2/11/21: Two Very Familiar Faces

By Fred Muenz

If you are a fan of movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, you will immediately recognize the two familiar character actors pictured above. Combined, they appeared in over three hundred films during their careers.

Standing only 5’6” tall, and weighing in at just 81 pounds, Donald Meek was doomed to be typecast as the mousy, browbeaten character his name implies. Born in Glasgow, Scotland in July, 1878, he dreamed, from an early age, of becoming a performer. At the age of eight, he was performing on stage with a pantomime troupe. By fourteen, he was performing with an acrobatic high-wire act. During a tour of the U.S., he sustained a serious injury in a fall, and had to quit the act. Deciding to stay in the U.S. after his six-month recovery, he devoted more time to acting, travelling with stock companies, and performing in New York. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, he joined the army and was assigned to the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment. He was wounded in action in Cuba and lost his hair after contracting Yellow Fever. During his time in the hospital in Cuba, he learned to “listen to the Yanks”, imitating the American manner of speech and losing his Scottish accent. After his discharge, he returned to acting and, in 1903, made his first Broadway appearance. In 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, he traveled north and joined the Canadian Army, serving as a corporal with the Canadian Highlanders. After the war, he returned to Broadway, where he spent the next decade appearing mostly in comical roles. His first movie appearance came in THE CLYDE MYSTERY (1931), the first of eleven two-reelers filmed at the Warner Brothers Eastern Vitaphone Studio in Brooklyn. In 1933, Donald and his wife moved to Hollywood. Moving from studio to studio, he quickly became one of the most sough-after character actors in Hollywood, with some parts being written for him. Donald Meek died of leukemia in November, 1946, unable to fulfill his dream of retiring to raise hybrid roses.

Born in May, 1882, James Gleason’s parents were both performers. In 1898, at the age of 16, he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Spanish-American War, and spent three years in the Philippines. Although he had made stage appearances as a small child with his parents, he didn’t seriously commit to life in the theater until after his Army discharge. He joined the stock company at the Liberty Theater in Oakland, California, which his parents were managing at the time. Over the following years, he travelled and performed in road shows, perfecting his craft. At the outbreak of World War I, he re-enlisted in the Army, and served until the end of the war. After his discharge from the army, he moved to New York and began acting, writing, directing, and producing on Broadway. His first film role came in POLLY OF THE FOLLIES (1922), starring Constance Talmadge.  He later appeared in and wrote dialogue for, THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929), winner of the second Academy Award for Best Picture. James and his wife, Lucille, soon found themselves contracted to Pathe Pictures, both of them to act and he to write screenplays in addition. During the 1930’s, he appeared in a series of six Hildegarde Withers mystery films, and seven films about the fictional Higgins family, in which his wife and son, Russell, also appeared. In 1941, he played a bartender in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1941), and the Frank Capra classic, MEET JOHN DOE (1941). He and Lucille were together again, playing a married couple, in THE CLOCK (1945), in which he plays a milk wagon driver who gives a lesson in marriage to Judy Garland and Robert Walker. In December, 1945, while he was serving in the Army, his son Russell fell from a hotel window to his death. Lucille died in 1947, and James followed his wife and son in April, 1945. He was 76.

LOOK FOR ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.

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