Not of this World: Edward Everett Horton: Hollywood's first Gunkle.(Gay-Uncle)
Updated: Mar 21
Warning: Edward Everett Horton is a lot to type. So I sometimes call him Horton or E.E.H. The previous sentence has been a heads up.
Born in that cauldron of entertainment, Brooklyn, New York, Edward Everett Horton sprang forth on a sunny March 18, 1886, a Thursday as it was, a comedic genius arrived on the planet. A comic actor of genius. A master of the double take. The man who put the word "priss" in prissy. He possessed a voice and mysterious accent that gave no hint of his humble beginnings.
It is best to describe Horton's High School experience as uneventful as a student at the fabled Boy's High, amongst the first of those fables. That list includes such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Howard Cosell, Man Ray, Lawrence Tierney, and publisher of Screw Magazine, Al Goldstein. (I'll tag some more graduates at the end.)
He attended Oberlin in Ohio but was requested to leave after a childish prank involving some screaming and throwing a life-sized dummy from a roof. He then moved on to Columbia University, where he appeared in the Varsity Show of 1909. Rumors persist that youthful exuberance pushed Horton to utter improvised jokes that caused audience members to do more than blush. The University asked him to leave.
Thus unencumbered with the need to further educate himself, he was free to audition. The show-biz bug bit and bit hard, Horton turned pro in 1906, singing and dancing through various productions in Vaudeville and on Broadway. He soon found himself in a touring Gilbert and Sullivan troop which ultimately proved to be a bit of a grind. (There is a preponderance of overlapping stage roles to the degree that he may have appeared in three separate productions a week) In 1908, he joined the troupe of noted actor Louis Mann, from whom he learned all the basics of the theater: props, sound effects, stage management, and of course, acting. Until then, he danced, sang, and got by on Chutzpah alone.
Under the guidance of Louis Mann, Edward Everett Horton would perfect his inimitable stage persona in, A Fool There Was as the Husband. He replaced Robert (Handsome Bob) Hilliard, known more for his pleasing appearance than his skill on the boards. The play was designed specifically as "Ladies Entertainment." Without much to do but fret about his wife's shipboard flirtations, Horton would bring the house down nightly (with three matinees) with his overwrought, hysterical, and nervous Husband. Little miracles like this happen sometimes, and the play would survive the summer and close in the fall. A few years later, Theda Bara would play the wife in full Vamp mode in the play's cinematic adaptation, most famous for the inter-title, Kiss me, you fool. On the screen, the Husband part is reduced to a prereferral character.
Around this point in his youth, after his unexpected success on Broadway, his father encouraged him to utilize his middle name, Everett, to differentiate him from all the other Edward Hortons. (Who knew?) Edward Everett Horton decided to continue to tread the boards as an itinerant actor playing all the classic regional theaters nationwide whose names have faded from history. (For good reason, one might expect.) E.E.H. convinced his younger brother George Horton to be his manager for safety or companionship because neither one was making any money as they slowly performed their way west. Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan's loss would soon be Hollywood's gain.
The Horton Brothers landed in Los Angeles when Edward Everett agreed to join Thomas Wilkes's (I know, it's a famous theater name) theatrical troupe headquartered in the Majestic Theater. He both managed and acted at the Majestic, appearing in comedies over several seasons there. Louis Mann had trained Edward well and he occasionally stage-managed and took some of Wilkes's load upon his narrow shoulders. According to Variety, Horton would later take over production duties at the Hollywood Playhouse.
Note#1: About the Majestic Theater. Constructed initially as Asher Hamburger's Majestic Theatre. It opened its doors on November 23, 1908, with the Shubert brothers' (Sam, Lee, and Jacob J. Shubert of Syracuse, New York) production "The Land of Nod" starring Knox Wilson. (Knox, whose acting career is remembered as well as mine) Then Oliver Morosco got his mitts on it. Interior decorations were by Dutch artist Antoon Molkenboer. (you know I had to use that name. Antoon Molkenboer. That's a five-dollar name if there ever was one!) He came to prominence for painting the devastation of the Great San Francisco Earth Quake of 1906. He liked the cut of California's jib and worked around and about until he earned the commission to design the theater's murals and wall decorations. After making the drawings, he hired the artists, got the project rolling, returned to the land of his birth, Holland, and made a name for himself as a landscape painter. Never to return to California.
The Majestic's stage was 40ft wide and 80ft deep. The proscenium was 36ft wide. There was a cafe located in the basement. Actor Ramon Navarro was employed in his first job as an usher and occasionally had bit parts in the theatrical presentations. It became a full-time cinema in 1915, and a mighty Wurlitzer organ was installed in the foyer. Without a clear identity, let's say that The Majestic was fluid. It switched from films to stage shows several times and finally hit rock bottom as a burlesque house. It was closed in April 1933 and was demolished one month later, in May 1933, to become a parking lot. Antoon Molkenboer's art got reduced to so much rubble. (I love that name!)
Living as close to the movies as humanly possible, Edward Everett Horton would sign with the Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Studios in Hollywood. Another Brooklyn boy, John Bunny, Vitagraph's famous plus-sized comedian, recommended him to the producers. (They had appeared on Broadway in the perhaps justly forgotten, The Cheat. Edward Horton would be 36 Years-old when he made his screen debut in 1922 in Too Much Business. (Unfortunately, this nugget of Hollywood Gold is lost to the sands of time.) In quick succession, he made three more films for Vitagraph and then landed at Paramount for his first screen hit, the 1923 version of Ruggles of Red Gap. Of course, he played the butler, better remembered for Charles Laughton's performance as the gentlemen's gentleman won in a card game in the talkie.
Soon Edward Everett Horton would be under the support and guiding hands of legendary silent comedian Harold Lloyd. (Or, as I like to refer to him as the Tom Cruise of the 1920s) Horton appeared in around twenty silent films, about half crafted by Harold Lloyd. But there was a pandemic fast approaching called, Talkies 1929! Edward must have yearned to jump feet-first into talking pictures. The opportunity to use all the tricks he learned on stage and his distinctive voice was coming around the bend.
Note #2: Ben Model for Undercrank Productions, with the able assistance of the Library of Congress, restored eight of Horton's best silent comedies. Harold Lloyd produced all eight, and the DVD includes a bonus mini-documentary about the films. These are the best versions of the comedies that exist—highly recommended!
(That is an unpaid endorsement, and to my knowledge, I am the only person at It Came From Hollywood who has even seen these films.)
The Edward Everett Horton we all think of today jumps off the screen as a reporter in The Front Page (1931) He then has a run of Lubitsch films, beginning as one of Kay Francis' suitors in Trouble in Paradise (1932). He (sort-of) unsuccessfully courts Miriam Hopkins in Noel Coward's Design for Living (1933), One of my favorites. On the train to Paris, Miriam Hopkins, a red-hot momma, meets two charming fellows, a painter, Gary Cooper, and a writer, Frederic March. Something occurs, and they decide to become roommates. Platonically, of course. Their rule of cohabitation is NO SEX. Miriam becomes their muse, her theatrical sense turns the writer's play into a smash, and her art critique turns the painter into an important artist on the rise. When Frederick March leaves their platonic, Parisian love-nest and heads to London's West End for a production, Gary and Miriam wish him Toodle loo. Does Gary Cooper give Miriam Hopkins that "Look." She gives him her "Look," and they leave the room together so much for the "platonic" arrangement. You can't blame either of them. Both are gorgeous, and there is no Hollywood code to worry about yet. It's a scene where there are no doubts about what they will get up to in that other room. Whew!
When March returns after tremendous successes in London and New York to write his new play, he quickly realizes what's been happening.
After some bickering, he proposes a solution, much like Ben Affleck does in the film Chasing Amy. Miriam will not be shared! She is her own woman, and she storms out! Where does she end up? Into the arms of her best friend, Max, played by Edward Everett Horton! She helped him run his business before, and after they are reunited, she turns it into an even greater success. To solidify the company, Max and Miriam marry. Basically, Max, as played by Horton, is the kind of fellow more interested in money than women. Miriam blames two potted plants sent from Paris as to why she can't consummate the relationship. Max is highly fond of her, and the marriage will keep her as his business partner, so he agrees to wait until she is ready. You know, to do it. Unfortunately, the co-leads arrive from Paris, during a party for his business clients. Max catches them all in the primary bedroom laughing and whooping it up. A fight erupts, and she leaves for Paris with her two fellows. Oh Boy!
Note #3: I used the term Primary Bedroom. Because the words "Master-Bedroom" isn't used anymore. I always had questions about the term anyway, just what is this bedroom the master of? The other bedrooms? Is it the biggest bedroom? The toughest bedroom? (I live in New York City, where a three-bedroom apartment counts the walk-in closet as a bedroom.) All bedrooms are pretty small. I have no problem making the change. I only note it in case you were confused.
Next up, Horton Plays the Ambassador in The Merry Widow (1934). Finally, he appears as Fred Astaire's pal in The Gay Divorcee (1934), the first of three Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals he'd appear in during his bustling 1930s and where he would perfect his persona. Was it a persona or a character, or was he just playing a version of himself? Edward Everett Horton would appear in nearly 60 features between 1930 and 1940, including reprising the same part in a remake of the movie Holiday.
The remake of Holiday wasn't just of the film but an attempt by the studio to remake Horton. I don't think audiences bought it, even though the film was a hit and is considered a bit of a classic. This is what the New York Times said upon its release, In 1938. "Hailing a New Horton." The actor, the Times observed, had "developed a certain muliebrity (womanly) of manner which has caused certain of the more captious among filmgoers to accuse him of effeminacy... That's why it's all the more remarkable to find Edward Everett Horton, of all people, playing a straight college professor (in the film Holiday, ironically directed by George Cukor). Suddenly a new Horton is hatched, a Horton without a double-take-em to his name, without grimaces or mock shudders, a Horton with authentic dignity and, crowning wonder, a Horton married to a wife who respects his manly feelings." (I won't unpack that little quote. Not with a ten-foot pole. I think I need a gender studies degree or something.)
That's how it plays. He's perfectly believable as a married college professor. The voice is the same, but it's missing frisson, that thing that makes him so watchable. He proves he can butch up, but his natural tendencies are held back. He is acting, not being. He is believable but not remarkable. I think the remake of Holiday would have been greatly improved by letting E.E.H. do his thing or having William Demarest or Shemp Howard play the part. Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) follows the straight and narrow path, allowing E.E.H. to play a crooked archeologist. Almost a different kind of character, but it isn't a stretch or much of a departure from Edward Everett Horton.
For whatever reason, he made no films in 1940. He acted in some plays but nothing to speak of in Hollywood. A Time magazine profile from that year reported that Edward Everett Horton had his new film contracts drawn up to say he could not be compelled to play a married man, kiss a woman or have any children. I guess it took a year to swallow that one. He was in such demand that he never signed a long-term contract with any studio, allowing him the freedom to work where he was wanted and would therefore get the best deal. "It's not that I really need the money," he explained, "it's simply that I like money — lots of it.".
Anyway, remember Edward's brother George? The manager. Manage he does, and he has been joined in this endeavor by his younger brother, Winter Horton, and they are managing to buy up land around Encino. (You know where the movie Encino Man takes place?) On that expanding piece of property, he builds a large home. George Builds a large house for his young family. When their father dies, Edward moves his mother out of Brooklyn into his home, and the two brothers build a house for their sister, Hannabelle Grant, and her family. Finally, Win moves out of one of the bungalows and builds his own home.
In one of the other bungalows, all estates in Hollywood have bungalows. The more, the merrier. He installs F. Scott Fitzgerald, who attempts to finish "The Last Tycoon" there. The best part of this small neighborhood of Horton's is the name: Belleigh Acres. (get it? Belly Achers! Har! har!) According to The Los Angeles Times, E.E.H. added a room to his house each time he made a film. But that's just silly. He made 6.3 million movies. Is there a state big enough for a house that big? Besides, when the brothers got done buying up their portion of Encino, they had 22 acres, which in Los Angeles is enormous!
The Hortons also built a large house in Adirondack Park in New York State on the banks of Lake George. He used to visit the home when he wasn't working, which was rare, yet the house contained many beautiful things. E.E.H. was a serious collector of antiques and objets d'art. Most he claimed to have picked up while on the road as an actor. (This sounds like a History Channel program, right?) His collection was valued unofficially at the time of his death at close to $500,000.00 or, in today's money, $3,855,283.51!
By the early 1940s, writers were purposely setting up E.E.H. to do his thing, as in this scene from the Betty Grabel, Cesar Romero, John Payne, and Carmen Miranda musical, Springtime in the Rockies:
Dan Christy (John Payne): McTavish, how long have you been talking like the Encyclopedia Britannica?
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): Well, it all started with my Aunt Stefanie, sir. That is, it started with her will. It's become quite a burden, really.
Dan Christy (John Payne): Her will? Don't tell me she died and left you all her big words.
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): Well, it amounts to practically the same thing, sir. You see, when my Aunt Stefanie died, I was a freshman at Harvard and in her will, she stipulated that I was to receive an allowance of $10,000 a year as long as I remained in college.
Dan Christy (John Payne): Huh?
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): Yes. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. I've been going to school now for 20 years. I graduated last month.
Dan Christy (John Payne): Twenty years in one college?
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): Oh, no sir. No, sir. I have diplomas from five.
Dan Christy (John Payne): What are you doing tending bar?
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): Well, sir, I wanted to learn about life… and the present. For 20 years I've been shut up learning about the past.
Dan Christy (John Payne): McTavish, this begins to sound like a gag. You certainly look like a bartender.
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): [Looking very pleased] Really? Oh… Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you.
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): Oh well, sir, my whole life has been impossible. You see, I know everything.
Dan Christy (John Payne): Well, what's wrong with that?
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): Well, I confess. Though I am a master of romance languages, I'm scarcely a master of romance. Bachelor of Arts, yes, but awfully tired of being a bachelor.
And that last line is basically the key to E.E.H.'s magic.
Springtime in the Rockies is a very light (mediocre) rom-com with musical numbers. It also includes the possible romance between E.E.H., and Carmen Miranda is just as ridiculous as it sounds. Here's a taste:
Rosita Murphy (Carmen Miranda): When I first meet you, I think you are a little on the dumb bell side, you know.
McTavish (Edward Everett Horton): Not really? You know, I must say definitely, that I felt just the same way about you.
You can hear his voice when you try to get that last line to work. Horton makes the film.
Walter Bullock, a lyricist, added some musical dialog in the preceding scene written by these guys. He must have had an ear for dialogue because, somehow, he got nominated for two Academy Awards. Ken Englund, Wrote a gazillion light entertainments for Hollywood, two of his later films were Androcles and the Lion and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Jacques Théry was a communist, and you know what happened to them in Hollywood. But they grasped Edward Everett Horton as a character. He's intelligent, lonely, and nervous, and women scare him.
Edward Everett Horton was a dependable, solid character actor who never became a star but always had a job. He was a dedicated actor who lent authority and comic inventiveness to any role he took. He once said of his work in the movies. "I do the scavenger parts no one else wants, and I get well paid for it." E.E.H. appeared in over 150 feature films and over 100 radio and television appearances.
Since his debut with the Columbia University Drama Club, as a delicate little flower of a lass costumed in corset and wig, he was a surprising choice being a 6'2' baritone. He was proud of the craft of acting. He toured the summer circuit constantly, most notably in the four-character farce "Springtime for Henry," in which he played a prissy double‐taking Henry Dewlip, who always seemed in a dither. He first appeared in the play in 1939, at the Bucks County Playhouse, outside of Philadelphia. Through various revivals, he played the title role more than 3,000 times. He performed on Broadway at least a dozen times, the last time in 1963 at the age of 77 in A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to The Forum, as Erronius, the role Buster Keaton plays if you have only seen the film.
If you are of a certain age or a fan of animation, you may be familiar with The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. It was a classic children's entertainment that has added to our American cultural landscape. I know, and a couple of terrible movies. Like all great kid's programming, adults can enjoy it too. One of the segments, Fractured Fairy Tales, features the voice I keep mentioning throughout this piece. Yes, it's true, in the sunset of his years, along with summer stock, sitcoms, and hosting the Westminster dog show, Edward Everett Horton found time to voice the narration for a kids' show.
In one of his last interviews, I was reading through it and decided it was his exit interview. It was conducted by writers Bernard Rosenberg and Harry Silverstein in 1968 and/or 1969 and was published after his death from cancer in 1970. When asked about his age, "Nobody's older than I am." he responded, "Oh, a few people are, but they are not in circulation." When asked why he never married, Horton recalled, "No, I never married. However, I have not given up hope. This is Leap Year, you know."
In his obituary, the New York Times stated that Edward Everett Horton made an institution out of the Nervous Nellie character. I'm pretty sure he created the character, or if not, refined it to the point that no other practitioner is remembered for having played it before. Sure, some performers followed in his wake, Paule Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly, but they failed to engender the same affection from their audience.
Belleigh Acres was cut through by eminent domain to make way for the Ventura Freeway. Shortly after his death, the City of Los Angeles renamed the short stump of the Amestoy Avenue portion Edward Everett Horton Lane. Thanks, L.A.! Oh, lest I forget, they also named a bus stop for him in Burbank. Edward Everett Horton has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6427 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to the motion picture industry, right near the Hollywood Pacific Theater, a few yards from Carol Burnett's star, right where the food trucks line up for the dinner rush.
Boys High merged with Girls High, and recently the Boys High building was used as the exterior set for the Cinemax series the Knick. As uncomfortable as that series made you feel, do not take it out on the students. A few more famous grads are Shirley Chisholm, Congresswoman, and presidential candidate. Aaron Copland, composer. Rita Hayworth, actress. Lena Horne, singer, actress. Alan King, actor, and comedian. Norman Mailer, author, and Irving Thalberg, movie producer.
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