Theatre yesterday and today



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Re-watching The Wizard of Oz the other night for the umpteenth time was, as always, a joyous experience. But on this particular occasion, I took a special interest in watching Frank Morgan, the Wizard himself, essay his five different roles (six, if you count the voice of the apparition that scares the Cowardly Lion so badly, he jumps out a plate glass window). Always one of my favorite actors, researching his life took me down Morgan’s own personal yellow brick road; one that resulted in his becoming one of the most beloved character actors in Hollywood. Here’s his story in this edition of “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

Frank Morgan (1890–1949) in full makeup including wig, false eyebrows and cheeks, as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1939).

Frank Morgan, “the Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was born Francis Philip Wuppermann on June 1, 1890 in New York City. His father, George, was born in Venezuela but grew up in Hamburg, Germany (he was of German and Spanish ancestry). A banker, he was living and working in Trinidad when he met his future wife, Josephine, herself the daughter of Commodore Joseph Wright Hancox, who operated a fleet of Hudson River boats before the Civil War. Shortly after their marriage, the couple left Trinidad for New York, where George had scored the sole rights to distribute Anostura Bitters in the U.S. and North America, the formula for which has kept it going to this day as a successful enterprise.

Thus, Morgan was born into a life of luxury as the youngest of eleven children. Sadly, three of his siblings died young; two as children and one brother, Carlos, a playwright and actor, at the age of thirty-two, while serving in the United States Army’s Corps. Initially deemed a suicide, it was discovered later that he had been murdered by a fellow soldier. A child soprano, Morgan attended Cornell University and was in its glee club, but he left there unsure of what do with his life taking on such jobs as door-to-door brush salesman, advertising and real estate. He even went out west to become a cowboy. As he once told an interviewer, “I had rugged-individualist ideas. I went cow punching on a ranch near Las Vegas, but I had to work my way home. That’s when Frank Wuppermann, hobo, became Frank Morgan, thespian, overnight.”

His older brother, Ralph, had already had some degree of success as an actor in New York (and was the one who came up with the stage name of Morgan), and Frank joined him there, quickly usurping Ralph with a flair for comedy that his older brother lacked. Cast first in vaudeville sketches, Morgan made his Broadway debut at the age of twenty-three in 1914 with A Woman Killed with Kindness/Granny Maumee, a double bill which opened and closed in a single night. It did not dissuade him.

Frank on the left and brother Ralph on the right, sporting similar mustaches and a keen resemblance.

During the ten-year period in New York from 1917–1927, Morgan went back and forth between more than a dozen plays on stage to as many silent films on screen, until talking pictures rendered them obsolete. But in 1930, his fortunes changed when he played the title role in Topaze, a French play by Marcel Pagnol, to great acclaim. The distinct musicality of his voice made him a natural for sound pictures, which is when Hollywood came calling. From then on, Morgan reveled in the Los Angeles sunshine and lucrative studio contracts that made him a much in-demand player. He came back to the theatre only twice: briefly in 1932 for the revue Hey Nonny Nonny!, and in 1931 for what is still considered one of the greatest musical revues of all-time, The Bandwagon. With music by the team of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (“Dancing in the Dark” was written for the show), Morgan co-starred with Fred and Adele Astaire, marking their final time together before Adele married a British Lord and retired from the stage, forcing Fred to go solo.

Sheet music from the 1931 musical revue The Bandwagon.

It was at MGM, the studio that boasted it had “more stars than there are in heaven,” where Morgan found the opportunities to play parts of a wide variety and range. Yes, he often resorted to a halting method of speech and a certain bumbling quality that followed him from role to role, but he was so much more than that. When certain characters required a bit of sensitivity or even pathos, Morgan was more than up to the challenge. His work in The Shop Around the Corner as Mr. Matuschek, the proprietor of a Hungarian leathergoods shop, and as an alcoholic telegraph operator during World War II in The Human Comedy, explore depths that showcase his exceptional talents.