"The screen is crowded with Americans trying to act like Englishmen, but Reg is the only Englishman we know of who tries to act like an American and gets away with it. His comedies are both typically American and very funny," says the January, 1928, issue of Motion Picture magazine.
Reginald Denny, born Reginald Leigh Dugmore, first appeared on the stage at age seven in England, but left school at age 16 to pursue a theatrical career in earnest. In 1911, he came to America as a part of "The Quaker Girl" cast. He returned to England in 1912, and, in the ensuing years, performed in India, Australia and the Orient. He married Irene "Renee" Haisman, a British musical comedy star, during this time and returned to the United States in 1914. He toured until 1917 when he went to New York to enlist with the Royal Flying Corps. Stationed in Hastings, England, the war ended before he completed his training.
Denny returned to America and immediately went to Chicago where he performed until his wife had a nervous breakdown, and he had to rush back to New York to be at her side. This led to his first movie roles in "Bringing Up Betty" (1919) and "The Oakdale Affair" (1919) for the World Film Corporation. He returned to the stage, however, and even performed with the great John Barrymore in Richard III. It was at this time that he began to receive offers for motion pictures and appeared in eight features during 1920-21.
Denny earned the title of brigade heavyweight boxing champion while in service, and that, along with an excellent physique at six feet tall and 180 pounds, no doubt contributed to his starring role in a series of two-reelers called "The Leather Pushers." This was his first association with director Harry A. Pollard who directed several of Denny's later popular comedies. "The Leather Pushers" series was a gamble because no one thought a series about prize fighting would be popular. After the first two entries in the series, the money ran out, but Carl Laemmle took an interest in them, and, with Universal's backing, it became one of the most popular series of the 1920's.
Universal then sent Denny out to California to try him in a series of two reelers about the Northwest Mounted Police, but, with virtually no experience riding a horse, he was eventually thrown and broke an ankle. After two entries, Universal brought an end to the series. Denny finished up "The Leather Pushers" series at this time and was cast in a couple of features, one of which was "The Abysmal Brute" (Universal, 1923), the Jack London story about a backwoods boy who becomes a boxer. At Denny's insistence, some light comedy was injected into the otherwise "hokey" story, and it became a hit.
Denny had found his niche in light comedy. Combining humor with his handsome physique and chisled, matinee idol looks, gave him a romantic edge. With this new approach, he appeared in such films as "Sporting Youth" (Universal, 1924), with Laura La Plante; "Reckless Age" (Universal, 1924), with Ruth Dwyer; "Oh, Doctor!" (Universal, 1925), with Mary Astor; and "California Straight Ahead" (Universal, 1925), with Gertrude Olmstead.
However, with the release of "Skinner's Dress Suit" (Universal, 1926), Denny hit his peak in light comedy. Everything about this film was perfect for him. This was the fourth time he had been teamed with cute, perky co-star Laura La Plante who complemented Denny's style of comedy perfectly. According to Kevin Brownlow, from The Parade's Gone By..., "With cameraman Arthur Todd, and some supporting players who appeared often enough to warrant the term stock company, the Reginald Denny company grew very close . . ." The biggest asset for Denny, however, was director William A. Seiter who understood Denny's comedic talents perfectly. Denny told Brownlow, "We never had an argument, never a cross word, and we always brought the picture in within budget."
Although Denny was making big bucks for Universal at this time, his demands for his own unit were never granted. The happy "family" he had known in such films as "Skinner's Dress Suit" was soon to dissolve as Universal had Seiter direct only the solo films of Laura La Plante. Denny would only make three more films with Seiter - "The Cheerful Fraud" (Universal, 1927), with Gertrude Olmstead; "Out All Night" (Universal, 1927), with Marian Nixon; and "Good Morning, Judge" (Universal, 1927), with Mary Nolan. Instead of Seiter, he was again assigned Harry Pollard (his director from "The Leather Pushers" series and "California Straight Ahead") and Harold Lloyd's former director Fred Newmeyer for several of his subsequent films. However, his ideas about comedy now differed from both of these directors, and he clashed with them often.
The making of "That's My Daddy" (Universal, 1928), with Barbara Kent, is a good example of the problems Denny began to encounter. He had written this story, and Newmeyer was brought in as director. However, as a result of their different approaches to the comedy in the story, Denny ended up directing and writing the intertitles. Universal tried to keep the sneak preview from him, but he managed to see it anyway. When he did, he was furious! According to Denny, in addition to several cuts with which he disagreed, "They had gagged it up with silly titles and ruined it. It was vile."
Denny went to Carl Laemmle and demanded he get the negative back, threatening to quit if he didn't. the dapper comedian eventually got his way and restored the cuts and rewrote the titles. In spite of negative reviews, the movie was a hit, and Laemmle sheepishly admitted to Denny that he had been wrong (surely a rare event among movie moguls!).
Another major event in Denny's life at this time was his divorce from Haisman in 1928. He wed aspiring actress Isobel Steiffel that same year, a marriage that lasted until his death.
Denny's last two years at Universal were undistinguished. In 1929 he made one silent and two part-talking features. His first full talkie was "One Hysterical Night" with Nora Lane. His last feature for Universal was "Embarrassing Moments" (1930), with Merna Kennedy. Neither of these were very popular.
Because Denny was English, the coming of sound brought about some changes in his career. Rather than leading roles as "the frustrated average American husband," he was given supporting roles as "the affable Englishman." Nevertheless, he was extremely active during the next four decades, appearing in such classics as "Kiki" (United Artists, 1931), starring Mary Pickford; "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath" (M-G-M, 1931), starring Buster Keaton; "Private Lives" (M-G-M, 1931), starring Norma Shearer; "The Barbarian" (M-G-M, 1933), starring Ramon Novarro; "The Little Minister" (RKO, 1934), starring Katherine Hepburn; "The Lost Patrol" (RKO, 1934), starring Victor McLaglen; "Of Human Bondage" (RKO, 1934), starring Leslie Howard; "Anna Karenina" (M-G-M, 1935), starring Greta Garbo; and "Romeo and Juliet" (M-G-M, 1937), starring Norma Shearer.
Between 1937 and 1939, Denny made a string of Bulldog Drummond mysteries and continued with such classics as "Rebecca" (Selznick International, 1940), starring Laurence Olivier; "Seven Sinners" (Universal, 1940), starring Marlene Dietrich; "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" (Universal, 1942), starring Basil Rathbone; "Tangier" (Universal, 1946), starring Maria Montez; "My Favorite Brunette" (Paramount, 1947), starring Bob Hope; "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (RKO, 1947), starring Danny Kaye; "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" (RKO, 1948), starring Cary Grant; "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (Universal, 1953), starring you know who!; and "Around the World in 80 Days" (United Artists, 1956), starring David Niven supported by an international, all-star cast.
Denny worked almost to the end of his life. His last appearances on film were "Cat Ballou" (Columbia, 1965), starring Lee Marvin; "Assault on a Queen" (Paramount, 1966), starring Frank Sinatra; and "Batman" (20th Century-Fox, 1966), starring Adam West. Although he adopted America and made his home in California, Denny passed away in the town of his birth. He suffered a stroke while he and his wife were visiting his sister in Surrey and died on June 16, 1967. Denny's body was flown back to his adopted America. He rests next to Isobel at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.
Creating and maintaining an awareness of the unique artistry of silent era comedians has been, at best, a struggle. The big four -- Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon (Laurel and Hardy are considered a team and in a class by themselves) -- enjoy a firm revival. The second tier of comedians, such as Charlie Chase, Raymond Griffith, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Lupino Lane, Max Linder, Larry Semon, and Ben Turpin are slowly becoming known again, especially due to the silent film on video revolution. Reginald Denny is part of this group, and, as Kevin Brownlow put it, he is "on a level only slightly below that of the masters," but not given the credit he is due. This is not surprising considering so few of his silent films are available for the public to enjoy today. His comedy was real and charming, and, certainly, much more subtle (he didn't need to rely upon a gimmick or a "look") than any of the four "masters." His unique style was "individual enough to withstand such searing competition," Brownlow notes. Denny deserves renewed attention and the wonderful work he did during the silent era is proof enough.
Copyright 2004 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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