March 17th, 2010

carole lombard 03
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Much more than a wizard

Carole Lombard made films with all sorts of actors, including those you usually don't associate with her. Take this photo, for instance:

Who's that with Lombard, in a still from the 1930 film "Fast And Loose"? Chances are you already know his identity, but just in case you don't, here's another shot of the guy...with his name:

Yep -- that's Frank Morgan, from the trailer for the 1938 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy operetta, "Sweethearts."

Morgan is as synonymous with classic-era MGM as the gates on Washington Boulevard, but "Fast And Loose" wasn't an MGM product, but a Paramount film. (Moreover, it was made in New York, not California.)

When "Fast And Loose" was filmed, Morgan was already a 14-year veteran of movies. He debuted in "The Suspect" under his real name, Frank Wupperman, then changed his surname to Morgan. He did quite a few films in the teens, then focused on stage work during the 1920s.

The arrival of sound films boosted Morgan's career, just as it did William Powell's; both owned voices that complemented their screen personas. You can find Morgan in early thirties movies such as "Laughter," with Nancy Carroll and Lombard's ill-fated close friend Diane Ellis, "Hallelujah I'm A Bum," "Bombshell" and "The Affairs Of Cellini," where he was nominated for best actor in 1934 but lost to Clark Gable.

By the mid-thirties, Morgan was firmly settled at MGM, providing invaluable support to its stable of stars and periodically playing leads in second features. Audiences liked him.

Unless your parents were film historians, chances are you first became acquainted with Morgan through his best-known film, "The Wizard Of Oz," a network TV event for decades.

These days it's nearly impossible to envision anyone other than Morgan as the Wizard/Professor Marvel, but truth be told he was not the first choice for the role. MGM wanted W.C. Fields for the part, and he certainly could have pulled it off (think of his Mr. Micawber in "David Copperfield"), although a Fields Wizard would likely have been infused with a tinge of his trademark misanthropy. But haggling over salary led MGM to hire Morgan, eventually making him a movie icon.

However, many consider "The Shop Around The Corner" (1940) to be Morgan's greatest performance, as his genial, textured tone flourishes under Ernst Lubitsch's direction and he works well with leads James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

At roughly this time, Morgan made two films with Gable, "Boom Town" and "Honky Tonk." Lombard regularly visited the sets of both movies, ostensibly to keep an eye on her husband, but one guesses she may also have discussed her earlier work with Morgan.

Morgan continued steady employment at MGM, where he had a lifetime contract. Unfortunately, that lifetime wasn't very long. He made two movies with Gable in 1949, "Any Number Can Play" (to be shown at 10:15 a.m. ET on Turner Classic Movies in the U.S.) and "Key To The City." Before the latter was released, and after he had begun work as Buffalo Bill Cody in "Annie Get Your Gun," he died of a heart attack in Beverly Hills at age 59...the same age his good friend Gable would only reach.

Morgan, a native New Yorker, is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. However, his endearing presence lives on for classic film fans, for whom he is always a treat.
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