the often underappreciated range of Marshall, who in my opinion, really steals the movie.  

Don't miss him in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Little White Frock," or his appearance on the popular "What's My Line?" TV show in which, as the 'Mystery Guest, he gracefully responds to Dorothy Kilgallen's question as to whether he considers himself a 'character man,' with, "The day has come, yes."  Video link is below.
Finally, for a greater appreciation of his fight to overcome his war injury, read this article published in 2014 by SAG-AFTRA, image below:


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article on Herbert Marshall with terrific information and your personal favourite performances.

    I certainly agree with your choices and would like to add that your HM of If You Could Only Cook tickled me. The hubby and I came across it by accident on TV a few years ago and absolutely adored it. A fine showcase for Marshall's comedy chops.

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed this! Glad to help bring back pleasant memories. I so agree that IYCOC is a comedy gem, with the wonderful Jean Arthur. I thought Leo Carillo was brilliant in it as well. I believe it was the first film I saw of his.

      Some days I'm convinced that Marshall's best skills were in comedy. But then I watch The Little Foxes and think again ;-)

  2. Wonderful article on obe of my favourites actors. I also think he lost the left leg, notice how in Murder! (1930) and other movies he puts the walking stick in the right hand (it has to rest in the side which is NOT harmed, meaning in this case the left being the injured one).

    1. Hi Irene, thank you for reading my post. It seems that there are more Herbert Marshall fans than I realized! Great point about the hand that he uses to hold the walking stick - I had not thought of that, but that makes perfect sense. Thankfully, there was a recent biography published that did confirm the left leg. Whew! I hope to never see any more references to the wrong leg.