Sunday, December 16, 2018

George Bancroft: What a Star, What a Character!

Big, blustery George Bancroft was in his mid-40s when he became a film star, breaking out in 1927 with a linchpin performance as mob boss "Bull Weed" in Underworld, Josef von Sternberg's prototypical gangster film. Bancroft was third-billed under dependably wooden Clive Brook, fluttery leading lady Evelyn Brent, and he stole the show with his powerhouse portrayal of a hoodlum with a heart.

Bancroft would team with von Sternberg again in 1928 for another of the director's great silent classics, The Docks of New York, and become Paramount Pictures' top star. He followed with the titular role in The Wolf of Wall Street (1929), a title that would be appropriated many decades later by a New York stock trader as his nickname, the title of his memoir and Martin Scorsese's 2013 film adaptation. Bancroft's next film would take him to the peak of his career as a lead actor when, in 1930, he earned a Best Actor nomination in the second year of the Academy Awards for his star turn in Thunderbolt (1929). This would be his third and final film with Josef von Sternberg, who then moved on to discover and mentor Marlene Dietrich.

George Bancroft as rough-hewn Bill Roberts, stoker on a tramp steamer, in The Docks of New York:

We catch just a momentary glimpse of Bancroft in his Oscar-nominated performance as vengeful criminal "Thunderbolt" Jim Lang in this brief clip from Thunderbolt. The scene is set in Harlem and the singer is Theresa Harris:

According to existent reports, all of this success dramatically swelled the head of the popular actor and he became a handful on the Paramount lot. John Cromwell, who directed Bancroft on four films following Thunderbolt, three of them in succession, "...discovered a lot about George very almost immediately encountered this terrific ego."

Among the amusing tales of Bancroft's inflated self-regard during his superstar phase is this one: When he found out studio head B.P. Schulberg and his wife were taking a European vacation (Bancroft being a chief reason his boss wanted to get away) he insisted that he and his wife join them. At the time, sound was coming in and Bancroft's contract with Paramount was coming up for negotiation. So, while they were in Germany, Schulberg decided to make a point that he hoped would sway the terms of Bancroft's contract in the studio's favor. "You see, George," he told the actor, "we lose all this business in Germany because you don't speak German - and they don't understand English." The actor considered this. "Well..." he replied, "when they know it's Bancroft, they'll learn English!" Another story tells of the actor refusing his director's order that he fall to the ground when shot by a villain. According to the anecdote, Bancroft argued, "One bullet can't kill Bancroft!"

Cromwell attributed Bancroft's basic confidence in himself as an actor to his stage background and the fact that he had "an excellent voice - wonderful voice - and knew pretty well how to use it." This was especially meaningful at a time when many of those without theater experience or voice training were losing their careers as sound took over. But the actor was pushing 50 as the 1930s arrived, and so, as Marlene Dietrich's star rose at the studio, his run as Paramount's most important onscreen asset would shortly come to an end. He would be top-billed in eight more films through 1932, but in only two from 1933 - 1936. Then his late career stint as a character actor would shift into gear, and it would begin with a perfectly juicy role in one of Frank Capra's best, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936/Columbia). Bancroft would be third-billed as "MacWade," Jean Arthur's garrulous newspaper editor...

There would be two more leading roles in George Bancroft's filmography, but both were in second-tier programmers, A Doctor's Diary (1937) for Paramount, in which he portrayed the title MD, and Racketeers in Exile (1937) for Columbia, as a criminal-turned-evangelist.

Bancroft would fare better in his next outing, John Ford's Submarine Patrol (1938/20th Century Fox), an action/drama set during World War I. Though minor Ford, it provided Bancroft with a plum supporting role as a rough and tumble sea captain/father of the leading lady - and it gave him the opportunity to work with and make an impression on the great director.

Then came Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces (1938/Warner Bros.), and Bancroft would once more play a crook, this time contending with hoodlum-on-the-rise James Cagney (and a somewhat less-than-tough Humphrey Bogart):

My favorite of George Bancroft's character roles is "Marshal Curley Wilcox" in one of the best of all Westerns, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939/Walter Wanger/United Artists). Bancroft could not have been in better company; there are more than a few fine character parts and players in this classic (Mitchell, Carradine, Devine), not to mention John Wayne in the break-out performance that launched his stardom, and an incandescent Claire Trevor. As "Curley," Bancroft is riding shotgun next to Andy Devine when John Wayne makes his iconic entrance as "The Ringo Kid."

Bancroft's "Curley" is a slightly softened rendition of the actor's specialty, the larger-than-life dynamo. A big lug, he's a gruff take-charge, no-nonsense lawman and also a stand-up guy with a good heart and an occasional kindly word or two. Bancroft was well cast as the fellow in charge of the harrowing journey - and it turned out that he was also a great foil for Andy Devine's scatter-brained dizziness.

He would work for three more years and make several more films for a variety of directors and studios, including an MGM vehicle for Mickey Rooney as Young Tom Edison (1940), wherein Bancroft played Tom's dad. His name would never fall too far down in the credits, but the "A" pictures would become fewer as time passed.

In 1942, after 20 years in the movies, George Bancroft, age 60, retired from acting to tend his 48 acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley. It is said he retired a millionaire.

Frank Capra, George Bancroft and Jean Arthur on the set of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
American Classic Screen Profiles, edited by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh (Scarecrow Press, 2010)
Fun in a Chinese Laundry by Josef von Sternberg (MacMillan, 1965)


This is my entry in the 7th annual What a Character! blogathon hosted by Outspoken and Freckled (where you'll find links to Day 1 blog posts), Once Upon a Screen (with links to Day 2 blog posts), and Paula's Cinema Club (with links to Day 3 blog posts).


  1. A fantastic actor who had strong presence. Thanks for a fantastic post! Best regards, Paul from Silver Screen Classics

  2. Great tribute to one of those actors who graced many a good movie without ever landing a star-making role. I remember him best from MR. DEEDS and, of course, STAGECOACH.

    1. Thanks! Since his star-making role came in the silent era, he was fortunate he had what it took to transition into a solid character actor and work for another 10 years after his lead roles came to an end. Mr. Deeds and Stagecoach were his best character parts, I think.

  3. We (myself, the daughter, and one of the sisters) saw Docks of New York last Sunday at the theatre. It was my second time seeing it in such a venue. The entire film, and Bancroft make quite an impression. Last year the Silent Revue shows Underworld. You may have guessed that Toronto is a swell movie town.

    Bancroft is another of those actors whose career I caught backwards, seeing those silent leads later than the great character bits. I imagine stardom gets to most people. Those stories were very funny.

    1. I live very close to a swell movie town, too, and can appreciate all the movie-watching goodies that come with that. I haven't seen the von Sternberg silents on the big screen as yet, but still hope to have the chance.

      There were several very funny stories about Bancroft when he was a star, but no room for all of them. He couldn't have been too bad, though, or no one would've hired him once his time at the top was over.

  4. Don't you just love these people who refer to themselves in the third person? Sounds like Bancroft was a lot more fun on-screen than off-screen. He truly was dynamic in "Underworld," but it's illuminating to see the trim, efficient, light-on-his-feet style of menace of Cagney compared to the Big tough lug style of Bancroft. As always, lady eve, your post is elegant and compelling.

    1. You know there's a problem when someone refers to him/herself in the third person! I imagine he toned it down when the lead roles dwindled down. Yes, Bancroft as the hulking older crook vs. the wee wunderkind Cagney is an eye-opener. I always find Bogart interesting, too, in this "pre-Bogie" performance. You'd never imagine he could become as iconic as Cagney.

  5. Those are great stories about George Bancroft in his prime. He certainly had a high estimation of himself, but kudos to him to recognize when that phase was over and to take on lesser roles. Not every actor was able to transition that way...

    Thanks for this fabulous tribute. I have more admiration for Bancroft now. :)

    1. I ought to do a blog post on nothing but Bancroft stories, there are enough of them to fill a post :)

      I actually admire him more now, too.

  6. Hi!

    Just sent you an email via a different route, but don't know if I was successful.

    Discovered your piece on George Bancroft some minutes ago. Seems excellent although lacking any reference to yours truly, whose article, "George", in "American Classic Screen", provided a substantial source for you. I'm by no means a glory hound, but that article-interview represents one of my personal favorites of my writings. When collected in a Scarecrow Press book, some text was missing, as too all of my rare stills that originally accompanied the piece!

    If you Google: THE LINE-UP {1929} LOST CRIME TALKIE, you can view my print of this early-talkie crime short - believed to be the only existing print. It's actually on YouTube, but by using Google, my IMDb comments usually surface as well.

    Ray Cabana, Jr.