The Magnificent Louis – Louis Calhern (1895 – 1956)

Posted in Rewind by - February 11, 2014
The Magnificent Louis – Louis Calhern (1895 – 1956)

Imposing in stature, with his groomed moustache and distinguished voice, the immensely talented stage and screen actor Louis Calhern built up an impressive list of credits in his rather varied career.

Born in Brooklyn on February 19th 1895, Louis was hired as an actor while playing football in college. Early stage work earned him matinee idol status, and he was soon appearing in silent movies, most notably as a slacker student in the classic class comedy ‘The Blot’ (’21). Calhern had early talkie roles in the James Cagney starrer ‘Blonde Crazy’ (’31) and then the 1932 Spencer Tracy drama ‘20,000 Years in Sing Sing’.

After being a foil for The Marx Brothers in their funniest movie; ‘Duck Soup’ (’33), Louis had a prominent role in the first sound version of Alexandre Dumas’ oft-filmed adventure; ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ (’34), and then had a small bit in the Oscar-winning biopic; ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ (’35)

Later Calhern had a good role in Ernst Lubitsch’s excellent 1943 comedy ‘Heaven Can Wait’, as Don Ameche’s strict father, then later gave support in Alfred Hitchcock’s fun espionage thriller ‘Notorious’ (’46). Later he was the grandfather in the family drama ‘The Red Pony’ with Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum, then an impressive Buffalo Bill in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ (both ’49).

Now in his fifties, Louis would score his greatest successes in two terrific movies from 1950. Firstly, I think he had his best role in John Sturges entertaining biopic ‘The Magnificent Yankee’, recreating his Broadway role as the much loved Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous US Supreme Court Justice, admired and loved by all. Calhern was nominated for an Academy Award for his wonderful performance, but ultimately lost out to José Ferrer for ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’. ‘The Magnificent Yankee’ remains an immensely enjoyable movie from start to finish, and thanks to a decent Warner Archive DVD release, this rather rare film can now be enjoyed by a much wider audience.

Calhern was also on top form that year, albeit on the other side of the law, in John Huston’s brilliant noir ‘The Asphalt Jungle’, as Marilyn Monroe’s sugar-daddy; Alonzo D. Emmerich, a double-crossing lawyer who ultimately commits suicide rather than face justice.

1952 saw Louis in the comedy anthology ‘We’re Not Married’, as the millionaire husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s gold-digging young bride. He was then a Colonel in a remake of the 1937 audience-pleaser ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ (’52), alongside Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. Another good role came in Joe Mankiewicz’s acclaimed 1953 adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, playing the title role alongside a brilliant cast, including Marlon Brando, James Mason, Deborah Kerr and Greer Garson.

After a small role in the 1954 William Holden drama ‘Executive Suit’, Louis co-starred in ‘The Student Prince’, with Edmund Gwenn and Ann Blyth. This was the movie in which Mario Lanza was famously dismissed from by MGM, over a dispute he had with the studio. 1955 saw Calhern as an aging teacher in the fashionable social-drama ‘The Blackboard Jungle’, and then lending gravitas to the much maligned Biblical epic ‘The Prodigal’, with Lana Turner and Edmund Purdom, (also ’55). In 1956 Louis played Uncle Willie in the MGM box-office smash ‘High Society’, alongside star trio; Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby.

Married and divorced four times, Louis Calhern died on May 12th 1956 in Japan, while filming ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ with Marlon Brando. He was 61. Prominent with a sometimes aristocratic manner, the talented Louis Calhern remains a much-lauded actor of high standing. Always watchable, his like we unfortunately just do not see anymore.

Favourite Movie: Heaven Can Wait
Favourite Performance: The Magnificent Yankee

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