A native of Kansas City, MO, Wallace Fitzgerald Beery was born on April 1, 1885. A less than dedicated student, he was allowed to leave school after the fourth grade by his parents and toiled for a time on the railroad and in a nut and bolt factory. Beery was eventually hired on at Ringling Brothers, where he displayed a particular talent for training elephants. By 1898, his older brother, Noah Beery, had launched a performing career in New York City, and Wallace decided to try his hand at acting as well. After earning experience with various stock companies, he made his Broadway debut in the musical comedy "The Belle of the West" (1905), which had a short run, but had more luck with the moderately more successful "The Yankee Tourist" (1907). He first appeared on movie screens in the short "His Athletic Wife" (1913) and became a regular presence in the comedy short subjects produced by Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. His most beloved character was Sweedie, the far-from-feminine Swedish maid that he portrayed in more than two dozen popular productions. Over the next several years, Beery graced many other shorts and also undertook various behind-the-scenes duties. He eventually worked his way up to director and alternated between that and performing, but stuck to acting from 1920 onward. During that flurry of activity, he married up-and-coming 17-year-old actress Gloria Swanson and the two starred in several pictures together, including "Sweedie Goes to College" (1915) and "The Broken Pledge" (1915). The couple eventually relocated to the West Coast and both graduated to features.
Beery starred as Mauqa in one of the earliest adaptations of "The Last of the Mohicans" (1920) and was a supporting cast member in the Rudolph Valentino epic "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921). Rube-faced enough for comedy and stocky enough to convince in action adventure roles, Beery was well-cast as Richard the Lion-Hearted in the Douglas Fairbank version of "Robin Hood" (1922) and was back in his own "Richard the Lion-Hearted" (1923) vehicle the following year. He also contributed much to the humor of Buster Keaton's farce "Three Ages" (1923) as the Great Stone Face's rival across three time periods. His marriage to Swanson had ended in divorce by then and in 1924, Beery wed his second wife, extra Rita Gilman, with whom he adopted a daughter. The actor had one of his most notable parts from that period as explorer Professor Challenger in the stop-motion fantasy classic "The Lost World" (1925) and he was a perfect incarnation of "Casey at the Bat" (1927), adapted from Ernest Lawrence Thayer's classic poem. As the age of sound dawned on the industry, Beery stumbled. Unable to remember his lines, he would sometimes go off script in desperation. The pressure he felt to adjust to the new demands of feature films was heightened by financial problems Beery was saddled with in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash.
Let go from the talent stable at Paramount Pictures, he was luckily hired by MGM and gave an impressive turn as dangerous convict Butch Schmidt in "The Big House" (1930), with his commanding performance resulting in a Best Actor Academy Award nomination. The same year's "Min and Bill" (1930) offered the first of his two pairings with Marie Dressler, the oversized Broadway/vaudeville comedienne who was virtually his female counterpart in every conceivable way. While his co-star won an Oscar, the tragicomedy was still instrumental in establishing one of Beery's most popular personas: the lunky, likeable blue-collar guy who enjoys his vices, but is a good person when all is said and done. Those qualities were all evident in his most famous role as "The Champ" (1931), an over-the-hill boxer whose drinking and gambling problems do nothing to diminish him in the eyes of his young boy (Jackie Cooper). A charming story of father and son love, the film was a tremendous hit and Beery's Best Actor win fully vaulted him from character player to genuine movie star. In one of the only instances of a tie for this award, Beery shared the prize with Frederic March, nominated for his dual performance as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931).
Now an esteemed contract player for the industry's top studio, Beery joined other major MGM talent in the all-star dramatic extravaganza "Grand Hotel" (1932) and was reunited with Marie Dressler in the very popular "Tugboat Annie" (1933). The ungainly Dressler's rise to major box office draw was every bit as unlikely as the success enjoyed by Beery, but sadly, her life ended a year later, a victim of cancer. Beery continued to feature prominently in such major productions as George Cukor's "Dinner at Eight" (1933) - in which he memorably sparred his unlikely wife, the very sassy Jean Harlow - and gave a memorably colorful turn as Long John Silver in Victor Fleming's wonderful adaptation of "Treasure Island" (1934). While the Missouri native seemed an unlikely choice to personify famous Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, Beery made the part his own, paving the way for a positive reception to "Viva Villa" (1934). A flying enthusiast, Beery travelled back and forth from the Mexican location in his private plane. While he often played loveable lugs onscreen, few who knew Beery held him in that sort of regard. Often mean, frequently petty and on constant guard of being upstaged, especially by children, Beery alienated many of his fellow performers. He was also a heavy drinker who could be even more disagreeable when drunk. On Dec. 20, 1937, Beery became involved in a bar fight with comedian Ted Healy, former manager of The Three Stooges and a less than adored Hollywood figure himself. Lucky Luciano enforcer Pasquale "Pat" DiCicco (former husband of actress Thelma Todd, who died under mysterious circumstances that were ruled suicide) and a third man allegedly contributed to the savage beating inflicted upon Healy in the parking lot of the establishment that evening. Healy soon died of his injuries and MGM quickly shipped Beery overseas until the smoke cleared. In the end, no charges were ever filed, but Beery's perceived involvement in the murder only contributed further to his less-than-savory reputation.
By the end of the 1930s, Beery's star had faded somewhat and his marriage to Gilman was over. The loss of Dressler put a premature end to their screen outings, but Beery was eventually given another female counterpart in Marjorie Main, who provided a similarly perfect comic contrast. The two first shared the same cast list in the Western "Wyoming" (1940) and were the leads of "Barnacle Bill" (1941), "Jackass Mail" (1942), and others. While their collaborations provided Main's career with a significant boost, she found Beery no more tolerable than anyone else and was happy to move on when the time came. While there was still an audience for the sort of characters Beery specialized in, the films themselves seemed less inspired, though he enjoyed one final notable vehicle with "Salute to the Marines" (1943), in which he played a hardboiled Master Sergeant trying to hold off Japanese forces in the Philippines. Now into his 60s, Beery decided to slow down his output. In 1946, he suffered the loss of his brother Noah, who had also enjoyed a long run as a character actor on film. During the summer of 1948, Beery strained his heart while cranking an outboard motor and never fully recovered. His life was further complicated by a paternity suit that reportedly caused additional strain on his health. Six months after essaying the title role in the Western "Big Jack" (1949), Beery suffered a major heart attack and died at his home on April 15, 1949. He was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame upon its establishment in 1960.
By John Charles
(Courtesy of TCMDb)