A New Sybil's "WHO'Z DAT?"... FRANK McHUGH (May 23, 1898 - September 11, 1981)

FRANK McHUGH Collage.jpg

Darlings! Mummy has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great CHARACTER actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to post a weekly, special entry called SYBIL'S "WHO'Z DAT??"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place".......well, maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships"......I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think???.... well, while you’re reflecting on it, here’s a Dairlin’ man, as the Irish say… and wouldn’t you know him by his charmin’ laughter in every role he ever played, God bless’m. He’s Frank McHugh (May 23rd 1898 – September 11, 1981).

Born Francis Curray McHugh in Homestead, Pennsylvania of Irish descent, McHugh came from a theatrical family. McHugh made his debut in blackface at the age of 6 in FOR HER CHILDREN'S SAKE as a member of the McHugh Stock Company in Braddock, Pa., founded by his parents, Edward A. and Catherine McHugh. Performing onstage in Vaudeville with his older brother Matt and sister Kitty, he was a local star at ten years of age. Another brother, Ed, went on to become a stage manager and agent in New York. McHugh went to school in Pittsburgh and at the age of 17 left the family troupe and joined the Marguerite Bryant Players, of which Guy Kibbee was also a member, and became juvenile lead and stage manager at the Empire Theater in Pittsburgh. He graduated and went barnstorming through the Middle West and New England and playing on the Keith and Orpheum circuits. McHugh made his Broadway debut in THE FALL GUY, written by George Abbott and James Gleason in 1925 and featuring Ernest Truex. The following year he went to London with James Gleason and Robert Armstrong to appear in the prize-fight comedy IS ZAT SO? In 1928 he married Dorothy Spencer, an actress, and returned to Broadway in FOG, which was soon followed by his first real Broadway success as a reformed pickpocket in TENTH AVENUE. The following year he appeared in EXCESS BAGGAGE, which he considered his ''best New York role.'', (but it was his last Broadway appearance until 1963 when he appeared as Senex, the henpecked husband in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.)

When his family quit the stage in 1930, First National Pictures hired him as a contract player. But very soon after, he was picked up by Warner Brothers where he performed in over 150 pictures. Even in horror films, he could be counted on for his signature smart-alecky, wise guy, Brooklynese humor as in THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) costarring fellow smart-aleck Glenda Farrell, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Though McHugh got a few star parts, more often he supported stars James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. He was immensely popular with his fellow actors. Irish-Americans McHugh, Cagney, O’Brien and Spencer Tracy were close friends and the core members of a group known as, “The Irish Mafia,” known for its drinking and carousing prowess which also included Allen Jenkins, Ralph Bellamy, Lynne Overman, and Frank Morgan.  Over the course of his extraordinary career he quickly became one of Warner Brothers’ most reliable supporting players. His diminutive stature, sunny face, comic timing, appealing manner, and signature “Hah, Hah, Hah” sing-song laugh made him a beloved character actor, very popular in his day. McHugh’s films include THE FRONT PAGE (1931), GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 (1935), A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM (1935), FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938), THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), GOING MY WAY (1944), MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949), and THE LAST HURRAH (1958). He had the distinction of being cast repeatedly in Oscar nominated and winning films.

Although McHugh played everything from lead actor to sidekick, he was most often remembered for providing comedy relief. He worked with almost every major star at Warner Brothers, was a close life-long friend of James Cagney, and appeared in more Cagney movies than any other actor, notably in eleven films between 1932 and 1953 including crime dramas and even musicals. Their friendship lasted until McHugh's death. Like many of his fellow stars, he was a keen supporter in the 1940s of the war effort. In 1942, just a few months after Pearl Harbor, McHugh was a core member of the Hollywood Victory Caravan. At the request of the War Activities Committee, a crew of 21 stars traveled across the US by train, performing in several cities over the course of three weeks to raise money for the Army and Navy Relief Fund. The dazzling line-up of stars, headed by Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Cary Grant featured the talents of some of Hollywood’s biggest names. McHugh and his Irish Mafia pals James Cagney and Pat O’Brien were on board, along with Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Merle Oberon, Rise Stevens, Eleanor Powell, Laurel and Hardy, Bert Lahr, Charlotte Greenwood, Olivia de Havilland, Desi Arnaz, and Groucho Marx. The show they performed was a musical revue, put together by Mark Sandrich (a director known for the Astaire/Rogers musicals) and Alfred Newman (20th Century Fox’s house musical director and composer) with contributions from several top screen and songwriters. Everywhere the Caravan went, it was greeted by cheering crowds, and its stop in Washington D.C. included a trip to the White House, where the stars were greeted and thanked by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. After the tour, photographer Gene Lester compiled a booklet of 30 photographs from the tour for the participants. McHugh’s copy is archived in the New York Public Library’s Hollywood collection. This amazing resource is a mix of posed publicity shots and candids of the stars hanging out backstage, at meals or on the train. Many of the stars including McHugh recalled the Hollywood Victory Caravan as one of the most incredible, memorable, and rewarding experiences of their lives. After the tour ended, McHugh’s dedication to helping the war effort was not over. He went back out on tour again in England in August and September of 1942, appearing in the American Variety Show with Al Jolson, Patricia Morrison, Allen Jenkins, and again with Merle Oberon.

Two years later, McHugh came back to Europe with his own show. He designed and starred in “McHugh’s Revue” which toured France, Holland, Belgium and Germany in November and December of 1944. The show was actually in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. This USO show featured McHugh, four beautiful girls (actresses Mary Brian, June Clyde, Charlotte Greer and Nina Nova) and a piano-player (Eddie Eisman), touring the front line, meeting, and entertaining the troops. The McHugh Papers include many accounts of the tour. 

Here is McHugh’s own account of traveling to Europe in the company of servicemen:"Getting acquainted with my companions was something that I looked forward to with great apprehension. They were all so many years my junior that I suddenly felt very old and very far away from them. But I was mistaken — I have never met a bunch of young fellows that were so good humored, agreeable and easy to get along with. I’ll always remember them and wonder what their individual careers were in the army.”

The November 4, 1944 editions of the Special Service Publication, Trans Quips, described meeting up with McHugh for an interview:

“I found him and June Clyde talking to a bunch of G.I.s, looking at the pictures of their girls, cracking jokes and signing autographs. He talked to the men about their hometowns, and Frank really knows the hometown of almost everybody on board… He did shows in all the big towns and cities in the States.” 

Frank McHugh’s career and war effort activities were preserved in his personal papers including a trove of interesting letters, photographs, and publicity materials on all the USO tours he participated in during World War II. They are currently held in the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library.

In 1944, he was memorably cast as Father Timothy O'Dowd in the Bing Crosby film, GOING MY WAY. which won several Oscars including Best Film and Best Actor for Crosby. (Interestingly, McHugh later played William Jennings Depew in the 1962 episode "Keep an Eye on Santa Claus" in the ABC television series, GOING MY WAY starring Gene Kelly, and loosely based on the earlier film.) The remainder of the 1940s were a good time for his film career, but like a lot of Hollywood actors in the 50’s when film roles started getting scarce Frank moved to radio and television. From 1954 to 1956, Frank appeared in the radio serial “Hotel for Pets” where he played a former mail carrier who ran an animal shelter. The series was sponsored by Puss ‘n Boots cat food. He made sporadic appearances in various television cameos through the 1950s.

 From 1964-65, he played Willie Walters, a live-in handyman in the 27-episode ABC sitcom The Bing Crosby Show, which reunited him once again onscreen with Bing Crosby. The show also co-starred Beverly Garland. McHugh's last feature film role was as a comical "sea captain" in the 1967 Elvis Presley caper film EASY COME, EASY GO. He returned to Broadway again in 1967 to star in a revival of  FINIAN'S RAINBOW by the New York City Light Opera Company.

McHugh's last television appearance was as handyman Charlie Wingate in "The Fix-It Man", an episode of CBS’ LANCER western series, which starred Andrew Duggan. He finally retired from show business in 1969. McHugh died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut on September 11, 1981 at the age of 83. He was survived by his wife Dorothy Spencer, three children, and two grandchildren. His brother Matt McHugh and sister Kitty McHugh whom he had first appeared with in Vaudeville were also actors in many films. Summing up his style and appeal, McHugh once said, “I never act in the movies. All I ever do in a picture is to be myself and let the cameras grind on.'' 

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