Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Born Today December 20: Charley Grapewin


Charles Ellsworth Grapewin, who his entire life went by "Charley," famous as the uncle in The Wizard of Oz (1939), was born today in Xenia, Ohio.  Not happy in his young home life, he ran away literally to join the circus--this was the beginning of the young man's road to playing perpetual "old man roles" in character parts in many well known films of the first decades of sound films.  His first specialty was work was in aerial acts and, in the capicity, wound up working for B. T. Barnum.  His circus work eventually led him into acting.  Coming from this background, his drift into vaudeville work was inevitable if he wished to further his acting skills.  Grapewin became a skit writer as a result, penning stage plays for himself.  There is some speculation as to how long Grapewin had been acting on stage before making his film debut in 1900, but at least two decades is a reasonable time period to speculate.  Grapewin is known for his appearance at the dawn of sound in the late 1920's, but he actually first acted on film in Chimmie Hicks and the Rum Omelet (1900). The film was a comedic short that employed slapstick elements borrowed directly from the vaudeville stage--it was an American Mutoscope & Biograph Production, shot at their studio facility in Manhattan.  The film features Anna Chance, Grapewin's actual wife (the two were married in 1896 and remained married until her death). Grapewin also appeared, as the character Chimmie Hicks, in Above The Limit (much more famoulsly known as Chimmie Hicks At The Races).  Both films were shot in 1900, but the later is often dated 1902, and both are drawn directly from his vaudeville act at the time.  Garpewin would not appear in another film until 1929.  Below is an embed of the second of the two film's from the Library of Congress. 

He spent the rest of the time in-between on the stage, making it as far as Broadway (again, conflicting accounts abound as to how many times Grapewin was actually on Broadway--he is credited in some sources as a one time performer, in others as a performer in 1903 Broadway production of Oz). Grapewin returned to film, along with his wife, in Jed's Vacation (1929), a comedic full sound short based on one of Grapewin's scenarios and produced by Christie Film Co.  In all, the couple appeared in four short sound comedies during the year (3 by Christie and one for Universal), before Grapewin moved on to a role in Universal's vaudeville "throw-back" comedy The Shannons of Broadway (1929)--a 65 minute full Western Electric Sound film (the film is lost as of this writing).  He would go on to have supporting roles in some the most well known films of the 1930's and 1940's, including The Wizard of Oz.  These include: The Libeled Lady (1936) with Jean Harlow & an all star cast, The Petrified Forest (1936) with Humphrey Bogart & Bette Davis, The Good Earth  (1937), A Family Affair (1937) with Lionel Barrymore, and  The Grapes Of Wrath (1940).  Grapewin was the star of Tobacco Road featuring Gene Tierney, which was directed by John Ford. He also made several appearances the Ellery Queen films of the early 1940's as Inspector Richard Queen--mostly to Ralph Bellamy's Ellery.  The last film that he appeared was as Grandpa Reed in When I Grow Up, a Bobby Driscoll film, in 1951.  Upon his retirement in the early 50's, he had amassed over 100 film appearances.  Grapewin died on the 2nd of February in 1956 from natural causes at the age of 86 in Corona, California.  He was cremated and interred with the ashes of his beloved first wife in the Columbarium of Inspiration (in the Great Mausoleum) at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

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