The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors from the Silent Era to 1965 says Herbert Marshall “was best at playing unscrupulous men and cads, which meant it was very hard to warm up to him when he was supposed to be the hero.”
But the English movie star was a genuine hero who risked his life and lost a limb for his country in World War I. German fire mangled his right leg, necessitating amputation, “a fact not well known to many moviegoers because it was hardly noticeable on screen, as long as he wasn’t asked to do anything too physical,” the encyclopedia explains.
Born Herbert Brough Falcon Marshall in London in 1890, he died in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1966, apparently of a heart attack. Marshall was 75. He was “the very model of a Hollywood Briton in all the stereotypes from charming rake…to losing-but-noble lover,” according to his death notice in Time.
Marshall’s face was familiar to movie fans from the 1920s to the 1960s. He was in many British and American films, usually landing romantic leads and character roles in comedies and dramas. Marshall played opposite many famous female stars, including Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon and Sylvia Sidney.
He was also a veteran television and stage actor.
Marshall’s stage debut was in Brighton, England, in 1911, the encyclopedia said. World War I began three years later. He and fellow actors Ronald Coleman, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone joined the storied London Scottish Regiment, which battled the enemy in Belgium and France.
After he was fitted with a wooden prosthesis and discharged from the army, Marshall returned to the stage. He moved about so smoothly that audiences forgot, or didn’t know, that he had an artificial leg.
“He used a very deliberate square – shouldered and guided walk – largely unnoticeable – to cover up his disability,” Marshall’s Internet Movie Database (IMDb) biography said.
As his fame grew, Marshall was invited to appear on Broadway. Thus began a long career in which he traveled back and forth between America and England, performing on stage and later on screen.
His first movie was “Mumsie”, an English-made silent film released in 1927. His last film was “The Caretakers”, which was produced in Hollywood and premiered in 1963.
“His wonderful mellow baritone British accent rolled out with a minimum of mouth movement and a nonchalant ease that stood out as unique,” according to IMDb. “His rather blasé demeanor could take on various nuances – without overt emotion – to fit any role he played, whether sophisticated comedy or drama – and the accent fit just as well. He filled the range from romantic lead, with several sympathetic strangers thrown in, to dignified military officer to doctor to various degrees of villainy – his unemotional delivery meshing with the cold, impassive criminal character.”
Marshall was nearly 40 years old when he appeared in “The Letter”, his first Hollywood film. Released in 1929, the movie was “a worthwhile comparison (but for the primitive sound recording) with the more famous second version (“The Letter” (1940)) with Bette Davis,” IMDb said. “Marshall is the murder victim in 1929 and the betrayed husband in 1940.”
Over his career
He was a much sought star in the 1930s, sometimes appearing in five or six pictures each year, IMDb added.
“Perhaps his best suave comedic role was in “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), the first non-musical sound comedy by producer/director Ernst Lubitsch … That same year Marshall did one of his most warmly human romantic roles in the marvelously erotic “Blonde Venus” (1932) with the captivating Marlene Dietrich.”
In the 1940s, he played more character roles. His film career began to wind down in the 1950s, but “his voice was perfect to lend credence to some early sci-fi classics like Riders to the Stars (1954) and Gog (1954) and the The Fly (1958),” according to IMDb. “But he was also busy honing his considerable talent with various early TV playhouse programs. He also fit comfortably into episodic TV including a rare five episode run as a priest on “77 Sunset Strip” (1958). All told, Marshall graced nearly 100 movie and TV roles with an aplomb that remains a rich legacy.”
Berry Craig is a correspondent for O&P Business News.