Oscar Profile #113: Roland Young

Born November 11, 1887 in London, England, Roland Young was a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He made his stage debut in 1908 and his Broadway debut in 1912. Becoming a U.S. citizen in 1917, he served with Uncle Sam in World War I. After his war service he married Frances Kummer whose mother Clare had written two successful comedies for him. Alternating between New York and London for the next several years, he made his film debut as Dr. Watson to John Barrymore’s Sherlock Holmes in 1922.

Under contract to MGM, he made his talkie debut in 1929’s The Unholy Night directed by Lionel Barrymore. In his brief contract period he appeared in such films as The Bishop Murder Case with Basil Rathbone; Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan with Kay Johnson; New Moon with Lawrence Tibbett; DeMille’s The Sqauw Man with Warner Baxter and The Guardsman with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

He was in constant demand as a freelance performer beginning in 1932. Alternating between comedy and drama, he delighted audiences with his performances in such films as Ernst Lubitsch’s One Hour With You with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald; His Double Life as the romantic lead opposite Lillian Gish; Here Is My Heart with Bing Crosby; David Copperfield in a rare villainous role as Uriah Heep; Ruggles of Red Gap with Charles Laughton; the title role in Topper with Cary Grant, Constance Bennett and Billie and the title role again in The Man Who Could Work Miracles. Topper brought him his only Oscar nomination for the role with which he is most associated. He appeared in two sequels and later played the character in a radio series.

Young’s subsequent films included The Young in Heart with Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Billie Burke; Irene and No, No, Nanette, both in support of Anna Neagle; The Philadelphia Story with Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart and René Clair’s definitive film version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Divorced from Marjorie Kummer in 1940, he married Patience DuCroz in 1948, with whom he would be wed until his death of natural causes at the age of 65 in June, 1953, the year of his final film, The Man from Tangier.

Whether the star of his film or near the top of the supporting cast, Roland Young always gave full measure of himself and stole every scene he was ever in, one of the true greats of the Golden Age of the Movies.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935), directed by George Cukor

Cukor’s film of Dickens’ classic is remembered for its meticulous casting and playing by actors who were said to be born to play their roles. Particularly unforgettable are Freddie Bartholomew as David as a boy; W.C. Fields as Micawber; Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsy Trotwood; Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone and of course, Roland Young as the obsequious Uriah Heep. For Young it was a rare dramatic role and a rarer still villainous one. Audiences still cheer when he gets his comeuppance from Frank Lawton as the grown David.

RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935), directed by Leo McCarey

Young is simply hilarious as the Earl of Burnstead who loses his valet Ruggles (Charles Laughton) in a poker game to tourist Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles) from the American northwest.

The actor is absent from much of the film as it centers on Laughton’s adjustment to his new life with the Flouds (Ruggles and Mary Boland) and the maid with whom he becomes smitten (ZaSu Pitts), but he comes back at the end to help bring the classic comedy to its satisfying conclusion.

TOPPER (1937), directed by Norman C. McLeod

Young had his signature role as Cosmo Topper, the grumpy banker besieged by the ghosts of his friends – the recently departed Marion and George Kirby (Constance Bennett and Cary Grant). Billie Burke as Young’s bewildered wife and Alan Mowbray as their butler add to the hilarity.
Young received his only Oscar nomination for his performance.

Having reprised his role in two sequels and a radio series, Young was not around to see the successful TV series with Leo G. Carroll in his old role, which began airing four months after his death.

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940), directed by George Cukor

Among the many joys of this sophisticated comedy is Young’s portrayal of Katharine Hepburn’s bottom pinching Uncle Willie. Pretending to be Hepburn’s father through much of the film only makes matters worse. Featuring wonderful work from Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, MaryNash, John Halliday, Virginia Weidler and Young, the film remains a comic treasure no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), directed by René Clair

One of the most successful films made from an Agatha Christie novel, Young is outstanding a private detective who thinks he knows who the murderer is in this cleverly written film version of the novel in which ten people are invited to an isolated island and are then killed off one by one.

The film changes the ending to allow a Hollywood style romance to have a happy ending, but not before we are treated to some very chilling murders and some very impressive acting by the likes of Walter Huston, Barry Fitzgerald, Judith Anderson, C. Aubrey Smith, Mischa Auer, Richard Hadyn and Young among others. Young does have one of the film’s most memorable exits.

ROLAND YOUNG AND OSCAR

  • Nominated Best Supporting Actor – Topper (1937)

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