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.

WAC-banner-2013-green

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.

TCM Party presents NOIRVEMBER with Warner Archive Instant

In our classic movie corner of the world, the eleventh month of the year is not dedicated to family gatherings or special sales. Here we celebrate crime-laden streets, shadowy figures, and suspicious cops. This is Noirvember.

Micheline Cheirel and Dick Powell in CORNERED (1945)
Micheline Cheirel and Dick Powell in CORNERED (1945)

In celebration of all things noir, TCM Party is joining Warner Archive Instant for a series of tweet-a-longs in November. We’ve chosen favorite films noir from the Warner Archive Instant offerings.

Using the hashtags #TCMparty and #Noirvember, we will gather to watch and tweet along as follows (all times are Eastern):

Sunday, November 3 at noon – Guest host Aurora [@CitizenScreen] has chosen Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT (1952) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe.

Experiment Perilous-lowres

Tuesday, November 12 at 8 p.m.@TCMparty host Paula has chosen Jacques Tourneur’s EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944) starring Hedy Lamarr, George Brent and Paul Lukas.

Saturday, November 16, time TBD – Special guest host Karen [@TheDarkPages] has chosen Vincent Sherman’s THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950) starring Joan Crawford, David Brian, Steve Cochran and Kent Smith.

@TCMParty host Trevor has chosen three noirs:
Thursday, November 21 @ 8 p.m. – Jack Bernhard’s DECOY (1946) starring Jean Gillie, Edward Norris and Robert Armstrong.
Sunday, November 24 @ noon – Richard Fleischer’s ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950) starring Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens and William Talman.
Thursday, November 28 @ 8 p.m. – Edward Dmytryk’s CORNERED (1945) starring Dick Powell, Walter Slezak and Micheline Cheirel.

We hope everyone will want to participate, as it’s sure to be a fun, informative time. If you already subscribe to Warner Archive Instant, you’re all set. If you don’t, you can sign up for a free two-week trial here.

Either way, you need only be on Twitter at the scheduled time, use the correct hashtags, and wait for the host to signal, “START THE MOVIE,”  to enjoy online Noirvember.

We’re thrilled to be presenting these Warner Bros. film noirs as part of the excitement of #TCMparty, and hope this is the first of many collaborations between our enthusiastic film-loving community and the studio with deep dark noir roots.

Note that these Noirvember tweet-a-longs are in addition to the regular #TCMparty events, which follow along to scheduled programming on TCM (dates listed below). Please visit the TCM Party tumblr for more info.

Wednesday, November 6 @ 8 p.m. THE KILLERS (1946)
Wednesday, November 13 @ 8 p.m. GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957)
Tuesday, November 19 @ 8 p.m. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
Wednesday, November 27 @ 8 p.m. FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)