September 25, 2016 by smumcounty
James Austin Gleason was born in New York City on May 23rd 1882 to William Gleason and Mina Crolius who were both theater folk. James or Jimmie as he was known to his friends was quickly inducted into the world of theater when he made his stage debut at the tender age of two months in something called “Clouds”. James did not immediately go into the family business but he did start earning a living for himself at the age of thirteen at a number of different jobs including delivery boy, printer’s devil, assistant in an electrical store, and elevator operator. Being of an apparent patriotic bent, when the Maine was sunk in Cuba starting the Spanish-American War in 1898, James joined up at the age of sixteen and went to fight in the Philippines. After serving in the military for three years, he returned home to his family who were now operating a stock theater company at the Liberty Theater in Oakland, California and he began performing in the family productions. It was shortly after this that he met the love of his life, Lucille Webster, whom he would marry in 1906. Two years later in 1908, their son Russell was born. After this, James and Lucille, with Russell in tow, toured in various theater companies until the country entered the Great War in Europe and James again joined the army, serving until the end of that conflict.
Upon returning from the war, James and Lucille resumed their efforts at eking out a living in theater. James was trying to break into Broadway but, after not being able to find work, decided to take up writing in 1923. He co-wrote a play with Richard Taber which he shopped around to all the Broadway producers but was unable to get any of them to bite. Finally, he decided to produce “Is Zat So” himself and it became an unexpected hit on Broadway, making James an overnight success. James not only wrote the play but also portrayed the part of prize fighter manager Pat Hurley while George Armstrong played his boxer. “Is Zat So” Played 88 weeks on Broadway and then James and Armstrong took it to London where it played for a year. James followed up this success with “The Fall Guy” in 1925 which he co-wrote with George Abbot. This too was a success and at one point both “The Fall Guy” and “Is Zat So” were running concurrently on Broadway. Quite a feat for a new playwright. James then wrote “The Shannons of Broadway” which he and Lucille both starred in. This too became a Broadway hit.
With their multiple successes on Broadway, it wasn’t long before Hollywood called on the Gleasons and James and Lucille were both contracted to Pathé, James to write and Lucille to act. James had success in writing almost immediately, adapting his Broadway hits to film. The film version of “Is Zat So” was released in 1927 with Edmond Lowe portraying the manager and George O’Brien the fighter. “The Shannons of Broadway” saw its film representation in 1929 with James and Lucille reprising their Broadway roles and the following year “The Fall Guy” appeared completing James’ trifecta of Broadway hits transplanted to Hollywood. Other Broadway creations from James that made it to the silver screen followed, including “Rain or Shine” (1930), based on a musical for which James co-wrote the book, and “Mammy” (1930), which starred Al Jolson, based on a play by Irving Berlin and James. Beyond these Broadway creations, James also had success with “Broadway Melody” in 1929 which he co-wrote with Norman Houston and which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Other screenwriter credits follow at this time including “High Voltage” (1929) starring Carole Lombard with a screenplay co-written by James and “Dumbbells in Ermine” (1930) co-written by James with Harvey F. Thew. About this time, James even got to try out the director’s chair when he co-directed “Hot Tip” (1935) with Ray McCarey. James also starred in this film along with ZaSu Pitts and his son Russell who was also at this time starting to get some Hollywood exposure.
With all this work as a screenwriter in the early 30’s, it’s odd that James should be seen now as a character actor but that is chiefly due to the volume of work he had throughout the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s as an actor. As a character actor, James was in great demand. His balding pate, thin mustache, and weather-worn face allowed him to easily inhabit characters that were tough on the outside but lovable on the inside and always with that gruff New York patter which lent itself well to newspaper editors or police lieutenants. This can easily be seen in the series of Hildegarde Withers films which began in 1932 with “The Penguin Pool Murder” in which Edna May Oliver played the school teacher and amateur sleuth. James played Inspector Oscar Piper to whom Hildegarde is a major annoyance as they sift through clues to solve the various murders. After the first three films when Oliver was replaced with Helen Broderick and then ZaSu Pitts, James stayed with the series appearing in all six films.
James was fortunate to appear in another film series beginning in 1938 when he made a series chronicling the Higgins family for Republic Pictures. This series also brought work for Lucille and Russell who portrayed his wife and son in the films. The Higgins family series was created as a response to MGM’s popular Andy Hardy series and ran for nine films with the Gleason clan appearing in the first seven.
Two of the most notable films of James’ long career came in 1941. In “Meet John Doe” (1941), James plays the editor of the newspaper that promotes the John Doe story in this Capra classic and in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” James appeared as Max Corkle the trainer of Robert Montgomery’s boxer who, due to a heavenly snafu, is snatched from his earthly body too soon. James earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for that role. In “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), James has a small but moving role as the big-hearted bartender. In the same year, he and Lucille both had roles in “The Clock” (1945) starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker in which James plays a milk cart driver and Lucille plays his wife. In “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947), starring Cary Grant and Loretta Young, James plays the cab driver that chauffeurs Grant’s angel about town. Note that the crazy ice skating scene featuring James’ character was not portrayed by James. 🙂
In 1945, James’ son Russell died in New York City. Russell joined the army in late 1943 to be part of the effort in World War II and while he was staying in the Hotel Sutton, waiting for his deployment to Europe, he fell from a fourth floor window. Accounts of the fall differ with some saying it was accidental while others saying it was suicide. Lucille followed her son two years later in 1947 when she died in her sleep, apparently of heart disease, at the age of 59.
Despite these duel tragedies, James carried on with his acting career throughout the 40’s and 50’s, making multiple films a year. When television came around, he augmented his film career with roles on the small screen. He had a recurring role on “The Life of Riley” (1953-55) as well as multiple appearances on the popular theater on TV shows that ran at the time including “Damon Runyon Theater” (1955), “The Ford Television Theater” (1953 and ‘56), and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1956 and ’57).
James worked up to the last days of his life. His last film role was in “The Last Hurrah” (1958) starring Spencer Tracy. He died the following year on April 12th, 1959 in Los Angeles at the Motion Picture and Television Country House from chronic asthma. He was 77 years old.
Pert Kelton and James in “New Girl in Town” (1936)
Carole Landis and James in “Manila Calling” (1942)