Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Born Today November 7: King Baggot



1879-1948

Famed silent film actor King Baggot was born William King Baggot on this day from St. Louis, MO.  His father, William, was an immigrant from Ireland and became a prominent real estate agent in the St. Louis area.  In his youth he went in big for sports at his Catholic school, worked for a time in Chicago for a family member and wound up playing semi-professional soccer back in St. Louis.  He also got involved in with a church amateur acting group, he found he liked acting and he was good at it, so he was able to join the secular Players Club of St. Louis, all the while continuing to work at a sports arena and in the family real estate business.  His love of acting, though, lead him to turn to it as a profession.  He was involved in several touring companies, including a Shakespearean troupe.  Eventually, one of the plays that he was acting in was booked onto Broadway and opened for a run in 1906.  This would put him into the geographical orbit of the earliest studios in the New York area--aware of the industry, most stage players were dismissive of motion pictures at the time at best (it was considered a lowly profession by real actors working in theater).  It would be another 3 years before he made his film debut; in the mean time, he returned to St. Louis and continued to act on the stage, including play that Cecil B. DeMille was involved with (either as a player or a producer or both) in an off-seasoning touring group.  Back in New York he met up with film director Harry Solter who was involved in Carl Laemmle's company at the time.  Solter convinced Baggot to accompany him to a film set, and, eventually convinced him to give it a try.  There is a bit of confusion as to which Solter film was actually his debut.  Baggot appeared in two romantic shorts of his in the year 1909.  While The Awakening of Bess is listed as his debut--and film that featured on George Loane Tucker in what was most likely his film debut; Baggot also appeared in Solter's Love's Stratagem in close time proximity to Awakening, so...one of the two marks his entrance into film history.  Both films were produced by Laemmle's Independent Motion Pictures Co. of America.  It doesn't seem that it took all that long for the film bug to bit Baggot in a big way.  This was also around the time when film actors were starting to get billing similar to theatrical productions; King Baggot is listed among the first actors to become a "movie star."  It didn't take long for him to become interested in all aspects of "the business."  By 1911, he had written his first film screenplay; known because it was made into a film that year as The Rose's Story (1911).  Between his debut and his appearing in his first penned film, he had made many, many shorts for Independent Motion Pictures.  Baggot made his directorial debut just the next year with The Power Of Conscience in 1912.  Just 3 years into the new motion picture industry and it's first studio system and Baggot was in for it all.  Not that he ever really left the stage.  He continued to act on the stage, mostly on Broadway, for the rest of his life.  Baggot remained a huge star in the 1910's appearing in mostly short, but very popular, films.  He did headline feature length films during this period as well.  Probably the most historically notable of these is Ivanhoe a 1913 Herbert Brennon film--it was a sensational film for the time, having been shot on location in the United Kingdom (his film Ansinthe, a lost Brennon directed title was also filmed on location in Europe).  Baggot, in fact, was so influential with his fame that he is basically regarded as the founder of the Screen Club in New York, a club dedicated for the first time just to and for people in the movie industry.  At this point he was certainly man about town!  In 1916, he made Half A Rogue which was produced by Universal Film; it appears this was his first film outside of Independent's production studio that he was an actor in under the direction of someone other than himself.  As a director, he had made a few films with Universal in 1914 and 1915.  He was still with Independent at the time, however as an actor through 1916.  After this point he became a kind of free agent.  With the 1920's dawning, he was basically as well known in the industry as a director as he was an actor.  In fact, he spent more time in the early 1920's in the director's chair than he did in front of the camera.  He didn't act at all in 1922.  As a director, he gave Marie Prevost her start in film.  He also directed Reginald Denny, Lillian Rich, and made Gladys Walton a star for a time.  He even directed Baby Peggy, who turned 99 this past October 29!  Up until 1925 he had been directing mostly under the Universal house; ib 1925 he broke out, starting his own production company called King Baggot Productions that was under the Universal umbrella.  The first film that he made under this arrangement was The Home Maker, a film starring Alice Joyce and Clive Brook.   That same year, he directed what is probably his best know and remembered film, a western about the Oklahoma gold rush entitled Tumbleweeds (this sometimes even appears on Amazon Prime).  By this time he was not really acting at all--he made an appearance in one film in 1923 (The Thrill Chaser), he then didn't often appear before the camera for the rest of the 1920's.  His directing took up all of his time; this came to an abrupt end in 1928, however, in 1928, with the last film he directed being the silent Romance Of A Rogue.  He would not direct a film with any sort of sound.  His life growing more difficult--having long since made the move from the east coast to west--he went back to acting in the 1930's.  He first real acting part since the early to mid 1920's came in a small part in the first talking picture that he worked on: Czar of Broadway (1930) directed by William James Craft.  Baggot was back working as an actor for Universal.  He worked prolifically as an actor all through the 1930's, picking back up more or less where he had left off ten years earlier.  He stage career meant that he there was no trouble with his plunging head long into all sound films, but his private life was starting to come apart.  He apparently had a drinking problem, so most of his roles were in small parts--very many of them went uncredited.  This would continue to be the case for the rest of his career.  His was living in very modest conditions in the mid-1940's and even made it into some gossip snippets--mostly by the biter of Hollywood herself, Hedda Hopper.  Baggot worked right up until a year before his death and barely missed a chance to work in the small, but growing field of television which was gaining popularity in the late 1940's.  His last film appearance came in a small role in the MGM film Good News in 1947.  King Baggot died on the 11th of July at the age of 68 from a stroke.  He is buried at Los Angeles' Calvary Cross. His only son became a cinematographer who died tragically while shooting a Disney film in Hawai'i, one of his sons, Stephen King Baggot, also became a cinematographer who shot movies for Cheech and Chong and Oliver Stone (he was also a reporter on the scene of the Sharon Tate murder site--one of a few that wound up having to testify at the Charles Manson's trial). 

King Baggot as Dr. Jekyll in the 1913 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde




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