A tribute to Hamilton MacFadden

Okay, you may ask with some justification, who is Hamilton MacFadden? Only one of those unsung lesser lights who made significant contributions to the golden era of Hollywood in the 1930s before fading from the scene, never realizing his name would spark renewed interest is some of the bigger names and films that have been preserved for showing in the digital age and beyond. How's that for an answer?

His major contribution was directing the movie that introduced the world to Shirley Temple, 1934's STAND UP AND CHEER, which ironically led to his departure from Fox Film as the studio's corporate structure simultaneously changed. For fans of the Charlie Chan detective series launched by Fox, MacFadden had a hand in developing the style and character of the soft-spoken Chinese-American sleuth by directing three of the series' first five features. In other projects, as noted by Anne Morra, Museum of Modern Art assistant film curator, MacFadden "had a particular eye and ear for for absurdity, irony and the kind of comedy we now associate with door-slamming British farces."*

Morra believes MacFadden's work is deserving of some reassessment, not an unreasonable request in that he was one of the studio's busiest and most consistent directors whose productions, while not classics of the period, were nevertheless popular and critical successes at the time of their release. It is worth mentioning that his three Charlie Chan films were more A-level features, carefully made and issued at one or two per year before the series went into mass production.

Born in Chelsea, Mass., on April 26, 1901, MacFadden abandoned an attempt at Harvard University Law School for a life in the theater. His move to New York resulted in his casting in the 1923 farce BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, which enjoyed a healthy run. But starting in 1925, MacFadden switched his energies from acting to producing, directing or designing several shows, providing him with enough of a vision that when Fox signed him as a contract director in 1929, his move into moviemaking was effortless. The flair for comedy mentioned by Morra made itself evident with his debut film for the studio, HARMONY AT HOME (1930) starring Marguerite Churchill, Rex Bell and Charlotte Henry.

MacFadden made three more productions when he was assigned to CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON (1931), the first of what became the "official" series from Fox featuring the adventures of Honolulu police detectice Charlie Chan, the hero of several novels by popular author Earl Derr Biggers. His work and that of star Warner Oland swiftly led to the filming of an earlier Chan story, 1929's THE BLACK CAMEL, which involved a location trip to Hawaii for MacFadden and most of his cast. CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON and a later entry directed by MacFadden, CHARLIE CHAN'S GREATEST CASE (1933), are lost along with two other early Chan movies, but THE BLACK CAMEL survivers, revealing a fortuitous blend of on-the-scene filming and effective storytelling thanks to a fidelity to the source novel.

Film scholars have praised the camera work and acting values found in THE BLACK CAMEL, in which MacFadden appears briefly at the beginning as a Hollywood director named Val Martino. The positive flow of the film was reflected on the set, as co-star Dorothy Revier recalled many years later: "It ran very smoothly -- everyone was cooperative and congenial -- both cast, crew, director and star."** Returning to Hollywood, MacFadden was assigned to a sound remake of Zane Grey's popular western RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE (1931) starring George O'Brien and Marguerite Churchill, which film historian Don Miller hailed as "a magnificent film for its day and still astonishingly impressive in the awesome beauty of (George) Schneidermann's photography of the scenics..."***

It was soon evident that MacFadden might not be a specialist, but applied himself to whatever project he was handed, which may have accounted for his longevity with Fox. Others, such as Hal Erskine, argue that MacFadden's movies were unimpressive and his stay at the studio was more a matter of production chief Winfield R. Sheehan's loyalty to his contractees. However, as Morra contends, "MacFadden might not be as well known as such Fox kinsmen as John Ford, Frank Borzage or Raoul Walsh, but his films were popular with critics and audiences alike."@

STAND UP AND CHEER, a feel-good musical starring Warner Baxter, James Dunn and Madge Evans, was a prime production entrusted to MacFadden who delivered "good entertainment" in the estimation of New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall, likening it to a modern-day Gilbert and Sullivan extravaganza. The film itself, produced by Sheehan from a story co-authored by Will Rogers, did not do as well as Fox hoped, although it made a star out of 6-year-old Temple, who was then rushed into more movies. Yet, its production and release occurred as Twentieth Century merged with Fox and the era of Darryl F. Zanuck as head production honcho was launched. Unfortuntely for MacFadden, that meant producers and directors from the Sheehan regime were ushered out to make way for new talent. Starting work on what would have been his fourth Chan movie, CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS (1935), MacFadden was replaced by Lewis Seiler after the first week of production and his contract terminated.

But with a good reputation to his credit, MacFadden continued to direct for such studios as Columbia and Universal, albeit with less frequency as a for-hire filmmaker. Yet his skill in putting together an entertaining piece of celluloid still held forth, as evidenced in SEA RACKETEERS (1937), an adventure yarn for Republic Pictures that starred Weldon Heyburn, former Fox contractee Warren Hymer (whom MacFadden directed in CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON) and future BLONDIE series star Penny Singleton. Despite more strained production circumstances given Republic's status a studio specializing in B westerns and serials, MacFadden gives the film a brisk pace and sincere performances from the leads, given his own background in acting.

In fact, with directing jobs getting sparse, MacFadden took up his old vocation again, playing credited and unbilled roles in several films, a fact not ignored by Fox, which cast him as a hotel desk clerk (but with credit) in CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO (1939), its second Chan entry with Sidney Toler in the lead, Oland having died in August 1938. The larger irony came two years later when the studio cast him in a somewhat more substantive role in Toler's CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO -- an uncredited remake of THE BLACK CAMEL that despite handsome production and Harry Lachman's impressive pictorial style, lacks all of the subtlety and mood of the original.

To his credit, MacFadden gets into the spirit of the thing as one of the suspects. After spending most of CHARLIE CHAN IN RIO getting belittled by Fox starlet Mary Beth Hughes as "an excuse for a man," MacFadden's somewhat nerdy character Bill Kellogg shines in the movie's final quarter. Noting that "amateur detective work is more or less a hobby of mine," Kellogg engages Charlie over his methods and offers a few compliments to the sleuth. As the climax approaches and Charlie prepares to reveal the murderer in the now-standard gathering of suspects, Kellogg admonishes mouthy Joan (Hughes) to be quiet. "You're watching a master at work," he adds. Much the same can be said for MacFadden's contributions to one of the most popular mystery film series of the '30s and '40s.

After making his last film in the director's chair in 1945, MacFadden drifted out of the Hollywood scene and died Jan. 1, 1977, in New York. His efforts as a filmmaker might have then been consigned to history, but the pleasure his movies have provided in sheer entertainment value are, as Morra pointed out, "indeed worthy of thoughtful rediscovery."

* Anne Morra, "Hamilton MacFadden, Who?" Inside/Out blog, Museum of Modern Art, April 16, 2015, retrieved Sept. 25, 2016.
** Quoted in Richard Bojarski, THE FILMS OF BELA LUGOSI, New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1992, p. 64.
*** Don Miller, HOLLYWOOD CORRAL, New York: Big Apple Books/Popular Library, 1976, p. 75.
@ Morra, "Hamilton MacFadden, Who?"


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