Henry B. Walthall — Once of Alabama (1918) 🇺🇸

Henry B. Walthall | www.vintoz.com

March 09, 2024

Run through the biographies of any group of actors of to-day, and you will find that a large proportion of them began life intending to follow some totally different career. Many of them even started on another line of endeavor, and were brought behind the footlights by some accident of fate. Warren Kerrigan, for example, studied, in his early youth, for the ministry.

by Warren Reed

Ralph Ince was a cartoonist before he was an actor. Alan Hale was an osteopath before he was known to the screen. These examples could be multiplied indefinitely. It is seldom that you find an actor who really hoped and dreamed and planned to follow a stage career from boyhood. Once in a while you do. Such a one is Henry B. Walthall.

Walthall was born on a Southern plantation. His father had the patriarchal idea of inheritance, and wanted him to become a farmer; his mother, on the other hand, was ambitious that her son should become a great lawyer, and encouraged him in the study of Blackstone.

During the long Southern twilights, after a day’s work in the field, Henry Walthall would sit with his mother while she read Shakespeare to him. This was his first inspiration to become an actor. He became a student of Shakespeare, and when alone in the cotton fields he was mentally transformed into a Shakespearean hero, reading his lines to an imagined audience in a great theater. He listened to his father’s advice about farming, and studied law to please his mother, but through it all he was heeding a voice that was calling him toward another career.

That he did not answer the summons sooner was due to but one thing — he had promised his mother that he would never go on the stage so long as she lived. He kept his word.

At last, however, the time came when he was released from that promise, and he went to New York City.

Thrown into that crucible, he fought his way until, when his funds were about exhausted and his spirit nearly broken, he at last secured an engagement with a small road company which played one-night stands in small towns. That was his beginning as an artist in the amusement world — a beginning which was followed by successes and failures, victories and heartaches, until at last he became recognized, and was engaged to appear in the support of Henry Hiller in the Great Divide.

It was while playing in this company that Walthall met James Kirkwood, the well-known screen director. Kirkwood had been playing in pictures in the old Biograph Company, which had its studios in Fourteenth Street, New York City, and when the season was over, he took Walthall down with him to visit the studio. Here he was introduced for the first time to David W. Griffith [D. W. Griffith], who asked Walthall to do a small part in a picture he was making.

When the picture was finished, Griffith was so well pleased with Walthall’s work that he offered him a place in his stock company. But Walthall was of the opinion held by many actors of that time, and declined the offer because he thought that appearing in pictures was beneath the dignity of an actor in the articulate drama. The following season he rejoined Henry Miller’s company, and left for Europe.

The Great Divide, being strictly an American play, was not received with the same enthusiasm as it had enjoyed in this country, and after a brief engagement the company closed.

Upon his return to this country, through the persuasion of James Kirkwood, Walthall again visited the Biograph Studio and accepted an offer to become a permanent member in David W. Griffith’s company. The phenomenal success of Henry B. Walthall from that time is well known to every picture fan throughout the entire world.

Being a man of high intelligence, and endowed with a keen sense of dramatic values, success followed success, until at last he was looked upon as the foremost dramatic delineator of the screen.

When the Birth of a Nation was in the making, he was selected by Mr. Griffith to play the exacting role of the Confederate colonel, a part which stood out in that great spectacle with such prominence that Mr. Walthall was referred to by many of the foremost critics as “the Mansfield of the screen.”

Some time ago Walthall decided to become an independent producing manager at the head of his own organization. That plan has become a reality, and in the future his will be the final word of authority in choosing the stories in which he is to appear, in selecting his cast of players, and in the thousand and one matters which constitute the making of a photo play.

His first step in organizing the new company was to procure the services of Miss Mary Charleson, who had played opposite him in many of his greatest successes.

His first production, which has just been completed, is a visualization of His Robe of Honor, the story of a shyster lawyer who becomes an upright judge through the influence of a woman. He is now working on his second play, which is to be entitled Humdrum Brown.

And if, instead of following the call which haunted him from boyhood, he had followed either of his parents’ advice, he might to-day be an obscure barrister or an unknown farmer on a Southern plantation.

Henry B. Walthall — Once of Alabama (1918) | www.vintoz.com

Henry B. Walthall — Once of Alabama (1918) | www.vintoz.com

Walthall is now head of his own producing organization.

Henry B. Walthall and William Aaronson, his personal manager, estimating how long it would take to act a portion of a script.

Henry B. Walthall — Once of Alabama (1918) | www.vintoz.com

He has been called the “Mansfield of the screen.”

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, March 1918