“It’s appropriate that I should have come in on the wings of a blizzard. I’ve been blowing up a storm ever since.” Charlie Bickford
This fantastic publicity photo of actor Charles Bickford isn’t dated, but I am fairly sure that it’s pre-1935 when he was still contracted to MGM and causing hell for my great uncle, Louis B. Mayer. If there was an Oscar for hotheadedness, both of them would have won it.
The signs Charles Bickford would be a tough customer began with his birth, the fifth of seven children, a minute past midnight on the 1st of January, 1891, in the midst of a howling snow storm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The gusts of turmoil pretty much rolled on in his life in the same fashion from there on in, including being tried at just nine years old for attacking a trolley driver in a fit of rage for running over and killing his dog!
Thankfully he was acquitted of attempted murder but I can imagine a tiny tough guy sitting on a chair in the witness box with his legs swinging, too small to reach the court floor. Perhaps, when asked by the judge why he tried to kill the man who ran over his beloved pet, young Bickford answered, “Because he earnt it, sir! He earnt a walloping!”
I can just see him staring at the poor trolley driver, narrowing his eyes, jutting out his chin, and punching his own fist. Had he been sent to prison I think he would have been anointed the tiny ‘King of the Thugs,’ serving up knuckle sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
With a background as rich in drama as Bickford’s, and carrying his dark times as an ever-growing chip on his shoulder, Hollywood made perfect sense. For his first Metro-Goldyn-Mayer picture, the aptly named Dynamite, Bickford evidently knocked film director Cecil B. DeMille’s lights out during a disagreement. And he wasn’t exactly a sweetheart elsewhere around the studio. Maybe realizing he was close to being kicked out and hoping to control his own destiny in a town where that was extremely unlikely, Bickford asked to be released from his contract. But in the film business everyone knows your reputation before you do, and his made him a pariah. No studio would have him. For years he worked as a freelancer, until finally Fox offered him a contract – it would be a lifeline that would nearly kill him.
While filming the last scene in East of Java in 1935, Bickford was told to battle with a real lion, which immediately attacked him and went straight for his neck, ripping it open and nearly severing his jugular vein. The entire horrific encounter was caught on camera (the Library of Congress has some of the footage) and if that wasn’t enough, it was actually used in the film. Still, the producers had the unbelievable chutzpah to replace Bickford with another actor.
Despite being heavily bandaged and in terrible pain, Bickford bravely (or insanely) come back to the set to finish the film. Fear of death was far less of concern than the fear of losing his livelihood, which already hung by a string. He didn’t last long, becoming delirious and collapsing with a high fever. The director sent him back to the hospital where he remained for ten months, which makes the fact that he stumbled back on set right after the attack seem particularly desperate. (Read this account in The Milwaukee Journal from June 24, 1943.)
To no one’s surprise, Charles Bickford lost his contract. But if he had met his match in Louis B. Mayer and this didn’t kill him, and an actual lion couldn’t finish him off, everything else was survivable.
After healing from his wounds, the external and internal ones, Charles Bickford completed dozens of films, including The Farmer’s Daughter, Johnny Belinda, Of Mice and Men, A Star is Born, The Big Country, This Day and Age, River’s End, and Not As a Stranger, and secured his place in the Classic Hollywood canon over many decades as a hard-working and respected character actor. Directors and audiences alike loved his glowering look, manly frame and gruff, powerful voice.
All of these characteristics, including his tremendous intensity, pulse out of this publicity photograph like a mysterious stranger who you instinctively feel you shouldn’t lock eyes with. Signed to my grandmother Mitzi, this is a portrait of a man you are afraid to love but cannot help yourself. Still waters run deep…
Bickford was nominated for three Academy Awards for supporting roles, including for the much-loved The Song of Bernadette (1943). Interestingly, his female co-stars nominated in their category won every time.
After a long successful career and having made millions in shrewd real estate investments, Charles Bickford died in Los Angeles in 1967 of a blood infection at the age of 76 – days after filming an episode of The Virginian. His wife Beatrice died the same year. They had a son, Rex, and a daughter, Doris.
Postscript: Charles Bickford’s son, Rex, has been noted in several websites as having died in 1960. However, in a newspaper article at the time of his father’s death in 1967, Rex Bickford is described as 42 and married. There are two relatively recent and certain mentions of Rex Bickford online – one for a Rex Bickford Properties in Hawaii, and a private pilot who escaped without injury from crashing his plane, just short of his private runway in Maine.
When Charles Bickford died, he was worth many millions.
Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.
You can watch Dynamite here.
Charles Bickford’s memoir:
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