Watch George Hackathorne (1923) 🇺🇸

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January 30, 2024

Vital and expressive as an actor on the screen. George Hackathorne declines to dramatize himself or his life story away from it. He refuses to voice but one mood. At least to me.

by Norbert Lusk

Only after hours of friendliest inquisition did he confide that he had always wished to carry a stick but couldn’t bring himself to do it because of his height.

Not that he is silent. Far from it. He is only impersonal — oddly so for a player — and one who discourses fluently, intelligently, in a rather low, carrying voice, telling you. because you have asked him, what he would like to play and not minding at all if you haven’t seen him in every picture he has done.

Minus the blind sentiment of the average actor, he does not say that one’s pet screen horror happens to be his own wonderful pal, or that the star you know to be feline is. to him. the saint of the studios. Hackathorne avows no enthusiasms and his admirations are logical — Barthelmess. Griffith. Von Stroheim.

But he says nothing of the bruises his art has sustained from roughshod directors; he prates not of past sacrifices, present success, or future contracts — all topics familiar to the interviewer and seized upon by him to reveal the average subject’s outlook.

Hackathorne prefers to discuss, subjectively, the actor, without telling anything about George as an individual. Is it modesty, reticence, or what? Yet, in my presence, he ventured an imitation — all too comic — of me. Which helped as a humanizing touch. And, without realizing it, gave me something on himself — that he would like to be Napoleon on the screen! But perhaps it isn’t quite cricket to divulge that. He has more plausible ambitions.

One of them is to be directed by Griffith. When asked, he told me this in a casual monosyllable. Yet, from others, I learn it is his burning desire; that, in fact, when he found himself in the presence of the master, for -an audience, his knees shook and he momentarily lost his tongue. It must have been through sheer juvenile awe.

To me he said nothing of this emotional tumult though he knew he might have held forth to a responsive listener. Obviously, he preferred to adhere to some inner check. But why?

Because, as nearly as can be deduced, he throws himself heart and soul into any imaginary situation such as he rinds in a scenario, but permits others to see him only skim the surface of moments that come in real life. Curiously, he says he cannot express in words any emotion, anything he feels.

For example, after prolonged negotiation with Universal he said, rather colorlessly, “I’m going to play Booth Tarkington’s ‘The Turmoil’ after all, if that means anything to you. It meant a great deal to him — his most important assignment — but you never would have guessed it. Instead, he will infuse the picture with all it means to him.

That is one of the reasons why he impresses me as an actor of the first order on the screen. In bromidic parlance he really “lives” his parts because he gives the utmost of his emotion to them and, outwardly, little emotion to anything else.

His pliability of mind and body impose no limitations when, as in “Human Wreckage,” he slips into a chauffeur’s uniform. He has worn one all his life, it appears, and the mental processes and actions of the drug addict become more than a clever actor’s mimicry. They are effortless because they seem a part of the artist himself, equally as he was born, to all intents, a Viennese hunchback to play Bartholomew in “Merry-Go-Round.”

As a matter of chronology, he is from Oregon. I never knew the birthplace of any one to count for less. Hackathorne might be from anywhere. Whether or not he has sent a plush rocker to the folks back home doesn’t matter, either. There is no urge to write a lovely story about his domestic life because you feel it hasn’t had much to do with molding him.

Six years and a half he has spent in the California studios and is only now challenging attention. They must have been years of striving, of disappointment, of learning and unlearning. But, characteristically, he refuses to make a narrative of them.

Looking into his experienced eyes set in a youthful face, you seek to cajole from him the sob story of a boy who drifted down from the Northwest and, for a time, vainly knocked at the portals of filmdom, another Merton Gill. Again you are eluded when Hackathorne says there has been nothing in his life to mirror pain, defeat, compassion. His eyes tell all this though he does not.

You learn, after no end of impolite quizzing, that as a child his imaginative mind took flame when he saw a stage production of Parsifal given by a road company. Under the spell of the dim mystery of the Holy Grail and the guileless knight’s search for it, he “found” himself and decided on a stage career.

To be concerned in a theater, the source of his dreams, he began as a water carrier and, in time, was asked, as handy boy about the house, to substitute for the Little Willie who was stricken on the eve of East Lynne. A simple story, with heaps of details — amusing? touching? — buried in it. But the facts are all that Hackathorne tells.

Parsifal is significant, though, as having been the means of ordering his intentions. “Ten Nights in a Barroom,” now, might have set the boy off on a really lurid career.

Instead, we find him a contemplative young actor who takes his work with utmost earnestness, perhaps because worldly experience has taught him there is lasting satisfaction in nothing so much as one’s chosen field of endeavor.

He reads imaginative literature rather than modern realistic stuff because, as he puts it, he wants to escape from what he sees on all sides.

That is, I suppose, what has led him to seize upon one of the most romantic figures in all history as his screen aspiration concentrate — the Duke of Reichstadt, the “Eaglet” of France, ill-fated son of Napoleon and Maria Louisa, whose spiritual struggle is the content of Rostand’s poetic drama and numerous memories as well.

Hackathorne’s quiet though bright ambition would have him play the youth and the exiled emperor too. He admits it is only a dream, but I should say it is dreams like this that have done much to keep him from remaining where he began, in the ranks of extras. One does get a line on people by being admitted to their castles in the air.

One of his most interesting disclosures lies in his refusal to use make-up in preparing for the camera — that is, lining, shadows and other, artifice to emphasize character. As he is what is technically known as a juvenile character man this is all the more remarkable. Thought, he adds, may be projected from the actor’s consciousness of the man he plays. With him it is a lucid process, for he never looks quite the same.

This facility of -technique should provide for Hackathorne diverse opportunities. Too often the player who is not fortuitously cast into tailored star parts is labeled by directors as being merely a type. He is only sought when certain circumscribed limits of character are in mind.

I sense in him a potential star if acting be the chief desideratum, and not the glamour of a Latin personality or the smug immobility of the collar model — particularly so in view of The Turmoil because it offers him a character study of many moods and subtle gradations of spiritual growth.

That ability to project character rather than personality is becoming more and more important in gauging the rank of players, is proved by letters that come to Picture-Play. Those published in the November issue sound high praise for Hackathorne in especial, one correspondent recognizing a sensitive face which, by expression, not contortion, can depict… thoughts… His acting is a joy and we are more for acting and a good story in New Zealand than we are for the star system.”

It is to those who discern in Hackathorne the uncommon actor that I have tried to tell something of him as an individual. I have not quoted his conversation because, adequate though it is, his reticence seems to count for more. After all, no one evokes the fundamentals of character in words; they must be sensed by the listener.

Hackathorne’s sincerity, his quick appreciations and general perceptiveness, all lie beneath a quiet manner and an exterior which might casually be judged inconspicuous. His viewpoint is without bias precisely as he discloses none of those idiosyncrasies which outwardly label the movie player and which frequently shape the interviewer’s task along obvious lines.

And with a subdued sense of merriment withal, he manifests none of those inconsistencies of speech or conduct which might make him a humorous figure to one used to paradoxes among screenland’s personnel.

All this engages one’s interest in the actor as a companionable enigma but gives little to him who would essay a pen portrait of George Hackathorne.

So let us agree that he is distinctly a mental type and somewhat of a chameleon too — giving, perhaps, a different color to all who meet him, but beyond question impressing his most definite image on the silver sheet.

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Photo by: Richard Burke

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Collection: Picture Play Magazine, December 1923