Friday, December 15, 2017

WHAT A CHARACTER! blogathon: John Alexander


Outspoken and Freckled, Once Upon a Screen, and Paula's Cinema Club host the What a Character! blogathon for the 6th year. The tributes run from December 15 to 17.  Day 1 entries  Day 2 entries  Day 3 entries



John Alexander
November 29, 1897 - July 13, 1982

You were distracted while watching a film and turned away to admonish or admire the cat, or check that pan loitering in the oven and you hear a voice. It is a full, rich baritone - a round voice, a pleasing voice - a voice in control of itself. You know that voice. Who is that? I know that guy! Where have I seen him before?


Kentucky born John Alexander set his path on the acting profession early, joining a Shakespeare repertory company and became a popular and regular performer on Broadway. His greatest stage success, with a huge impact on his career, came in 1941 with Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace, produced by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, and directed by Bretaigne Windust (Life With Father, The Hasty Heart, State of the Union...).


Teddy is ready to go to Panama. It is where he is building the canal. It's in the basement. 

Arsenic and Old Lace concerns the Brewster household in Brooklyn. The Brewsters are nuts! Aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) poison lonely old gentlemen in their spare time. Mortimer (Allyn Joslyn) is a theatre critic and, therefore, relatively sane and relatively crazy. Brother Jonathan (Boris Karloff) is a stone cold psychopath, and brother Teddy (John Alexander) believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt. Of the three boys only Teddy is harmless, just ask the producers skewered by Mortimer. 


Teddy is about to charge up San Juan Hill (the stairs).

Sadly, we did not see John Alexander in Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway despite its run of 1,444 performances. Luckily, we did see him in Frank Capra's movie version. The film was made in 1941 with Alexander, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair reprising their stage roles. Cary Grant took over Allyn Joslyn's role, and Boris Karloff's popularity on stage precluded the producer's letting him return to Hollywood for the gig. Raymond Massey was a fine, if less ironic choice. Arsenic and Old Lace is still a favourite play among community theatres, and a movie we gravitate to during October. The film was released in 1944, giving Broadway plenty of time to fill their coffers.



Jerome Cowan, Peter Whitney, Bette Davis, John Alexander, Robert Shayne
Mr. Skeffington

So, where else have we seen John Alexander? He is one of Fanny's besotted suitors, Jim Conderley, in 1944s Mr. Skeffington starring Bette Davis and Claude Rains. Released the same year, he plays an industrialist who falls for the wife of a fellow manufacturer in another Broadway hit transferred to the screen, The Doughgirls. Trust me, it is a good thing that he has stolen Irene Manning from John Ridgely, leaving Ridgely free to marry Ann Sheridan. It's complicated.



Mike Mazurki, John Alexander, Allyn Joslyn, Alexis Smith, Jack Benny
The Horn Blows at Midnight

John Alexander and Broadway brother Allyn Joslyn are adorably funny in the 1945 comedy/fantasy gem The Horn Blows at Midnight. Jack Benny is a musician who dreams he is an angel on a Heavenly mission who is being thwarted by the first and second trumpeters, Joslyn and Alexander. A midnight deadline looms large and a romance hangs in the balance. Great fun!



Dorothy McGuire, Ted Donaldson, John Alexander, Joan Blondell
James Dunn, Peggy Ann Garner
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

"I'm going out to get some strawberry ice cream and a rattle for my son. And what's more, my name ain't Bill. It's Steve, do you hear that? I'm a papa and my name's Steve."

John Alexander is perfect in a perfect movie, Elia Kazan's 1945 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The role is Steve, the milkman who marries Katie Nolan's flighty, yet loving sister Aunt Sissy played by Joan Blondell. Sissy calls her new husband "Bill" as her other husbands were Bill, but he's the best of them. He pays for their baby to be born in a hospital and becomes the man of the family.

The 1948 release Summer Holiday is a musical version of Ah, Wilderness. John Alexander plays Dave McComber, an uptight fellow who disapproves of his daughter's relationship with the lead character. The youngsters are played by Gloria DeHaven and Mickey Rooney. Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a dandy film which finds Alexander trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in a movie about the paranormal from a Cornell Woolrich novel and starring Edward G. Robinson.



John Alexander as Jack Riker
Winchester '73

Moving to 1950 we find John Alexander is on familiar ground as Teddy Roosevelt (!) in Fancy Pants, a remake of Ruggles of Red Gap starring Lucille Ball and Bob Hope. More favourites from 1950 include a fine bit for Alexander as Jack Riker who runs a way station in Anthony Mann's groundbreaking adult western Winchester '73. Riker is a seemingly easy-going proprietor, but don't push him.


Giving more than is on the page.
The Sleeping City

Richard Conte plays an undercover cop reporting to Alexander's Inspector Gordon, an intriguing character in the crime drama The Sleeping City. You can also look for John Alexander in a couple of George Cukor films, The Model and the Marriage Broker and The Marrying Kind.



Alexander returned to Broadway in the late 1940s replacing Paul Douglas as Harry Brock in Born Yesterday. Broadway productions in the 1950s include Hilda Crane, Ondine and A Visit to a Small Planet.

John Alexander dusted off Teddy's pith helmet for a televised version of Arsenic and Old Lace for the CBS series The Best of Broadway. Boris Karloff was Jonathan teamed with the movie version's Dr. Einstein, Peter Lorre. Aunts Abby and Martha were Helen Hayes and Billie Burke. Mortimer was played by Orson Bean, who would later work with Alexander on Broadway in Never Too Late. Edward Everett Horton revived a fondness for elderberry wine as Mr. Witherspoon.




A businessman encounters Toody and Muldoon
Car 54, Where Are You? - Put It in the Bank

We can find John Alexander on Classic TV including three guest appearances on two of Nat Hiken's programs, The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You? The New York City filming location of the television show fit into John Alexander's schedule at the time as he was appearing as the mayor in the it play Never Too Late. John Alexander retired from his long, eventful career after this role. In the film, the part was done by his A Tree Grows in Brooklyn co-star Lloyd Nolan.



Genevieve Hamper
September 8, 1888 - February 3, 1971

John Alexander joined the Robert B. Mantell and Genevieve Hamper Company in 1916. Genevieve was the fifth wife of tempestuous star Mantell (Great-uncle of Angela Lansbury), 34 years her senior and they were married from 1912 to his death in 1928. Tragically, their son, actor Robert Robert Jr. committed suicide at the age of 21.

John Alexander made his Broadway debut with the company as Solanio in The Merchant of Venice in 1917. John Alexander was married to Genevieve Hamper from either 1928 or 1931 (conflicting sources) to her death in 1971. 

John Alexander passed away at the age of 85 while attending a Board meeting of the Actor's Fund of American in 1982. Sadly, we never got the chance to see John Alexander on Broadway, but through our beloved classic films and television we can get to know the accomplished actor with the big talent, and great voice.










20 comments:

  1. My initial impression of John Alexander is of the memorable role of Teddy in ARSENIC & OLD LACE, as it's one of my all-time favorites. Learned so much more of this actor, thanks to your profile here. That's my favorite reason to host the WAC Blogathon. Thanks so much for another awesome WAC contribution, Paddy!

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    1. Thanks so much, Kellee. John Alexander owned Teddy!

      I'm so happy you ladies host this event. Always great reading by interesting folks about interesting folks.

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  2. Whoa! I had no idea John Alexander had such a prolific and varied career. I love his performance in "Winchester '73". Also, I had forgotten he was in "The Horn Blows at Midnight". Time to see that one again!

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    1. Jack always ribbing The Horn Blows at Midnight has given it a bad rep, but we know it is a very sweet a funny movie. I love the chance to see the original Mortimer and Teddy together on screen.

      After we leave Riker's place I always wonder about him in Winchester '73. Was he ok? Did he move? What happened?

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  3. I love this guy in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, Paddy. Never knew he had such a varied career probably because I wouldn't have recognized him without the mustache. :)

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    1. Now you'll start noticing him in all sorts of movies. I've always found it works that way.

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  4. That's funny, that he played TR for real in a different movie. Must have been stunt casting.

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    1. Indeed. I imagine the producer saying, "You know who we should get?" and having a chuckle.

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  5. If he has done nothing except ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, John Alexander would have been remembered for the one of the great comedic performances (he's my favorite part of the movie!). But as you showed, he was wonderful in many parts and had a long career.

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    1. It's true, and a great performance for which to be remembered.

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  6. Okay - I am giving you the "She Who Picks The Most Amazing Topics" award yet again. This was an awesome choice for the blogathon - a person we all recognize but don't really know - until now! As always, I bow to you, CW.

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    1. Thanks a lot! You have made my day.

      Many years ago I played Aunt Abby in a community theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace and since then I presume to have a special connection to the show and cast. As, I am sure, do all of the other zaftig gals who have had the privilege of pretending to poison lonely old men.

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  7. I admit to thinking John Alexander was someone else—go figure! But because I remember his turn as ‘Teddy’, I at least have an image now. Thanks to your post, I will most likely be able to recognize him next time he appears in a film I’m watching. I will pay special attention to his voice, too!

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    1. Years ago, I put on Winchester '73 as company while I languished on the couch with the flu. My eyes were closed. I heard Riker speak and something twigged in my brain. That's Teddy! No matter how many times I have seen both movies I hadn't made the connection until then. Norma Desmond was correct when she said "We had faces then", but there is something to be said for talkies and voices.

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  8. Count me among the enlightened as well, Paddy...I literally said, out loud, "Oh, I know this guy!" when I saw the still from A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. Thanks for this post!

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    1. Hooray! There's always that one role, isn't there? That role in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn really makes an impression.

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  9. Excellent, underrated actor! So good in Arsenic and Old Lace.

    Carol, The Old Hollywood Garden

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    1. He really makes Teddy a lovable fellow. A ray of sunshine, especially when Jonathan shows up!

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  10. It was only with your post that I realized that Teddy Roosevelt, oops, John Alexander is also in Winchester '53! Of course his role as nutty Teddy is my favorite, but now I see I've watched more movies with him than I was aware of!
    Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!

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    1. I was the same way. I didn't realize it was "Teddy" in Winchester '73 until one day his voice got to me and then I kicked myself. Suddenly he was everywhere.

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