By Susan M. Kelly
cultured air, a sophisticated sounding name and an impeccable sense of style
were all the building blocks Adolphe Menjou needed for the greatest role of his
life - as Hollywood’s penultimate Beau Brummell. It was a role he would play
with panache and flair to his dying day.
was born to a French father and an Irish mother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on
February 18th, 1890. His father was a successful hotel manager and
wanted his son to follow him into the family business, but Adolphe was not
interested. He attended the Culver Military Academy and went on to earn a
degree in engineering from Cornell University. When friends suggested he try
acting, he found he enjoyed it and he was soon trying out for parts in
vaudeville and in film.
In 1916 he made
his film debut in “The Blue Envelope Mystery”, but with the outbreak of World
War I, he put his career on hold to join the military, serving in the American
Ambulance Corps. When he returned from the service he worked on stage before
returning to the screen and appearing opposite two of the silent era’s classic
stars. He played Rudolph Valentino’s friend in “The Sheik” and King Louis XIII
opposite Douglas Fairbanks in “The Three Musketeers”, both in 1921.
quickly got him noticed and in 1923 Charles Chaplin cast him as the
lead in “A Woman of Paris”. Chaplin’s first independent production as a writer
and director, the film set new standards in silent dramatic acting and
directing. With his performance as the sophisticated French gentleman Pierre
Revel, Menjou made his mark on Hollywood and solidified his image as a well
dressed man of the world. He worked steadily throughout the decade appearing in
films such as “The Marriage Circle”, where he convincingly played a hurt and
betrayed husband, and D.W. Griffith’s “The Sorrows of Satan”, in which he played
a dapper Devil.
voice helped Menjou easily navigate the transition into sound. He made several
notable films over the next few years, and scored a hit with his turn as a
world-weary army officer opposite Gary Cooper in “Morocco” in 1930. The
mysterious film, set against the exotic backdrop of the Moroccan desert, pitted Menjou against Cooper as romantic rivals for the affection of
Not surprisingly, the tall, handsome Cooper got the girl. The following year he
received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of scheming, less than ethical
newspaper editor Walter Burns in “The Front Page”.
roles kept coming throughout the 30’s, usually alternating between urbane
producers – “Morning Glory” (1933), “Stage Door” and “A Star is Born” (both
1937) and hard drinking lowlifes – “Little Miss Marker” (1934) and “Golden Boy”
(1939). One of his rare breaks from this cycle was to play a thinly disguised
John Barrymore in the 1936 musical comedy “Sing, Baby, Sing”, where he delivered
one of his finest and funniest performances. He put that same talent to work
playing Ginger Rogers’ lawyer in “Roxie Hart” (1942), another memorable
continued to flourish into the 40’s with films such as “The Hucksters” (1947)
and “State of the Union” (1948), even as he became active in political causes.
In 1944, he co-founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of
American Ideals, but his biggest political statement came in 1947 when he
testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee during their
infamous investigation into Hollywood. He didn’t endear himself to many of his
colleagues as he took a smug, hard line anti-communist stance, but surprisingly
his career managed to take the hit and survive.
In 1951 he
played a traitorous Union officer in the Civil War drama “The Tall Target” and
the following year, without his now trademark “Menjou Moustache”, he was
surprisingly realistic as a police detective in “The Sniper”. As the 50’s wore
on, roles became more scarce for the aging actor but he turned in a memorable
performance as a hypocritical WWI French officer in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of
Glory” in 1957. Three years later, he made his final big-screen appearance in
Walt Disney’s “Pollyanna”.
50’s also saw him making several forays into television, including appearances
on “The DuPont Show with June Allyson”, “The Secret Life of James Thurber” and
“Science Fiction Theater”. He also appeared as a guest panelist on “What’s My
passed away in 1963, just three years after completing “Pollyanna”, but not
without leaving his unique mark on Hollywood. Having been voted Best Dressed
Man in America nine times throughout his life, it came as no suprise when he
titled his 1947 autobiography “It Took Nine Tailors”. For a man who built a
successful career on a foundation of style, class and elegance, it seemed only
fitting. And from Adolphe Menjou, we’d expect nothing less than a perfect fit.
Susan M. Kelly has been working as a freelance
writer for the last 12 years, during which time she has written everything
from press releases and brochures to newspaper articles and web text. She
currently lives and works in Dunellen, NJ and can be contacted at
email@example.com. Watch for her profiles in
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.