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A celebrated vaudevillian at the top of the 20th century, Charley Grapewin traded the limelight for the quiet life until the Great Depression wiped out his savings, forcing the aging trouper back out onto the boards. Making his belated feature film debut at 60, Grapewin carved a niche for himself in Hollywood playing a succession of judges, doctors, civil servants and the occasional millionaire in such films as "Alice Adams" (1935) with Katharine Hepburn, "The Petrified Forest" (1936) with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis, and "Captains Courageous" (1937) with Spencer Tracy. Lured away from retirement with the role of Uncle Henry in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), Grapewin attained a measure of cult immortality but more immediate was acclaim from his collaborations with director John Ford, "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) and "Tobacco Road" (1941). His endearing onscreen presence won Grapewin a recurring role as amateur sleuth Ellery Queen's father in the long-running series, beginning with "Inspector Ellery Queen" (1940) and comprising eight films. Following the death of his wife, actress Anna Chance, in 1943, Grapewin worked less frequently after World War II. He retired in 1950 on the heels of playing a grandfather who reflects on his tragic childhood in "When I Grow Up" (1951). Grapewin's death in 1956 in no way diminished the actor's stock in the eyes of moviegoers, who had long since enshrined him as the kindly Uncle whose love pointed Judy Garland toward cinematic history at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.
Charles Ellsworth Grapewin was born on Dec. 20, 1869, in Xenia, OH. Little was known of Grapewin's early life, apart from the fact that he ran away from home at age 10 with the express purpose of joining a circus. Grapewin worked as a juggler, roller-skating acrobat, and trapeze artist for P. T. Barnum, alternating stints under the big top with seasons in vaudeville. As an actor with various stock troupes, he also wrote sketches and plays as he drifted toward New York. In 1896, Grapewin married actress Anna Chance, daughter of Chicago Cubs manager Frank Chance. Grapewin and Chance performed together in vaudeville and in such early motion picture experiments as "Chimmie Hicks at the Races" and "Chimmy Hicks and the Rum Omelet" (both 1900), short subjects financed by Biograph and exhibited via Mutoscope, a rival of the Nickelodeon. Grapewin made his Broadway debut as the star of the 1905 musical farce "It's Up to You, John Henry," alongside Chance. He co-wrote the 1904 musical "The Awakening of Mr. Pipp" with George Hobart and directed Hobart's "The Big Stick" on Broadway in 1908.
Based in Long Branch, NJ, in a home he designed himself, Grapewin spent eight months out of each year touring, opening for or appearing alongside such popular stage acts as Sophie Tucker, Ed Wynn, Fannie Brice, and Fred and Adele Astaire. During these years, the actor amassed a scrapbook of glowing reviews in which he was heralded from coast to coast as a redoubtable farceur and a guaranteed mirth-maker. During summer, the trouper owned and captained a semi-professional baseball team, Grapewin's National Stars, known alternatively as The Invincibles. Though they had no children, Grapewin and Chance retired ultimately from the rigors of show business to live a quieter, more sedentary life in California. Finding work with General Motors and investing wisely, Grapewin amassed an estimable savings. With the stock market crash of 1929, the couple lost their nest egg, forcing Grapewin back to work as an actor-for-hire, though he also authored several books. He appeared with his wife in some two-reel comedies, among them "House Cleaning" for Universal and Paramount's "Jed's Vacation," based on one of Grapewin's old vaudeville sketches.
Grapewin made his feature film debut in the early Universal talkie "The Shannons of Broadway" (1929), adapted from James Gleason's Broadway farce of the same name. In the film, Grapewin was well cast as a crusty small town hotelier with whom stranded vaudevillians James and Lucile Gleason must flop for the night. In one stroke, Grapewin's lot as a character actor was fixed in Hollywood and he would go on to offer a wealth of variations on the archetype through the ensuing years. At Warner Brothers, he appeared in the Depression drama "The Millionaire" (1931), an important early credit for James Cagney, and went on to support such other rising stars as Spencer Tracey in "Disorderly Conduct" (1932), John Wayne in "Lady and Gent" (1932), and "No Man of Her Own" (1932), the first film to pair Clark Gable with Carole Lombard. In these and other films of the time, Grapewin drifted seamlessly between such unprepossessing cinematic vocations as politician, doctor, criminal, clerk, boxing coach, green grocer, and drunk.
Grapewin appeared in a number of whodunits, including "The Woman in Room 13" (1932) with Ralph Bellamy and Myrna Loy, "The Night of June 13th" (1932) with Clive Brook and Charles Ruggles, and "Return of the Terror" with Mary Astor and Frank McHugh. In "One Frightened Night" (1935), an old dark house mystery, Grapewin was the irascible paterfamilias of an affluent family whose intention to pass on his fortune to a long unseen heiress is complicated by the arrival of two different women claiming to be the beneficiary. Grapewin enjoyed featured roles in the social drama "Alice Adams" (1935) with Katharine Hepburn, in the big-budget Eugene O'Neill adaptation "Ah, Wilderness!" (1935) starring Wallace Beery and Mickey Rooney, and in "Shanghai" (1935) opposite Charles Boyer and Loretta Young. In "The Petrified Forest" (1936), Grapewin's desert café was commandeered by gangster-on-the-lam Humphrey Bogart while onscreen daughter Bette Davis found fleeting love in the arms of wandering intellectual Leslie Howard. In "Captains Courageous" (1937), Grapewin reteamed with Spencer Tracy for the tale of sailors who adopt runaway rich kid Freddie Bartholomew.
Pushing 70 years old, and with nearly as many films to his credit, Grapewin was set to retire when he was requested to join the cast of MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). Though he first turned down the offer, Grapewin eventually signed on for the troubled production, which went through a number of directors - among them George Cukor and Victor Fleming - and countless delays on its path to the big screen. Deemed a white elephant by critics at the time of its theatrical release, the mostly Technicolor "The Wizard of Oz" endured to attain the status of landmark Hollywood film, one of those rare pictures that sat comfortably between the designations of studio classic and edgy cult item. Grapewin made the most of his early scenes as Kansas schoolgirl Judy Garland's Uncle Henry and even insisted on wearing authentic balbriggan underwear to bestow upon his gnarled but tender-hearted farmer a note of site specific verisimilitude. Back in the acting game to stay, Grapewin was equally memorable as Pa Joad in John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) and as shiftless hillbilly Jeeter Lester in Ford's "Tobacco Road" (1941).
At Columbia, Grapewin found work playing the police inspector father of amateur sleuth Ralph Bellamy in "Inspector Ellery Queen" (1940), directed by Kurt Neuman and adapted from characters created by mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner. Six sequels followed with Grapewin reprising the role even after co-star Ralph Bellamy turned the title role over to William Gargan between "Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring" (1941) and "A Close Call for Ellery Queen" (1942). Grapewin also enjoyed prominent billing in Raoul Walsh's cavalry drama "They Died with Their Boots On" (1942), as California Joe, a grizzled Indian scout for Errol Flynn's General George Armstrong Custer. In September 1943, Anna Chance died. Grief-stricken, the elderly Grapewin worked less frequently. In the all-star morale-booster "Follow the Boys" (1944), he partnered with George Raft and Grace McDonald to play a vaudeville family doing their patriotic duty in the dark days following Pearl Harbor. In the boardwalk melodrama "Atlantic City" (1944), Grapewin was a boarding house permitee with a soft spot for down-and-out entertainers, while his murder in "Gunfighters" (1947) provided the impetus for reformed gunfighter Randolph Scott to strap on his six-shooter. Living alone in the Riverside County city of Corona, CA, in a home he had designed and built for himself and Anna Chance in 1939, dubbing it Grape-Inn, the actor made his last feature film at the end of 1950. In a role that easily could have been drawn from his own autobiography, Grapewin played an elderly grandfather who recalls his turbulent and tragic childhood during an outbreak of typhoid fever at the turn of the century in the release "When I Grow Up" (1951), also starring Robert Preston, Martha Scott and child actor Bobby Driscoll. Grapewin died of natural causes at age 86 in his Corona home on Feb. 2, 1956. Long before his death, the Corona thoroughfare of Grapewin Avenue had been named in his honor.
By Richard Harland Smith
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