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J. WARREN KERRIGAN

By Paul Samuels

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#4 Most Popular - 1917

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1916 MJ Moriarty Playing Card featuring J. Warren Kerrigan1930 J. Warren Kerrigan BAT Tobacco CardGeorge Warren Kerrigan was born on July 25, 1879, one of a set of twins (with brother William Wallace) in Louisville, Kentucky, to John and Sarah (McLean) Kerrigan.  In addition to his twin brother, there were six other brothers and one sister.  The family moved to New Albany, Indiana in 1880, which they came to regard as their hometown.  New Albany always remained close to J. Warren Kerrigan’s heart and he often returned for visits with old friends.  For more than four decades, the Kerrigan Theater in New Albany (built in the teens by virtue of J. Warren's generosity) showcased motion pictures, stage productions, and served as a meeting place for events in the community.  He was also credited with much-needed relief help at the time of the 1913 Ohio River flood (the Ohio River separates New Albany and Louisville).

George Warren was called "Jack" by his family and friends, and this is the name he adopted permanently.  As an actor, he was known early on as "Jack W. Kerrigan" or "Jack Warren Kerrigan", and was sometimes referred to simply as "Warren Kerrigan".  He ultimately settled on "J. Warren Kerrigan" professionally, but continued to be known to family and friends as Jack.

Jack stood over six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, with dark hair and hazel eyes.  As he grew up in New Albany, his father expressed a preference that Jack follow him into business, and indeed Jack worked for a time at the warehouse his father managed.  Jack's mother wanted him to become a minister.  An older brother thought Jack would make a fine prizefighter, as Jack's build and boxing skills lent themselves to that occupation.  But Jack was interested in the arts, showing promise in both singing and acting.  He also liked to paint and write.  He began appearing in community theater in the New Albany and Louisville area around the age of 18, while working at his father's warehouse and attending school.  He concentrated more and more on acting, making his New York stage debut in Sam Houston in 1906.  Other productions, including Brown of Harvard, The Master Key, and The Road to Yesterday followed as Jack developed into a leading man.  It was at this time that Jack became known as "The Gibson Man", so named because he was as handsome as a Gibson Girl was beautiful.

While touring in The Road to Yesterday in Chicago in 1910, Jack was invited to join the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.  Jack was hesitant at first.  He said:

“I had earlier received an offer from a man in the employ of the Vitagraph in New York, but I was doing well on the legitimate stage at that time and the matter was dropped.  Later, while playing in Chicago in The Road to Yesterday, a member of the Essanay made me an offer to join their company.  It took me some time to overcome the prejudices of stage folk and to realize that the motion picture theater was the greatest institution for the entertainment of all the people in the world.  The screen covers an unlimited field.  After a month’s work before the camera, I decided that I had found my vocation.  My ‘up-stage’ opinions faded away and I realized that a great new school of acting, comprehending unlimited possibilities, had originated in motion pictures.”

1915 J. Warren Kerrigan PennantWorking for Essanay also meant Jack would travel less, an additional inducement since by this time he had become the principal support for his family and his mother was in ill health.  After he was settled, his family moved to Chicago to join him.  At Essanay, next to Broncho Billy Anderson (Essanay's co-owner), Jack was the studio's most popular male star.  He made dozens of short films with Essanay from 1910-1911.  In 1911, he moved to the American Film Company (Flying A), also in Chicago, going with Flying A to California where the studio built its permanent facilities at Santa Barbara in large part, it was said, from the profits of Jack's films.

At Flying A, as at Essanay, Jack acted primarily in westerns, but he also began to successfully expand his range to light comedies, historical pieces, and dramas.  Jack appeared in more than 150 one- and two-reel films (the standard of the day) for Flying A.  He said:

“Upon the organization of the American Company, I was the first member to be engaged.  For a period of three years I played lead in every picture—sometimes at the rate of two a week—which that company produced.”

Jack accepted an offer from Carl Laemmle to join Universal in 1913.  At Universal, Jack was able to make feature length movies, starring in Samson in 1914.  It was also in 1914 that Jack published his autobiography, becoming the first motion picture star to do so.  A song was also written about him in 1914, titled (modestly enough) "The Hero of Them All".  Photoplay Magazine, conducting a popularity contest among its readers, named him the most popular male star.  During his years at Universal Jack's career and popularity reached their first peak.  He received literally thousands of fan letters a week.  Harold Lloyd, who was just beginning his career at Universal at that time, said of Jack in a 1971 interview:

“Kerrigan was a tremendous figure in those days.  He was a wonderful individual, big, handsome, had a Roman-type nose.  I think he would be good today with the appearance he had.  He was certainly the star of that lot.”

By 1916, the fan magazine Motion Picture Classic in a cover story stated that Jack was the most popular actor in the world.  Articles and photos of him appeared in publications as far abroad as Great Britain, Sweden, France, and Spain.  Jack's image was printed on postcards, playing cards, and tobacco cards.  His picture appeared on collectible china, writing tablets, and candy boxes.  Collectible spoons bore his likeness and name and his photo appeared in magazine ads selling men's clothing.  The fan magazine Photoplay published a story on Jack in 1916, titling it "The Great God Kerrigan".

In 1917, Jack formed his own production company, J. Warren Kerrigan Productions, to produce films in association with Paralta.  In 1918, Jack's career was temporarily stalled by health problems.  He broke his leg while filming in Santa Barbara.  He also caught the Spanish flu during the terrible epidemic of that time.  The flu developed into pneumonia, which kept Jack away from the cameras for more than eight months.  Fortunately, he recovered completely by late 1918 and resumed making films, both through his own company and for other studios.

In 1923, he was cast in the leading role (as Will Banion) of director James Cruze's The Covered Wagon, opposite frequent leading lady Lois Wilson, for Paramount Pictures.  The picture was very expensive for its time (costing about $782,000) and took many months to shoot, much of the time on location under difficult circumstances.  The movie, considered the first epic western feature, was a smashing success, setting the standard for the great westerns that followed.  In 1973, Jesse L. Lasky Jr. wrote of the film:

“When the last shot faded out we were weeping and cheering.  The film had cost $782,000, a record for a western.  It was to become one of the largest money-makers in silent film history.  The Covered Wagon was the first epic.  It heralded a new style.  That night we were seeing history.  Not merely the history that expanded a nation westward, but the moment when the motion picture industry began to flex its muscles.”

British film historian Paul Rotha wrote in 1948:

“From time to time the western film has been stripped of its fictional trappings and raised to the standard of an epic, becoming a reconstructed record of some great past achievement.  The pinnacle was reached in The Covered Wagon.  This is a film that combines the essence of the western with the cinematic knowledge of Hollywood.”

In his 1969 book "The Hall of Fame of Western Film Stars", Ernest N. Corneau wrote:

"The picture was an outstanding spectacle and was the first epic western ever produced on such a large scale.  An outstanding masterpiece, it broke all attendance records and proved to be the cornerstone for the major western productions that followed.  The western had finally achieved true artistic merit."

Jack followed up his success in The Covered Wagon with another western, The Girl of the Golden West and other adventure films and dramas, including The Man From Brodneys and Thundering Dawn.  Altogether, Jack starred in seven feature films in 1923.

Photo of J. Warren Kerrigan as Captain BloodIn 1924 Jack was cast as Peter Blood in the original Captain Blood for Vitagraph.  Studio publicity for the film mentioned that the author of Captain Blood, Rafael Sabatini, “spoke the final word in the selection of the star who fills the title role”.  A grand adventure of pirates and ships, Captain Blood was another successful film.  It was also Jack's last motion picture.  He retired from the screen after the film was released, at the height of this second peak in his career.  In his retirement, as he did when he was making movies, Jack lived rather quietly.  He moved from his home in the hills above Hollywood to an estate in Sunland, California, moving once more toward the end of his life to Balboa Beach.  He died on June 9, 1947 at his home in Balboa Beach, just shy of his 68th birthday.  He is buried at Forest Lawn, Glendale, California.

While very little of Jack’s body of work is known to survive, he can be remembered today as one of the great stars of the silent era.  He followed his calling faithfully and through talent, opportunity, and hard work rose to the top of his profession.  He is credited with starring roles in 289 films between 1910 and 1924, beginning when the “photoplays”, as they were called then, were new and continuing into their early maturity.  He left the screen at the zenith of his career with his greatest successes, saying at the time:

“I have had my day.  As an artist, I always hoped to know when to walk away with grace and dignity.  My life in motion pictures has been a wonderful life and I have loved it with all my heart.  I sincerely hope that the love of my craft shows in the work I have done.”