Louis Calhern was born Carl Henry Vogt on February 19, 1895 in New York City. While still a child his family moved and he grew up in St. Louis. While playing high school football a stage manager from a touring theatrical stock company spotted him and hired him as an extra. Just prior to World War I, Calhern decided to move back to New York to pursue an acting career, borrowing money from his father in order to do so. He began as a prop boy and bit player with touring companies and burlesque companies. His burgeoning carrer was interrupted by the war and he served overseas in the military during World War I.
On returning from France the young actor thought it wise to change his German name. He came up with Louis, for St. Louis, and rearranged the letters in his first and second names to make Calhern. Back in New York his first Broadway break came in the 1923 George M. Cohan production Song and Dance Man. The tall and imposing Calhern became a matinee idol by virtue of a play titled The Cobra, and soon began to act in films. Beginning in 1921 with What's Worth While?, Calhern played roles as cultured, saturnine characters in numerous silent films (including Lois Weber's The Blot).
With his velvety smooth voice and debonair air, Calhern easily made the transition into the early talkie era as he could play both a leading man or a villain convincingly. In the early 30s he was primarily in demand as a character actor in Hollywood, but he continued to play leading roles on the stage. For a time, Calhern battled alcoholism and lost several important stage and screen assignments because of his personal problems, but by the late 1940s, Calhern had gone cold turkey and completely cleaned up his act. As he aged, his kindly face and cultured voice helped him to work steadily in the 50s in character roles.
Calhern is well remembered today as conniving Ambassador Trentino in the 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, and confirmed his ability as a comedic actor in Wheeler and Woolsey's equally nonsensical Diplomaniacs that same year). He appeared as Randolph Van Cleve in Heaven Can Wait in 1943, and The Bridge at San Luis Rey in 1944. In 1946 he worked for Alfred Hitchcock in Notorious, as Captain Paul Prescott, the superior of Cary Grant's espionage agent in Rio.
He reached his peak in the 1950s as an MGM contract player in many memorable roles. He played the double-crossing lawyer and sugar-daddy to Marilyn Monroe in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Also in 1950 was his Oscar-nominated role as Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee. In Annie Get Your Gun (1950) he played Buffalo Bill, in We're Not Married (1952) opposite Zsa Zsa Gabor he played Freddie Melrose, a jilted husband who gets sweet revenge, and gave an arresting performace as a cynical teacher in Blackboard Jungle (1955). Calhern was also an experienced Shakespearian actor (making several well-reviewed appearances as King Lear--his favorite role) and played the title role in Julius Caesar (1953) with Marlon Brando and James Mason.
He was married four times: to Ilka Chase from June 1926 until their divorce in February 1927; to Julia Hoyt from June 1927 to divorce in 1932; Natalie Schaefer (of TVs Gilligan's Island) from April 1933 to divorce in 1942 and to Marianne Stewart from November 1946 to divorce in July 1955. Louis Calhern died of a sudden heart attack on May 12, 1956 while filming The Teahouse of the August Moon in Tokyo, Japan, and had to be replaced by character actor Paul Ford.
Some of Louis Calhern's other films include Night After Night (1933), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1934), The Count of Monte Cristo (1935), The Last Days of Pompeii (1937), The Life of Emile Zola (1939), Juarez (1943), Up in Arms (1946), The Red Pony (1950), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), Executive Suite (1956), and High Society (1956).
--THE NOIR 'NET
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