Nationality: American. Born: Melvyn Edouard Hesselberg in Macon, Georgia, 5 April 1901. Military Service: 1918—served in U.S. Army; enlisted in Army as private, rose to rank of major, serving in India-China-Burma theater. Family: Married the actress (and later politician) Helen Gahagan, 1931 (died 1980), children: Peter and Mary; son Gregory by previous marriage. Career: 1919—joined Owens repertory company, acting debut in Chicago in The Merchant of Venice; changed surname to Douglas; 1920s—toured Midwest with Owens and Jessie Bonstelle companies; 1928—in Broadway production of A Free Soul; 1931—film debut under contract to Goldwyn in Tonight or Never; 1933—requested release from contract and returned to Broadway; 1935—7-year contract with Columbia; late 1930s—with wife became increasingly involved in support of liberal political causes; 1940—delegate to Democratic Convention; signs contract with MGM; 1942—appointed director of the Arts Council of the Office of Civilian Defense; 1946—produced successful musical revue Call Me Mister; 1950s—television work, including Steve Randall series, 1952–53, and Blind Date, 1953; host, Frontier Justice series, 1959; 1951—moved to New York, stage acting successes in Inherit the Wind (1955), The Waltz of the Toreadors (1957), and The Best Man (1960); 1962—resumed film acting. Awards: Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Hud, 1963; Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and Best Supporting Actor, New York Film Critics, for Being There, 1979. Died: 4 August 1981.
Films as Actor:
Tonight or Never (LeRoy) (as Fletcher)
As You Desire Me (Fitzmaurice) (as Count Bruno Varelli); Prestige (Garnett) (as Lieutenant Andre Verlaine); The Wiser Sex (Viertel) (as David Rolfe); The Broken Wing (Corrigan) (as Philip Marvin); The Old Dark House (Whale) (as Roger Penderel)
The Vampire Bat (Strayer) (as Karl Brettschneider); Nagana (Frank) (as Dr. Walt Radnor); Counsellor-at-Law (Wyler) (as Roy Darwin)
Dangerous Corner (Rosen) (as Charles); Woman in the Dark (Rosen) (as Robson)
The People's Enemy (Wilbur) (as Traps); She Married Her Boss (La Cava) (as Richard Barclay); Annie Oakley (Stevens) (as Jeff Hogarth); Mary Burns, Fugitive (Howard) (as Barton Powell); The Lone Wolf Returns (Neill) (as Michael Lanyard)
And So They Were Married (Nugent) (as Stephen Blake); Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawski) (as Michael Grant)
Women of Glamour (Wiles) (as Richard Stark); I'll Take Romance (Griffith) (as James Guthrie); I Met Him in Paris (Ruggles) (as George Potter); Angel (Lubitsch) (as Anthony Halton); Captains Courageous (Fleming)
Arsene Lupin Returns (Fitzmaurice) (as Arsene Lupin); Fast Company (Buzzell) (as Joel Sloane); The Toy Wife (Thorpe) (as George Sartoris); There's Always a Woman (Hall) (as William Reardon); The Shining Hour (Borzage) (as Henry Linden); That Certain Age (Ludwig) (as Vincent Bulitt)
There's That Woman Again (Hall) (as William Reardon); Tell No Tales (Fenton) (as Michael Cassidy); Ninotchka (Lubitsch) (as Count Leon Dalga); Good Girls Go to Paris (Hall) (as Ronald Brooke); The Amazing Mr. Williams (Hall) (as Kenny Williams)
Too Many Husbands (Ruggles) (as Henry Lowndes); He Stayed for Breakfast (Hall) (as Paul Boliet); Third Finger Left Hand (Leonard) (as Jeff Thompson)
This Thing Called Love (Hall) (as Tice Collins); That Uncertain Feeling (Lubitsch) (as Larry Baker); A Woman's Face (Cukor) (as Dr. Gustaf Segert); Our Wife (Stahl) (as Jerry Marvin); Two-Faced Woman (Cukor) (as Larry Blake)
We Were Dancing (Leonard) (as Nicki Prax); They All Kissed the Bride (Hall) (as Michael Holmes)
Three Hearts for Julia (Thorpe) (as Jeff Seabrook)
Sea of Grass (Kazan) (as Bruce Chamberlain); The Guilt of Janet Ames (Levin) (as Smithfield Cobb)
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Potter) (as Bill Cole); My Own True Love (Bennett) (as Clive Heath)
A Woman's Secret (Ray) (as Luke Jordan); The Great Sinner (Siodmak) (as Armand de Glasse)
My Forbidden Past (Stevenson) (as Paul Beaurevel); On the Loose (Lederer) (as Frank Bradley)
Billy Budd (Ustinov) (as The Dansker)
Hud (Ritt) (as Homer Bannon)
Advance to the Rear (Marshall) (as Col. Brackenby); The Americanization of Emily (Hiller) (as Adm. William Jessup)
Rapture (Guillerman) (as Larbaud)
Hotel (Quine) (as Warren Trent)
Companions in Nightmare (Lloyd—for TV)
I Never Sang for My Father (Cates) (as Tony Garrison); Hunters Are for Killing (Girard—for TV)
Death Takes a Holiday (Larkin—for TV)
One Is a Lonely Number (Stuart) (as Joseph Provo); The Candidate (Ritchie) (as John J. McCay)
The Death Squad (Falk—for TV); Murder or Mercy (Hart—for TV)
The Tenant (Polanski) (as Monsieur Zy)
Intimate Strangers (Battered!) (Moxey—for TV); Twilight's Last Gleaming (Aldrich) (as Zachariah Guthrie)
The Seduction of Joe Tynan (Schatzberg) (as Senator Birney); Being There (Ashby) (as Benjamin Rand); The Changeling (Medak) (as Senator Joseph Carmichael)
Tell Me a Riddle (Grant) (as David)
French Kiss (Act of Deceit) (Vadim) (as Max); Ghost Story (Irvin) (as John Kaffrey)
By DOUGLAS: book—
See You at the Movies: The Autobiography of Melvyn Douglas, Lanham, Maryland, 1986.
By DOUGLAS: article—
"How Do You Like Pictures?" in Stage, December 1936.
On DOUGLAS: book—
Parish, James Robert, and Don E. Stanke, The Debonairs, New Rochelle, New York, 1975.
On DOUGLAS: articles—
Spensley, Dorothy, "Hollywood's Most Civilized Marriage," in Motion Picture Magazine (New York), November 1936.
Millstein, Gilbert, "Melvyn Douglas," in Theatre Arts (New York), January 1960.
Film Dope (Nottingham), no. 13, January 1978; additions in vol. 28, December 1983.
Lewis, K., "The Two Careers of Melvyn Douglas," and "Melvyn Douglas: A Filmography," in Films in Review (New York), October and November 1981; additions to filmography in issues for February, March, and August/September 1982.
The Annual Obituary 1981, New York, 1982.
Simpson, J., "Melvyn Douglas: A Hilltop House for the Best Supporting Actor in Hud and Being There," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1990.
* * *
Melvyn Douglas's career may be divided into two major periods, each of which earned him a considerable reputation as a skillful performer. Although Douglas began as a dramatic actor and played numerous serious roles during the 1930s, he was most effective in sophisticated comedy. In the latter half of the decade, beginning with She Married Her Boss, Douglas appeared in a series of films in which his suaveness functioned as both a source of romantic appeal and the means by which he became, in reaction to humorous circumstances, the heroine's foil.
Theodora Goes Wild, an early screwball comedy, confirmed Douglas's ability, which he shared with Cary Grant, to maintain the credibility of a leading man while having his masculine ego deflated through increasingly foolish behavior. This ability is most fully realized in Ninotchka which, in a way, concerns Douglas's persona as much as Garbo's. Lubitsch, in particular, is attuned to the class and gender implications Douglas's presence carries. In Ninotchka Lubitsch subtly undermines Douglas's debonair manner through a number of witty verbal exchanges in which Garbo, who, from Douglas's viewpoint, lacks humor and sophistication, gets the upper hand and then crowns this strategy, in the famous moment when "Garbo laughs," by having Douglas take a very undignified pratfall. Although Douglas appeared in other successful comedies in the late 1940s, this film remains the highlight of this period of his career.
In the early 1950s, Douglas abandoned Hollywood to devote himself to the theater; after more than 10 years, he returned to filmmaking as a character actor in Billy Budd. In the interim, Douglas had developed into a distinguished dramatic actor and his Academy Award-winning performance in Hud was followed by a series of memorable roles. Of his late films, Tell Me a Riddle, in addition to being a stunning film, contains one of Douglas's most sensitive, humane, and touching portrayals as an elderly, conservative man, who, on the brink of his wife's death, is compelled to grapple with her feminist and socialist principles.