Jack Mulhall is probably not a name that springs to mind when buffs talk about silent films, yet he appeared in hundreds of silent films. He never really became a major star like John Gilbert or Rudolph Valentino, but he served as leading man to many of the era’s biggest female stars.
Mulhall was a mainstay of First National/Warner Bothers films for many years, where he appeared in 13 films with Dorothy Mackaill. He also appeared in films with Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Constance Talmadge, Norma Talmadge, Mae Murray, Blanche Sweet, Bebe Daniels, May McAvoy, Madge Bellamy, Viola Dana, Marie Prevost, Alice White, Billie Dove, Mabel Normand, Corinne Griffith, and (going back to 1910) with Mary Pickford.
Jack Mulhall got his first sizable role in The Fugitive (1910), a Civil War drama directed by D.W. Griffith. That same year he appeared in Sunshine Sue and A Child’s Stratagem with Pickford, though they were not the stars. He seems to have abandoned films for a few years and returned to Biograph in 1913, getting his first top-billed role in the short comedy, The Fall of Muscle-Bound Hicks.
By 1916 he had moved to Universal and to feature films. His earliest surviving feature is The Place Beyond the Winds (1916) in which he co-starred with Dorothy Phillips and Lon Chaney. The first reel is missing in this story about young lovers fighting against the girl’s crazy father and a crazed man (Chaney) who lusts after Phillips.
In 1918 he made the first of four films for Cecil B. De Mille, appearing as the priest in The Whispering Chorus with Elliott Dexter. This one survives. Mulhall also had a small role in Gloria Swanson’s breakout hit, Don’t Change Your Husband, in 1919. He plays a gambler. Should a Woman Tell? (1919) mostly survives in a Dutch print. This one features a young John Gilbert.
1922 saw Mulhall in another film with Chaney. This time Chaney was the star. Flesh and Blood features Chaney as a man posing as a cripple in order to track down the man who framed him years before. He also learns that his daughter is in love with the man’s son (Mulhall).
Mulhall co-starred with Norma Talmadge in the surviving Within the Law (1923). Talmadge plays a woman wrongly convicted for stealing by a store owner. When she gets out of prison, she embarks on a career of bilking rich men for “breach of promise.” Of course when she meets the store owner’s son (Mulhall) as a potential victim, she falls for him.
He got a change of pace co-starring with Constance Talmadge in Dulcy (1923) and a 1924 comedy called The Goldfish in with she plays a social-climbing wife who dumps him to marry a rich man. Years later, after he becomes a famous song writer, they meet again and rekindle their old love. Only a fragment of this film is known to survive. 1925’s The Mad Whirl survives and stars May McAvoy as a woman caught up in a world of wild parties and the fast life.
Joanna (1925) was the first pairing of Mulhall with Dorothy Mackaill. Silence (1926) was thought lost, but a copy was found in France and restored. The film was screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2017 and features H.B. Warner on the eve of being hanged, thinking back over his life.
Mulhall teamed with Colleen Moore in Orchids and Ermine (1927) in which Moore plays a telephone operator at a swanky hotel. She and her gold-digging pal (Gwen Lee) are out to catch rich millionaires. When she falls for a valet (Mulhall) who’s in for a big surprise when she learns Mulhall was only masquerading as a valet to escape the attention of fortune hunters. This one survives and features a very young Mickey Rooney.
In the late 1920s Mulhall was teamed with Dorothy Mackaill in a series of successful films. Variety ranked them among the top “featured players” at First National where they were not considered “stars” under the old contract system. Mulhall’s first all talkie seems to have been Twin Beds in 1929 (he was already in his early 40s), a lost comedy with Patsy Ruth Miller. He also starred in Dark Streets, a crime drama with Lila Lee in which he is credited with playing the first dual roles in a talkie. Mulhall also appeared in Warners’ all-star revue The Show of Shows.
It looks like First National dropped him shortly after Show Girl in Hollywood with Alice White and Blanche Sweet, but he kept working at RKO, Columbia, and lesser studios. He also went back to the stage. Variety reported in April 1932 that Mulhall truly believed the old adage, “the show must go on,” when his Vaudeville partner walked out of the act in Long Beach to accept a film role. Mulhall went on as a single.
He also went on in films in ever-diminishing roles, getting top billing in minor films like Secret Sinner (1933) with Sue Carol and the serial, Burn ‘Em Up Barnes (1934), both for Mascot Pictures. He would continue in small roles and uncredited bit parts in films and television until 1959, amassing more than 440 acting credits.
His New York Times obituary noted that Mulhall worked with 101 different leading ladies and claimed that he was the first film actor to earn $1,000 a week. It was noted that his salary for his final film, The Atomic Submarine in 1959 was $100.
Copyright Ed Lorusso 2018
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