Walter Connolly — Average, But Wonderful (1935) 🇺🇸
Walter Connolly, the man who makes bad pictures good and good ones better.
by Glady Hall
There are thousands of men in the world who look like Walter Connolly.
There are thousands of men who were not born with the what-it-takes of Gable, the poetic beauty of Novarro, the muscular magnetism of Weissmuller.
Thousands and thousands of plain, slightly middle-aged men with thickening waist-lines and thinning hair and patient, tired eyes.
Thousands of such men who are chained to their desks year in and year out, who “get off,” if at all, for a two weeks’ vacation every summer, who are called “Hi, Dad!” by their children and “Yes, dear,” by their wives. Taken-for-granted men who bring home the groceries on the 5:15, mow the lawns, put up the screens in summer and pay their insurance premiums while the insolent years gallop by.
And these thousands of men must wonder, with the especial wistfulness of plain, average men what it might be like to step out of the gray routine, to lead exciting, stimulating, emotional lives, colored with travel and exciting contacts and beautiful women and applause.
Many of them must think, as their secret dreams stir inside them, “Of course, if I had been born looking like Gable or Montgomery, it would have been easy then...”
Many of them must gaze at average-looking Walter Connolly and wonder. For Walter Connolly does look like Any Nice Man. Like your Dad or mine. Like your husband or mine. He looks as though he might belong in a bank, a broker’s office, or be the head of a string of chain grocery stores. He looks as though his wife might say, a little absently, “Yes, dear”; as though a troop of jolly children might hail him confidently as “Hi, Dad!”
He is certainly no Clark Gable. He is in his middle forties. He is five-feet-nine-inches in height. He weighs 190 pounds, knows he is too heavy and will do nothing about it save abstain from potatoes. His eyes are brown and very kindly. He is a plain man and he makes your blood pound and your tears flow and your pulses hum as even a Gable can’t do.
And Max Reinhardt called him “The greatest dramatic actor in America.”
How? Why? He is a very great artist, obviously. But what was it that sent this son of the late Walter James Connolly, head of the Western Union Relay Office in Cincinnati, Ohio, into the arena where the world’s most beautiful women and handsomest men play, don grease paint and tangle their skilled hands in the heartstrings of the world?
Why is he not still sitting behind his desk as Third Assistant Cashier of the First National Bank of Cincinnati where, after St. Xavier’s College and a polishing-off at the University of Dublin (the Connollys are Irish, in case you haven’t guessed), he began the business of life. Because he did begin the business of life in business.
I asked him. It always fascinates me when one of these average, un-actorish-looking men — a Walter Connolly or an Edward Arnold — spur the public imagination and ride to stardom on these spurs. It is easier for a Gable, you know.
I spent the evening with Mr. Connolly. His wife, Netta Harrigan, and their ten-year-old daughter, Ann, had just gone back to New York. Mr. Connolly was to join them at their apartment there within the week, after the completion of Paramount’s “Father Brown, Detective,” for which he had been loaned by Columbia Pictures. In New York Mr. Connolly will do a play.
He said smiling, “My grandfathers are probably responsible. One of them was a whaling man and the other a railroad builder. They lived adventurously. They were not content with ledgers and filing cabinets and four walls. They wrestled with sandstone and steel, with monsters of the deep, flinging the tracks of travel over the untravelled face of the earth. They dealt with the raw material of life and death and change. It was not in them to sit at home and let the years limp by them, leaden-gaited.
“It was not in me. I really knew it from the beginning. I knew it when I was at St. Xavier’s. But my family had all of the normal family’s aversion to a son of theirs going on the stage. What, a Connolly! An Irishman! Nor did I look like the commonly accepted theatrical type even then. I wasn’t a ‘pretty boy.’ Not by any means. Girls did not yearn over my romantic profile.
“What right had I to be an actor? Why didn’t I stay in the bank and marry one of the season’s débutantes and become a substantial citizen of commerce? What had I? Well, my heart, I guess. My imagination which rode me and drew blood. I didn’t pose in front of mirrors as a youngster. I did not inflate the family pride by reciting ‘pieces.’ But I did read omnivorously. I did live in a fantastical world of my own where I encountered strange adventures and met exciting people. I knew that somehow I must continue these adventures, must meet the glamorous people of the world in flesh and blood. And I went to the theatre all of the time, with every scrap of time and every piece of money I had. I saw Sir Henry Irving do “Rip Van Winkle” and I have never forgotten it. I think I knew, then.”
Columbia Pictures’ studio biography of Walter Connolly says, “As versatile an actor as ever trod the boards, can play any character part no matter how young or old, no matter what nationality, no matter what walk of life. He thinks nothing of being a senile watchman (“Man’s Castle”) in the morning, a prosperous business man (“It Happened One Night”) in the afternoon, and a suave European (“Lady For A Day”) at night, and makes each performance ring with authenticity...”
I reminded Mr. Connolly of this deserved encomium. He said, “We’ll waive the question of whether that is flattery or truth. But this is the truth: I went on the stage in order to play those parts. And others. As many others as possible.
“It was because I so desperately wanted to be all men rather than one man that I left my ‘cage’ at the bank. It was because I couldn’t tolerate the idea of being Walter Connolly, bank clerk, all of my days that I — well that I made my professional debut in Norfolk, Virginia, in ‘Classmates,’ in 1909. Two years later I was on Broadway in the revival of ‘The Shepherd King,’ starring Wright Lorimer. And for twenty-two years I never left Broadway again save for some summer stock.
“Matter of fact,” Mr. Connolly chuckled (and he does chuckle — all nice men do), I really picked the job at the bank because banking hours are such that I had time off for amateur theatricals.
“I simply could not bear monotony, that’s all. Psychologists would call it an escape. So it was. I felt as though dust would accumulate on me if I stayed where I was. I rose to my feet and shook myself. I wanted variety. And if you ask me what gift of all gifts my years on the stage have given me I would say just that — variety.
“The stage and the screen have enabled me to be many hundreds of persons in my own person. I do not have to get dog-tired of being Walter Connolly, because I am Walter Connolly for so small a part of the time.
“But best of all, most important of all, I have been able to meet and to know most of the vital persons of my generation. Musicians, sculptors, statesmen, as well as actors and actresses.
“And I could not have known these people if I had not been in the theatre. A millionaire may be able to order a ‘command performance,’ that is true, and entertain the great of the earth. But he doesn’t really know them. Only when you are doing some form of creative work yourself can you know others in similar fields. I think about the finest thing life has given me is knowing those others.
“I have worked with Gilbert Miller, Jed Harris and George M. Cohan. I knew Charles Frohman, the greatest showman of them all. I have worked with Helen Hayes, Margaret Anglin, Pauline Lord and innumerable others. I have known the Barrymores, Sothern, Marlowe, John. Drew, Leo Dietrichstein and Minnie Maddern Fiske. I have known Broadway in ‘The Affairs of Anatole,’ ‘Possession,’ ‘Way Down East,’ ‘The Late Christopher Bean,’ and other plays too many to list here. (And I remember an old slogan of Broadway which said that Connolly was always in demand with the theatrical impresarios and feminine stars because “he always saved a bad play and bettered a good one.”)
“I was not off Broadway for twenty-two years,” Mr. Connolly was saying. “However, I did take time off to make one picture in 1917, ‘The Soldier’s Oath,’ with William Farnum. I hope, some day, to be able to forget it. The only other interlude was during the World War when I joined the 13th Division of the Marine Corps under Major General Smedley Butler.
“This life of the theatre offers rich gifts and highly colored adventure. And it’s a happy life, too. Actors may be down, very far down, but they are never out. You can go to any lot in Hollywood today and talk to dozens of old-timers on whom the last curtain has gone down and they never know it. Because there is always hope in the heart of the actor. No actor ever believes that he is through.
“Also, an actor is safer than a business man. He is a one-man concern. If he goes down to defeat, he doesn’t take a corporation with him or stockholders or investors. His failure, as well as his success, is his own. That’s why there are so many suicides among big business men. When they go down, they usually drag their friends and associates with them. They could take it for themselves. They can’t take it for the others.
“And now I have come to Hollywood, the most dramatic and colorful place in the world. A place about which the real story has never been written. Because the real story is not a daily account of the various girls Lyle Talbot lunches with or whether or not Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone are exchanging gardenias. In an industry so vast, so vital, so mechanically miraculous, it seems a pity to stress such trivia. It would be a tremendous job, the real story of Hollywood. My ‘other ambition’ has always been to write and I spend most of my spare time at my desk.
“Hollywood is a place of terrific extremes. Of unimaginable ironies. Imagine a place where they allow Tod Sloan, who once rode for kings and is conceded the fastest jockey in the world, to judge turtle races. Turtles, the slowest animals in the world!
“If I had not chosen the stage (it didn’t choose me), I would have missed meeting my wife. And today, after fourteen years of marriage, that remains for me a painfully unpleasant thing to contemplate.”
Air. Connolly’s wife is, you know, Netta Harrigan, daughter of the famous vaudeville team of Harrigan and Hart.
“We were playing together on Broadway when we met,” Mr. Connolly told me. “I happened to know that she was supposed — doctor’s orders — to drink a bottle of milk before every performance. She always forgot and so I undertook to remember for her. With the result that I would bring the milk to her dressing-room every evening and stand by, patiently, while she drank it. It suddenly occurred to me that it was a very husband-like patience I was manifesting and also that I had never seen a lovelier sight than Netta drinking milk. I still think,” chuckled Walter Connolly, “that the loveliest sight I have seen is Netta drinking milk.”
The hands of Mr. Connolly’s clock were speeding to the midnight hour. I made polite gestures, signifying my immediate departure.
“No, don’t go,” Mr. Connolly said, “I never go to bed until two-thirty, even when I am by myself. I never got up before noon until I came to Hollywood. They’re theatre hours, you know, and they have become my hours. I’ll never get over it. In New York I liked to play poker with newspaper men and talk the hours away with Alexander Woollcott, Rollin Kirby, Odd Mclntyre and other cronies.
“Let’s see, I was just about to say that if I had not come to Hollywood I would have missed being a part of what I believe is destined to become the greatest art the world has ever known. If it misses, it is its own fault. The theatre will go on forever. Because the theatre is tangled up in the roots of our being. It has been since the beginning of time and it will be until the end.
“But the capacities and potentialities of the screen are limitless. There are no boundary lines. There is nothing it cannot do, no resources it cannot command, no artist it cannot, or has not persuaded. The brains and the artistry of the world are here today. The screen has yesterday, today and tomorrow to draw on. I believe that pictures are changing now. For the better. Better pictures are being made. Better stories are being written. A more discriminating audience is going to see pictures. The world is ours and that,” said Mr. Connolly, “is something I could not have endured missing.”
But I think our questions are answered.
There are thousands of men in the world who were not born with the what-it-takes of Clark Gable, the poetic beauty of Novarro, the muscular magnetism of Weissmuller. True. But Walter Connolly is not among them. For that what-it-takes, that magnetism, that poetry are in his capacious heart, in the rich tones of his voice, in the wisdom of those keen brown eyes, in the humanitarian spirit which so loves the world and all mankind that his finest dream was to know all men and to be all men — rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief...
A scene from Walter Connolly’s latest picture, “White Lies,” with Victor Jory and Fay Wray.
Source: Modern Screen Magazine, February 1935