Tuesday, October 7, 2014

O Canada Blogathon: ALEXANDER KNOX

Alexander Knox
1907 - 1995

Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy are the hosts of the O Canada Blogathon running from October 4 - 9.

Sharing the world's longest undefended border has given neighbours Canada and the United States a long history of sharing other things, especially people.  Entertainers, actors and singers have enjoyed plying their craft on both sides of the border in the legitimate theatre, vaudeville, movies and television for close to two centuries.

You might be surprised to learn that Oscar-nominated actor Alexander Knox is one of our nice Canadian boys.  If anything, you may have thought him a Brit due to his masterful elocution and long residence in England.  Of course, a major clue to Knox's Canadian roots would be that he played an American President on screen in 1944s Wilson.  Fellow Canucks Walter Huston and Raymond Massey had already played Abraham Lincoln in films.  Canadians make the best Americans.

Alexander Knox was born in Strathroy, Ontario on January 16, 1907.  Both his father and maternal grandfather were Presbyterian ministers.  At the age of 5, Knox's family settled in London, Ontario and eventually he would attend the University of Western Ontario in that city.  He worked at the local library and in factories to pay for his education which included elocution and journalism.  During his early school days he was praised for his public speaking.  The leading role in an amateur production of Hamlet led to an offer with the Milton Parsons repertory company in Boston.  However, this was  in 1929 when Wall Street laid its famous egg.  The theatre company was a victim of the crash and Knox took a newspaper job on the Boston Post and a return to Ontario and a night desk job on the London Advertiser.  These jobs funded a move to his hometown's namesake as Alexander Knox determined to make his name on the stage in England.

Knox made his West End debut in Smoky Cell by Edgar Wallace (Sanders of the River) directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man).  In the time between long-in-coming acting gigs he returned to writing for magazines and published a well reviewed novel set in Canada, Bride of Quietness.  He would later recall the work as "naive, enthusiastic and romantic".  During this period Knox taught mime at the Old Vic and as an actor with that company performed roles in Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello and was understudy to Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier.

Doris Nolan
1916 - 1998

At the start of the War, Knox registered for the draft in Canada and the United Kingdom, but was deemed 4F.  Canadian High Commissioner Vincent Massey enlisted Alexander Knox in a scheme for propaganda work which didn't pan out, but brought him to the United States.  Laurence Olivier tapped Knox to be the Friar in a production of Romeo and Juliet which toured the country and played briefly on Broadway.  When the production played San Francisco Alexander Knox was introduced to actress Doris Nolan appearing in that city in The Man Who Came to Dinner.  Classic movie fans will know Doris best as Julia Seton, the wrong girl for Johnny Case in 1938s Holiday.  Doris and Alexander were married on December 30, 1944, a marriage that lasted 50 years.  The best man was Alexander's motorcycle riding buddy, Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way) and the maid of honour was the bride's best friend actress Edith Atwater (The Body Snatcher).

Alexander Knox, Edward G. Robinson

Alexander Knox made an auspicious Hollywood film debut in 1941s The Sea Wolf as Humphrey Van Weyden.  Van Weyden's intellectual sparring with the crazed and tyrannical Wolf Larsen played by Edward G. Robinson makes for riveting and uncomfortable viewing.  One of the finest films of the decade.

Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox

Alexander Knox is chilling as the unrepentant Nazi Wilhelm Grimm in 1944s None Shall Escape, one of four films the actor made with director Andre De Toth.  Marsha Hunt gives one of the most outstanding performances of her career as a witness at the war crimes trial of her former sweetheart.  A look at world shaking atrocities through very personal stories.


1944 also brought the role for which Knox is most well-known, his Oscar nominated performance of President Woodrow Wilson in Wilson.  The film, written by Lamar Trotti and directed by Henry King, received 10 Oscar nominations in total, winning 5 of the coveted trophies for screenplay, cinematography, art direction, recording and editing.  In the best picture, director and actor categories the awards went to Going My Way.  Wilson is beautifully shot and with meticulous attention to period details.  Despite the turbulent times of Wilson's presidency, the movie is short on action and long on thoughtfulness. Knox's immersion into the role of such a well-known public figure is nothing short of brilliant.

Wanting a change of pace after such a serious role, Knox next teamed up with Irene Dunne at Columbia for Over 21.  Alexander Knox plays an older (39!) man overcome with patriotism who quits his newspaper job to join the army.  His screenwriter wife joins him and the change in lifestyle is played for sweetly romantic laughs.

Writing was still a huge part of Alexander Knox's life.  He published several essays in The Hollywood Quarterly throughout the 1940s on performing and performers.  Some of the essays have been collected and edited by Anthony Slide in Actors and Acting, Essays by Alexander Knox.  A devotee of choral singing, he also organized friends and colleagues into what they called The Beverly Bach and Boubon Society and even made a few recordings.  

Alexander Knox is credited as collaborating with Dudley Nichols and Mary McCarthy on the screenplay for 1946s Sister Kenny in which he co-starred with Rosalind Russell, who won the Golden Globe for the film.  1948 saw Knox as the obtuse Mallory St. Aubyn, besotted and dominated by wheelchair bound wife in Susan Peters (Random Harvest) return to the screen following a paralyzing accident in The Sign of the Ram.  Knox and director Boris Ingster (Stranger on the Third Floor) co-wrote the screenplay for 1949s The Judge Steps Out.  Judge Bailey leaves behind his staid Boston existence in search of himself and finds new life and romance with charming Ann Sothern (A Letter to Three Wives).  Hays Code ethics determine an ending that reunites the Judge with wife Frieda Inescourt (Pride and Prejudice) and duty, but this fan has an alternate version of events in mind.

Knox's second movie with Andre De Toth is 1951s Man in the Saddle, a western with a noirish tinge to the relationships of the leads Randolph Scott, Joan Leslie, Ellen Drew and Knox.  His next Columbia release, Paula in 1952 starring Loretta Young would be his last Hollywood film.  Apparently, co-founding the Committee for the First Amendment with Philip Dunne and John Huston, siding with Unions and speaking at a memorial for FDR could get a nice Canadian boy grey-listed.

Eddie Byrne, Alexander Knox

Alexander, wife Doris and son Andrew moved to England where theatre, film work and old friends awaited.  Audiences create their own relationship with actors.  While many would think of Wilson when Knox is mentioned, my sister Paula has been known to clasp her hands in reverence over The Divided Heart.  The 1954 drama from Ealing Studios was nominated for 5 BAFTA awards, winning 2 for actresses Yvonne Mitchell and Cornell Borchers.  The Divided Heart was acclaimed one of the Top Foreign Films by the National Board of Review.  Alexander Knox plays a judge whose task it is to determine the fate of a war orphan torn between his adopted parents and refugee mother.  A sensitive and memorable film that seems to have been lost over the years.

Perhaps you have enjoyed Alexander Knox in other films of this 1950s period.  On television I have caught The Night My Number Came Up (great title!), the Douglas Bader biopic Reach for the Sky, Chase a Crooked Shadow, produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., The Wreck of the Mary Deare and his last two with Andre De Toth Hidden Fear and The Two-Headed Spy.  Knox took the role of Father Godwin in Kirk Douglas' 1958 epic The Vikings.  It was the first movie backed with American money the actor had appeared in for several years.


The 1960s would bring The Longest Day, In the Cool of the Day, Woman of Straw, Khartoum, Modesty Blaise and How I Won the War.  Big titles in the 1970s include Gorky Park and Nicholas and Alexandra.  TV also provided opportunities for Alexander Knox, actor.  Look for both Mr. and Mrs. Knox guesting on The Saint - The Latin Touch episode from 1962.  Historical characterizations include John Foster Dulles in the 1979 TV film Suez and Henry Stimson in the mini-series Oppenheimer from 1980 and Churchill and the Generals in 1981.  A personal favourite of mine is the excellent 1979 mini series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

In the 1970s Knox published a series of novels set in the Canadian wilderness, Night of the White Bear, The Enemy I Kill, Raider's Moon and The Kidnapped Surgeon.  In what I find to be a charming touch of symmetry Alexander Knox's last screen appearance was in the Canadian feature 1985s Joshua Then and Now, based on Mordecai Richler's novel and directed by Ted Kotcheff.  Alexander Knox was 88 years old when he passed away in 1995 in Berwick-Upon-Tweed in Northumberland.  A creative and thoughtful professional, and one of those folks Canadians like to point to with pride as one of our own.



  1. Paddy, you had me at "Canadians make the best Americans" :-D I admit I had only known of Alexander Knox from seeing WILSON, but your warm and richly fond bio about Knox has me looking up more of his career and his talented wife as well! Thanks for giving me a new great character actor to enjoy!

    1. LOL. I figured Canadians making the best Americans would resonate with you.

      It's one of those kismet things. Alexander Knox will be popping up all over the place now that you'll be looking out for him.

  2. Such a nice choice, I've enjoyed him in many of these movies (Over 21 is a really fun one that people should check out) but never knew much of his life story, thanks for this great read and for being a part of the event. So happy with all this added recognition for our Canadians :)

    1. Thanks to you and Ruth for hosting the blogathon. I'd been thinking about doing a piece on Knox for a while, but it took you gals to give me the proper kick in the pants.

  3. I think you meant Canadian Raymond Massey played Lincoln, not Raymond Burr. Burr was a bit heavy for the part.

    1. Did I type "Burr"? I did type "Burr". I'm always thinking about Burr. I'm a big fan. However, I promise I do know the difference between the Raymonds. (Gee, people really read these.) I'll fix that right away.

  4. I did not know Alexander Knox was Canadian! (Shame on me.) Nor did I realize he was a prolific writer. Impressive!

    Thank you for including him in the blogathon. From now on, when I see him on screen, I'll nod and think, "He's one of us."

    1. The next time Alexander Knox shows up on TCM put the kettle on for tea and raise a toast. "One of us. One of us."

  5. I had no idea he had so many credits to his name. I did know he was from our beloved home country but not much more. I always associated him with characters full of knowledge and wisdom. He had such a nice way of speaking it seemed natural. My first recollection of him is as a kid watching him play Madero who Yul Brynner worships in Villa Rides. Nicely done.

    1. Thanks, Mike. Cool that you should remember the first time you saw A. Knox. I remember the whistling theme song, but little else of "Villa Rides".

  6. I didn't recogni Alexander's name, but his face was familiar... from The Sea Wolf and The Longest Day. Now I really want to see him in Wilson.
    Have you ever been to the Marie Dressler museum or film festival? I didn't find a lot of information about the event on the internet.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. So glad you stopped by.

      I haven't been to the film festival yet. Every year I plan to, but something always gets in the way.

  7. He's great in THE SEA WOLF, and more than holds his own with heavyweights like Robinson, Garfield and Lupino.

    My Alexander Knox moment came when I was younger, and one weekend I saw THE SEA WOLF, and a day later caught him in the 007 film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. He's the politician who orders the planes to stand down after you know who saves the day. I recognized him right away, and was absurdly pleased with myself. I've noticed him ever since.

    1. Kevin, I love that feeling of recognition. It is, as you say, absurd, but satisfying just like meeting up with an old friend.



Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...