Irving Pichel — Rebel! (1932) 🇺🇸

Irving Pichel |

December 17, 2021

Irving Pichel, actor, director and author, turns his back on success in one profession to win in another.

by Harry N. Blair

Hollywood, mecca of the ambitious, harbors a rebel. His name is Irving Pichel and he represents a startling contrast to everything Hollywood stands for.

Devoid of any desire for personal success, he gives his best to pictures out of sheer love of the game, as much as for the financial rewards.

He suggests the late Milton Sills in general appearance and is similar to that popular idol in his accomplishments.

His parents wanted him to be a doctor. He had ambitions to be a writer. In such cases a compromise is necessary, so Pichel became an actor. This was shortly after graduating from Harvard with an A.B. degree. It should be said in passing that he worked his way through college, for, had it not been for this fact, he might today be healing the sick instead of causing broken hearts.

The medical course allowed no time for outside pursuits, so he was obliged to switch to the liberal arts course, since it gave him an opportunity to earn enough money on the side to keep going. Part of this money was earned writing dramatic reviews for the Boston Transcript and part by acting with the Castle Square stock company in Boston. Thus, it seems that the tentacles of the theatre grasped hold of him as soon as he left the family fireside. There had been no previous acting talent in his family.

John Craig, owner of the stock company, was interested in the since famous “47 Workshop,” a course in English and the drama conducted by Prof. George Pierce Baker, then on the staff at Harvard and later with Yale. Pichel, as a charter member of the group, showed such promise that Craig offered him several important parts during his senior year. Pichel stayed on with the Craig players for six months after graduation, playing characters and heavies. Shortly after, he returned to Pittsburgh, his native city, to accept a part with the local stock company. Another member of the troupe was William Powell, equally unknown and then also playing “heavies.” Neither dreamed of a picture career or the fame which awaited them. In fact, six months of this convinced Pichel that he had no desire to act. To him it had been so much preparation for a career as a dramatist or stage director. Everything pointed toward his becoming a writer. Besides having various articles accepted, he had been editor of the Harvard monthly for three years. Then there was the precedent of his father, Julius Pichel, a newspaperman who gave forty-seven years of service to the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times. But (Continued on page 78) before writing for the theatre, he felt he must first study it.

For six years he experimented with Little Theatre groups throughout the country, punctuated by a season in New York helping James K. Hackett put on a series of Shakespearian productions and another season as assistant to Joseph Urban, noted scenic designer and architect. Meanwhile, an offer had come to join the Eagan theatre group in Los Angeles. Pichel accepted and thus made the acquaintance of Violette Wilson, who later became his wife.

When America entered the war, Pichel was assigned to special training camp work by the War and Navy Department Commission on welfare activities, with headquarters at New London, Conn. Finally, the Armistice and once more the familiar smell of grease paint in a short season with the Little Theatre in Detroit.

Pichel now felt he was ready to do bigger things. His wife had been signed to make her Broadway debut in Zoe Akins’ first play, “Papa.” Pichel decided also to push on to the big town. Almost immediately, he was signed by the Shuberts as stage director.

But there are restrictions in the established theatre with which a true experimenter could never be satisfied. Pichel missed the thrill of doing what one knew was right, regardless of the box-office. He found it impossible to carry out many of his theories. Accordingly, Irving Pichel once more ran away from success.

About this time Lee Simonson, with whom he had studied at Harvard, was a director in the struggling Theatre Guild. He persuaded Pichel to join the advisory board, and for several months Pichel had the joy of helping to create new standards for the stage which he had learned to love so well. Then came the offer to become general director of the Guild, an unheard of honor for so young a man. Most fellows in his position would have jumped at the chance. With Pichel it was different. He wasn’t afraid of making good but he was afraid of the security and stagnation which success so often brings in its wake. Besides, he wanted to return to California and establish a home and family. Pichel turned down the offer of the Theatre Guild, much to their surprise, and again thumbed his nose at success.

In California, again, he settled in Berkeley, where he met Sam Hume, who was helping the University of California work out plans for its Greek theatre. With Hume, Pichel produced the first plays put on there. Later he interested a group of public-minded citizens in financing a little theatre in Berkeley, which he managed for three years. It was during this period that he also returned to journalism for one year, as dramatic critic on the San Francisco Daily News. He took the job only on assurance that he could say what he pleased, with no interference from the business office. In spite of this proviso, he was fired when he scored an audience for allowing a three-year-old child to sing a suggestive song. Later came an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to join its writing staff. He left, after six months, a complete “bust.” Those were dark days of failure but the days of plenty were soon to follow.

Three years ago, in Los Angeles, Pichel directed Ruth Chatterton in the stage production, The Devil’s Plum Tree. So enthused was Miss Chatterton over his ability that when she became a film star, she suggested that Paramount engage him to direct the dialogue for “The Right to Love.” There was also a difficult character part to fill and Pichel was asked if he would take it. He did — and almost ran away with the picture. Paramount immediately put him under contract as an actor, with the promise that he will later on have a chance to direct. Since then he has played in Murder by the Clock, “The Road to Reno” and the much-disputed “An American Tragedy.” Many critics are of the opinion that Pichel’s work as the district attorney was the outstanding feature of the latter film. He later played the leading male role opposite Tallulah Bankhead in “The Cheat,” and after being featured in “The Miracle Man,” was loaned to Radio Pictures by Paramount to help direct “State’s Attorney.”

Had he really desired an acting career, he would have adopted an easier name than Pichel, as a gesture toward popularity. Actually the name is pronounced as though it were spelled “Pitch-ell,” with emphasis on the first syllable. Years ago, when his grandfather came here from Bohemia, the name was spelled “Pichl” and was then even harder to pronounce. On his mother’s side he is of German and Austrian descent. His mother, whom he greatly resembles, resides in Cincinnati.

Underneath the surface cruelty brought out in his screen characterizations is a great well of tenderness. I wratched him spellbound as he acted the branding scene in “The Cheat,” his eyes aflame with sadistic glee as he applied the white hot iron to Tallulah’s bare shoulder. Five minutes later he was playing with the baby used on an adjoining set.

Each summer for the past few years he has lectured on the theatre in the leading universities, many of whom use his book “Modern Theatre,” as a text in their dramatic courses. He is desirous that the youth of today may fully understand the fine things of which the stage and screen are capable. Should any of his own three sons, ages eleven, seven and a half, and two and a half, desire a theatrical career, they will have only the finest standards to follow.

Here is a man who combines those rare traits of true artistry and good, hard common sense. After sixteen years’ service to the theatre, Irving Pichel is at last serving himself and family. He is winning an enviable reputation as an actor and a neat fortune besides. Artistic to his fingertips, he is in no sense “arty.” His ideas on the theatre, and especially direction, while somewhat revolutionary, are not extreme.

Meanwhile he’s showing Miss 1932 a new type of leading man which, judging from his fan mail, is going over in a big way.

Photo by Shalitt

His parents wanted him to be a doctor and Irving wanted to be a writer. So he compromised on being an actor, later becoming a theatrical director. His name, which, by the way, was brought by his grandfather from Bohemia, is pronounced as if it were spelled Pitch-ell.

After playing the male lead in “Cheat,” Irving Pichel went to Hollywood to appear in “The Miracle Man.” In his next picture, “State’s Attorney,” he acted a part as well as directing the dialogue.

Source: The New Movie Magazine, June 1932