Frank McHugh’s Most Important Role

Frank McHugh was perhaps the epitome of a reliable supporting player. You know this guy — you might not know his name, but you know his face.

frank-mchugh-headshotAs a Warner Brother contract player in the ‘30s and ‘40s, no one backstopped stars like Bing Crosby, William Powell, and James Cagney better than McHugh. He was an expert at sheepish expressions, jittery laughs, and screwball action, usually serving as comic relief and providing larcenous or romantic complications when required.

McHugh was born into a stage family on May 23, 1898, and appeared in vaudeville with his siblings Matt and Kitty by the age of 10. Drawn from his stage career by the arrival of talkies, he arrived in Hollywood in 1930, signed with Warner Brothers almost immediately, and appeared in nearly 90 films in his first 10 years with the studio.

He was also known as a central member of the Irish Mafia, the tight-knit group of Irish-American actors that included Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy, Allen Jenkins, Frank Morgan, and Ralph Bellamy. They preferred to be known as the “Boys’ Club,” and Morgan and Bellamy were actually of German and English/French descent respectively, but these real-life ties translated well onscreen. McHugh and Cagney, for instance, appeared together in 12 pictures; McHugh and O’Brien in 11.

Frank McHugh and James Cagney bottle a little fun in THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939).

Frank McHugh and James Cagney bottle a little fun in THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939).

What you may not know about McHugh is the valuable real-life part he played during World War II.

Like many in Hollywood, he enthusiastically supported the war effort, and joined the Hollywood Victory Caravan in May 1942. This show traveled the United States, featuring performances by the biggest stars, with the ticket proceeds going the Army and Navy Relief Fund.

The star-studded Hollywood Caravan

The star-studded Hollywood Victory Caravan at a stop in Minnesota

Mark Sandrich, director of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, and Alfred Newman, Twentieth Century Fox’s musical director, organized the Caravan as a musical revue. It featured, at various times, Crosby, Cagney, O’Brien, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Charles Coburn, Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Eleanor Powell, Desi Arnaz, Bert Lahr, and Groucho Marx, along with McHugh (leaning forward in the top row above). In August and September of the same year, he went to England with a USO tour, the American Variety Show.

After those tours, McHugh continued his war efforts, producing his own show and taking it to the troops in Europe two years later. In November and December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, “McHugh’s Revue” toured the front lines in Belgium, France, Holland, and Germany.

McHugh loved meeting and chatting with the servicemen, and the feeling was mutual. He received a citation from the Army, in which General Raymond S. McLain referred to the Revue as “an oasis in this desert of hardship and suffering….Your show was sparkling, and left a refreshing atmosphere in the spirit of many battle weary soldiers.” This certainly was McHugh’s most important, and possibly most loved, supporting role.

Many materials related to McHugh’s wartime activities, including his own account of McHugh’s Revue, are preserved in the Frank McHugh Papers at the New York Public Library, which I hope to see someday.

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This post is part of the 2013 What A Character! blogathon, co-hosted by myself, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. Be sure and check out all the Saturday posts.

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26 responses to “Frank McHugh’s Most Important Role

  1. Pingback: WHAT A CHARACTER! blogathon Schedule « Once upon a screen…·

    • Happy to hear it, he’s in so many movies like that. For many years I mistook him for Allen Jenkins some of the time. Not any more :)

  2. He was such a fun and lovable character. His unique laugh always makes me chuckle. (Of course I may be a bit biased being an Irish American myself- lol) Loved how he was a good guy in real life, too. Great post, Paula!

    • I can’t say too much, half Irish myself. I would have liked to have known him….truly a character, in the best way :) Thanks, Kellee.

  3. Hi, Paula:

    Frank McHugh always struck me as “the best friend” and “Sturdy right hand man” opposite countless cinema greats!

    Expert timing and near flawless delivery that caused a laugh or giggle. And could change the course of a discussion or argument in mid stream.

    A wonderful place to start if you’re interested in the value of stage and vaudeville before film.

    Excellent catch and dissertation!

    • Hi Jack, thanks very much. I agree, McHugh could get a laugh just from a facial expression. I do want to learn more about vaudeville, so many of the greatest actors, character and otherwise, seemed to get their start there.

  4. Fascinating! I hadn’t known about McHugh’s sterling work during the war and it’s very impressive. What a guy! Cagney wrote in his autobiography about Frank’s ability to take those nothing roles from Warner Bros. and turn them into the heart and soul of the films. Sounds like the man was an all around wonderful fellow.

    • I think he must have been :) I’ve been meaning to get a hold of Cagney’s book, he was on point with that assessment. Thanks Patricia.

  5. Two things I do as a movie geek, that annoy my friends: my Andy Devine impression, and McHugh’s laugh. :) well just to name two, anyway. Great post, thanks for the event too! so enjoyable

  6. Wonderful actor! I’m so loving learning all these new-to-me facts about these great people! Great choice and write-up, Paula!

    Aurora

  7. Every time I think of Frank McHugh I can’t help but think of him as Windy in Mighty Joe Young. He was such a great actor, and he always seemed to be enjoying what he was doing! I’m not surprised at all by his service to the armed forces. He always seemed like a wonderful guy.

    • I agree Terry, I wasn’t really surprised either…he’s one of those Old Hollywood people I’d love to have a drink with.

  8. Neat angle to take on McHugh right around Veteran’s Day, really enjoyed it! Not the greatest movie in the world, but Frank McHugh fans should try to check out He Couldn’t Say No (1938) when it airs on TCM — Frank is the lead, so we get our money’s worth with all Frank, all the time! Ever since I first noticed brother Matt in Street Scene I always think of him as the evil version of Frank. Thanks for the post on one of my all-time favorites!

    • You’re welcome and thanks, Cliff. I’ve not seen He Couldn’t Say No, so I’ll keep an eye out for it. I always knew Frank could carry a picture himself…more evidence that these character actors had the stellar talent to play any role, including leads.

  9. I really enjoyed him with Cagney in The Fighting 69th and Footlight Parade. He also did The Irish In Us with Jimmy, a hidden gem IMO.

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