erik lundegaard

Wednesday August 11, 2021

Oklahoma Red

Cagney's 1925 stage partner Charles Bickford riding tall and aging well with Charlton Heston in 1958's “The Big Country.”

Another story from the Michael Curitz bio:

Curtiz convinced Zanuck that the dual role of Keith and Conniston [in the 1930 movie River's End] needed a rugged new face. Zanuck agreed and arranged to borrow Charles Bickford from MGM. The craggy, red-haired actor had been signed by MGM after a sensational 1925 turn on Broadway in Jim Tully's Outside Looking In. He quickly earned a reputation as “difficult” by constantly quarreling over scripts and film assignments. He was let go by Metro after telling Louis B. Mayer “fuck you” when the mogul insisted that the actor finish his role in The Sea Bat (1930). In addition to being stubborn, Bickford was an intimidating presence. As a kid he shot a trolley conductor in the forehead for running  over his dog and was later rumored to have killed a man he caught in flagrante with his wife. Bickford was sold on River's End, however, and gave an excellent performance. Although pleased with the picture, Bickford loathed Curtiz, who he believed was “burdened by a terrible inferiority which he manifested by screaming gratuitous insults at little people who were in no position to fight back.”

Unmentioned by author Alan K. Rode is Bickford's co-star in the 1925 Tully play. Bickford played a character named Oklahoma Red, who hoboed around with a character named Little Red, who was played by an up-and-comer named James Cagney. It was Cagney's first big break. I like that someone at MGM saw the play, signed Bickford, but let Cagney go. Not exactly Decca Records and the Beatles, but amusing nonetheless.

I've written about “Outside Looking In” before but didn't know much about Bickford. The above helps. He had a long career: 114 credits, including playing the studio chief in the Judy Garland “A Star is Born” and a feuding patriarch in the 1958 Gregory Peck epic “The Big Country.” Bickford acted until his death in 1967. He also wrote a memoir in 1965, “Bulls, Balls, Bicycles & Actors” that might be interesting. If anyone has read it, let me know if he said anything about hanging with Cagney in '25. At the least, his relationship with L. B. Mayer feels like Cagney's with Jack Warner. Just shorter.

Posted at 09:15 AM on Wednesday August 11, 2021 in category Books  
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