Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an actor's life for me *
George Desylli Zucco was born in Manchester, England the son of a Greek immigrant and a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. George was raised in London where his mother took her young family after the death of her husband. During his student years, George was an excellent mathematician and played on cricket and soccer teams. In his late teens, George emigrated to the Canadian prairies, eventually working as a clerk in Winnipeg where he pursued an interest in acting. He joined a touring repertory company and made his professional debut in Regina in 1908. By 1913 he had made his way to New York and was appearing in a Vaudeville sketched entitled The Suffragette
History intervened in the young actor's career and in 1914 George Zucco returned to England and joined the West Yorkshire Regiment, 7th Batallion. Private George Zucco was sent to the frontlines in France where his right arm was wounded, losing the use of two fingers. At war's end, Lieutenant Zucco returned to London and enrolled in the Royal Academy as a means of reviving his theatrical career.
The London stage kept the actor busy for the next decade, including a well-received turn in R.C. Sherriff's World War One drama Journey's End
directed by James Whale. During the play's run, George met and eventually married actress Stella Francis (1900-1999). George was 43 at the time and the 29-year-old actress required some convincing. Their marriage would endure for the next 30 years until George's passing in 1960. The couple would have one daughter, Frances (1931-1962).
George began appearing in films in 1931 and his final British film The Man Who Could Work Miracles
was released in 1936. By that time George was making an impression on Broadway as Benjamin Disraeli opposite Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina
. During the run of the play, George accepted an offer from MGM studios in Hollywood. He and Stella sold their home in England, moved to California, and he became a naturalized United States citizen.
George Zucco's Hollywood career would encompass 90 feature films. The talented actor's filmography is one that never bores the fan. From prestigious productions to poverty row quickies, the actor delights in a variety of roles and genres. Let's look at some of my favourites. First up is a slate of mysteries.
William Powell, George Zucco, Myrna Loy
The first sequel to The Thin Man
, aptly named After the Thin Man
, 1936 finds society detectives Nick and Nora Charles dealing with family dynamics and history following a New Year's Eve murder on their home turf of San Francisco. George Zucco plays alienist and expert witness Dr. Kammer. "Good heavens, I was right. The man is crazy
From the MGM B side of mysteries, we find the fast-paced and entertaining London by Night
, 1937. George Murphy is a newsman and Rita Johnson is a socialite who thinks it will be fun to track down a murderer in foggy London town. George Zucco is Inspector Jefferson, a professional investigator. George next shows up on the wrong side of the law and Captain Hugh Drummond in 1938 entry in the Paramount series, Arrest Bulldog Drummond
Phyllis Brooks, Sidney Toler, George Zucco
Charlie Chan in Honolulu
, 1938 introduced fans of the 20th Century Fox series to the new father/son team of Sidney Toler as Inspector Chan and Victor Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan. Passengers on a freighter are all murder suspects and Jimmy wants to prove to "Pop" that he can solve the case. You can ask for no more suspicious suspect than George Zucco as Dr. Cardigan. He skulks around the ship pretending to be hard of hearing, looking quite jaunty in a peak cap, and being far more mysterious than he ought.
Basil Rathbone, George Zucco
The following year George has one of his best roles, one for an actor to lick his chops over; Professor Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
, 1939 for 20th Century Fox. Adapted from William Gillette's play, the movie is a mash of plot lines and plot holes. Nonetheless, the atmosphere, the cast, and the production values are top-notch.
George Zucco, Henry Stephenson, Nigel Bruce
George Zucco as the nefarious professor is perfect in every way. His masterful arrogance and delight in using Holmes' own obsessive personality against him is a joy to behold. The fun the professor takes in his Sgt. Bullfinch disguise equals Holmes' glee in similar forays. The disdain with which Moriarty treats his underlings is befitting to their station be it teasing his butler Dawes played by Frank Dawson or threatening his criminal cohort Bassick played by Arthur Hohl. Moriarty's contempt is controlled but never less than dangerous.
Let's move into the realm of horror where George careened between budgets and scripts, always bringing a touch of class to the proceedings.
Tom Tyler, George Zucco
George plays Andoheb in The Mummy's Hand
, 1940 who becomes obsessed with the back-from-the-dead properties of tana leaves and the continued existence of the rampaging mummy, Kharis. Andoheb causes a lot of trouble and although he is shot at the end of this movie, shows up again in two of the three sequels for Universal, The Mummy's Tomb
, 1942 and The Mummy's Ghost
, 1944. That's what happens when you replace Eduardo Ciannelli as the High Priest of Karnak. Hey, it's a living!
George Zucco, George Zucco
Sam Newfield directed Dead Men Walk
, 1943 for PRC and his brother the producer Sigmund Neufeld. This movie gave George Zucco a dual role, which surely is on many actor's bucket list. Kindly Dr. Lloyd Clayton is beloved by all, except for the brother he murdered! Dr. Elwyn Clayton was a practitioner of the satanic arts who is now a vampire out to destroy his good-hearted twin. Dwight Frye as Zolarr helps his evil master in a plan to turn townsfolk against kindly Lloyd. At stake is the soul of the town and the life, not to mention romance of lovely Gayle Clayton played by Mary Carlisle and pragmatic (no imagination) Dr. David Bentley played by Nedrick Young. How will it all end? Will the powers of evil be defeated? What sacrifice must be made by our hero? I would have enjoyed a more prestigious production for George's kick at the twin can, but you can't have everything in this life -- or the next.
George Zucco, David Bruce
The Mad Ghoul
, 1943 for Universal finds George as a scientist experimenting with a nerve gas used by ancient Mayans. George is assisted by David Bruce in these experiments, but things get complicated when they both fall for Evelyn Ankers. Bruce becomes expendable and, believe it or not, a ghoul under the influence of the gas. They both become killers and grave robbers and, as in the best of film noir, neither gets the girl!
It's back to PRC for Fog Island
, 1945 where Zucco brings to an isolated island a group of folks who've done him wrong. Will anyone escape the booby traps of revenge? Lionel Atwill, Jerome Cowan, Veda Ann Borg, and Ian Keith are among the victims. Serves them right!
George Zucco, Lucille Ball
The 1947 crime picture Lured
, directed by Douglas Sirk is a special favourite of mine. Lucille Ball stars as Sandra Carpenter, a stranded American dancer in London who agrees to work undercover with Scotland Yard to ferret out the murderer of a friend.
The "Poet Killer" leaves clues to taunt the police and the trail our leading lady must follow is filled with adventure and romance, along with Joseph Calleia, Boris Karloff, Cedric Hardwicke, and Alan Mowbray. George Sanders is a prime suspect and prime romantic material. The Chief Inspector played by Charles Coburn gives one of the Yard's men, Officer Barrett played by George Zucco, the duty of keeping our undercover rookie safe.
Zucco is delightful as Officer Barrett and his chemistry with Lucy makes them a crimefighting team made in movie heaven. I enjoy Lured
most often on rainy weekends and I help but wish for more. How I would have loved a sequel or two with Lucy and George Zucco running around London solving crimes. Put the kettle on - it's time for the Sandra Carpenter Mysteries
and the spin-off, Officer Barrett: On the Job
George Zucco's last completed film role was for Henry King at Twentieth Century Fox in David and Bathsheba
, 1951. While at work on The Desert Fox
for Henry Hathaway, strange behavior on the part of the actor led to the diagnosis that he had suffered a severe stroke. After some time caring for George at home, Stella had to place him in the Monterey Sanitarium. He continued to recognize his family and dream of someday performing again. Pneumonia took George Zucco's life in 1960.
My imagination and the film work left by George Zucco makes me believe that it would have been a wonderful theatrical experience to have seen him do Shakespeare or see him in Journey's End
or Victoria Regina
. We must content ourselves with The Secret Garden
, The Black Swan
, and The First Legion
, and whatever other surprising treats our journey in classic movies will send our way.
Check it out:
Linda Christian, Johnny Weissmuller, George Zucco
George rocks the caftan in Tarzan and the Mermaids, 1948.
* Leigh Harline, Ned Washington
Sherlock Holmes and the Fabulous Faces, The Universal Pictures Repertory Company
by Michael A. Hoey - Bear Manor Media, 2011