Victor McLaglen — From Bagdad to Beverly Hills (1936) 🇺🇸

January 04, 2022

The exciting real-life adventures of Victor McLaglen, told at last.

by Ben Maddox

Practically no one outside of his own family, even in Hollywood, has heard all of the real story of Victor McLaglen.

He finally told it to me for Screenland. It’s a fantastic, “press-agent’s dream” tale. The places he has been, and the things he has done; the way fate has persistently fooled him; how no plan of his has ever come fully true — curious, to put it mildly!

Behind this giant of a man’s burly masculinity there’s still the untamed, untired heart of the brash adventurer. He never takes no for his answer. His enthusiasm is as intact as his vitality. Victor is famous, rich; he holds the Motion Picture Academy’s award for the best work in this past season by any actor. He is, today, a person of responsibility, of important affairs.

But Victor, for whom every climax is but a prelude to a more surprising denouement, hasn’t been altered by this tremendous success. When he let the mask of reserve down I realized that this movie star chapter of his hasn’t given him new standards. He ran away from home to see the world, and he has certainly covered plenty of ground. Yet he has emerged from each unanticipated episode with the McLaglen honor untouched by the slightest stain.

“Garbo was right,” he said suddenly, on the day he decided to be more than his usual, courteous self. “No one knows what the future will bring. It’s an optimistic thought, too, isn’t it? There is no telling how well we may wind up!

“Take me, for instance. Seventeen years ago I was in — of all spots — Bagdad. I was in charge of the British military and civil police, and we’d captured that sector of the country from the Turks. Bagdad! It’s half-way around the globe and I hadn’t the faintest idea of becoming an actor then. There couldn’t be a greater change for me. But even though I’m in such a different atmosphere, how can I erase those moments from my mind? I was there in Bagdad for five long years!

“It symbolizes magic and glamor in children’s books, as Beverly Hills does to modern grown-ups. I found it a typical old-world city, with about half a million population. It wasn’t especially exciting. There were no Aladdinish trimmings; life for the Asiatic-Arabians is crude.

“We just walked in — it wasn’t fortified, but it was in a strategic location on the Tigris River. The Arabs deserted the Turkish army to stay in their homes.”

I was intrigued at the way he’d opened up. “As head man,” I inquired hastily, “did you have a regal residence?”

He grinned. “It wasn’t royal, but it was sanitary. And I designed it and had the building done by prison labor.”

Victor was off on his reminiscing and what “copy!” His English, in passing, is as precise as Freddie Bartholomew’s — when he’s out of character. His splendid physique, also, has always served him well. There have been many dramatic hours when he has had to depend upon sheer strength. His inherited respect for decency and, strangely, for beauty carried him through a conglomeration of circumstances and to his present position.

“I remember wondering, there in Bagdad, what would ever happen to me. When I was eventually demobilized, and returned to London, there wasn’t a promising future. I was thirty-three and I had nothing dependable in view.

“Maybe I can explain what sort of person I had been. My father was a bishop, and I was one of a raft of husky brothers. We were all daredevils. At fourteen I ran away from our little English village to London, where I lied about my age and enlisted boldly in the King’s Life Guards. A while of that and I was off to Canada, via steerage. I hired out as a farm-hand, then discovered a silver rush was on. I dropped silver-mining to prospect for gold. And quit searching for gold when I determined to become the heavy-weight champion.

“The one genuine regret I have is that I never did acquire that boxing title. I started after it by seizing my first opportunity, which was — to wrestle! Then in fighting the fire that destroyed the mining town I was in — Cobalt — a falling roof injured my back. A doctor advised me to exercise the ache away, so I got a job as a railway stevedore. To my astonishment I was promoted to a policemanship, to hunt for fur thieves.

“The thieves were nabbed and I took up boxing in earnest. Only I was sidetracked into a heap of wrestling. I loved to light. According to my clippings, I rose to being ranked as one of the seven foremost heavyweights in America. By then I’d moved on to Seattle. But at that particular period there was so much red tape and grief for aspiring pugilists that I was discouraged. I probably could have fought for the title if I’d stuck at the game for two or three years. That appeared to be centuries!”

Therefore Victor went into the circus, no less. He dug up a partner; they formed a “unit” — challenging every would-be fighter in the state of Washington and British Columbia. Their proposition was three rounds of boxing or fifteen minutes’ wrestling, and anyone who could lick them was to be handed $25. They took turns allotting the evenings of the week; each cared for at least half a dozen hick gladiators a night. In the year they “trouped” they never once lost a single encounter.

You can estimate what a strenuous pace Victor set for himself.

“It was a grand existence,” he vowed. “I hated the notion of settling down; a stuffy office job was an appalling punishment I never intended to take. When we finished with the circus tour, my pal I took to tramping about. No strings, no obligations — the new dawn was a perpetual new deal.

“I had my introduction to the theatre quite by accident. It’s fun to recall how one incident leads to another. My chum and I were in a tiny Washington town. It occurred to us that we might teach physical training to the natives. When we tired of that hobby, we put on a boxing exhibition. It was profitable, so we appeared in the neighboring villages. I engaged an ex-carnival fiddler to deliver ‘The Face on the Barroom Floor’ as our curtain-raiser. Then portrayed noted classical figures — frankly, I posed, however I was inspired and no one ever knew the difference!

“This minor success gave me a hunch. I went to the Orpheum and persuaded them to sign our act for three weeks. We were to open in San Francisco. On our way South we tarried in Seattle and we were introduced to a gentleman who owned a brewery. We accepted his invitation to inspect it. Of course, we had to sample his products; the sequel was a quarrel with my associate. Consequently, I materialized in San Francisco minus him. The Orpheum gave me a day to round up a suitable athlete— we were to anoint our skin with a shiny ointment and illustrate the knock-out blows in familiar title bouts.

“I was stumped; frantic. At the last minute when I was climbing onto the street-car to go down and admit defeat I glanced at the conductor. He was it! I induced him to run his street-car to its barn and go on the stage with me. I learned, afterwards, that he was a fighter temporarily out of the running. His nickname, incidentally, was ‘the lantern-jawed Swede.’ “

Victor’s vaudeville memories are highlighted by a special night in San Diego.

“I tried to stop two marines from squabbling and shortly the three of us were taking on the crowd that gathered. I must confess that when the police arrived they picked on me, and when I sassed them I was ridden to the jail for a reprimand.

“To me, being behind footlights was artificial and boring. I was soon off for the Fiji Islands and some pearl-fishing. The ship I got on was stranded in the terrible calm that can follow typhoons. For an entire month we had no wind. Our provisions diminished as fever developed. Very literally, in the nick of time we were rescued.

“One of my brothers chanced to be in Australia. Being broke, I resurrected the vaudeville act with him and we played it for a year. Then I examined my cash and observed I had a couple of hundred dollars. I’d never seen India. A couple of days after landing in Bombay I again checked my funds and they were a mere $15.”

But trust Victor! Something perfectly astounding inevitably has been around the corners for him. He met the rajah of that district and was installed in the palace as physical instructor. The rajah took a fancy to his company and their chats were mutually interesting. For three months Victor’s address was this potentate’s elegant abode.

“I was ready to learn something new, so I went to Africa and shot lions next. When my money was all gone I aided a trader in selling his goats. That requires unique technique! After which I revived the act to earn my passage back to England to join the army in the World War.”

Cited by the King for his gallant and distinguished services on the field of battle, he was assigned control of all police when Bagdad was occupied. His chief duty was detecting spies.

So this was Victor’s past — and hardly an uneventful one, don’t you agree? — when he was completing his Bagdad chapter.

“My getting into pictures was all accidental,” he declared, pacing the floor in his ultra-swanky dressing-room at the 20th Century-Fox studios in Beverly Hills. He thinks better on his feet, because he has been so accustomed to action. “After the War I was anxious to settle down, to a steady job. I was too old to hope to reach the boxing top. I couldn’t find any work, except an offer for a fight at a London club. I needed that purse. I lost the fray and was feeling gloomy indeed when a film producer who had been in a ringside seat came back to where I was being rubbed down. He suggested I play the lead in a movie he was casting.

“I never imagined myself as a possibility for the screen. Being confronted with this bolt from the blue I had grave doubts whether I could register any emotion before a camera. But it meant money — and that was my essential need.”

Victor clicked. He was doing nicely when, in the following year, the same producer came on to Hollywood and cabled him an offer for a California production. Victor debated leaving his modest niche, but took the gamble. He can’t resist trying new things.

When he stepped off the train at the station in Los Angeles he had exactly $20 in his pockets. A former fighter, recognizing that Victor had been a brother-under-the-skin, rushed up with so sad a line that he was “loaned” $10.

“My picture was put off for a month. I didn’t think it would give the correct impression if I asked for an advance.” Actually, his integrity was so sterling that he proceeded to exist in an attic on twenty-five cents worth of fruit a day — until they called him to begin his lead.

“If a publicity man hadn’t helped me by keeping my name in the news I mightn’t have secured another part. I was satisfactory enough in the picture for which I came over, but received no further assignments. Things like that happen in Hollywood, believe it or not! However, thanks to being continually mentioned in the local columns, I did become an employed actor — as a ‘heavy.’

“Here’s an odder twist: one night at the American Legion fights I was hurrying in. I collided with a stranger. We glared. Next day I was telephoned to come out to a studio. The gentleman who sent for me was that man — Frank Lloyd, the director. I was the type he’d been seeking for a particular role. It established me and ever since my luck has been excellent.”

While Victor may credit his many acting triumphs to luck, if you could watch him study every line and figure out each gesture before venturing into a scene you’d understand how much he deserves this fine, zenith to his life.

He’s still impetuous; his sense of humor — he’ll frame up some gag on the slightest encouragement — is as acute as ever. He has been able to earn big money and has managed his income wonderfully well.

As popular with women as he is with men, he is married to Enid Lamont, a stately blue-eyed brunette. This daughter of a British admiral shares his fondness for both the outdoors and gracious living. They have two children. Andrew, at fourteen, is six-feet-five! Victor is sending him to an exclusive Santa Barbara school, and secretly hopes the lad will go into the diplomatic service. Twelve-year-old Sheila is mostly concerned with learning to ride as marvelously as her parents do.

The estate he has provided for his family in La Canada, above Pasadena, is that of an English squire. There is open house on Sundays, and if the McLaglens aren’t insisting that you sample the swimming pool they are guiding you towards the tennis courts. Victor delights in his beautiful aviaries; he has peacocks and pheasants, too. And it is a sight to watch him tiptoe over to peek into a humming bird’s nest.

A decade in Beverly and he is keen for new achievements. The wanderlust is faded; in its place is the desire to enact roles that will honestly mean something to the fans. No more “Sez you, sez I” things! He’s devoted to his home — and he has time for his sports arena. To give the men and women of Los Angeles a patriotic sports outlet he’s formed McLaglen’s Lighthorse Cavalry and donated a headquarters that buzzes with happy people.

Soldier-of-fortune McLaglen, above, with his daughter on the steps leading to his beautiful Beverly Hills home.

Anne Shirley co-stars with John Beal, returning to films after a season on the New York stage, in M’liss. Here you see them with Director George Nicholls, Jr., who has guided Anne to stardom, on the studio set.

Collection: Screenland MagazineAugust 1936