Family & Companions
Depending on your taste in movies, you may know Herbert Marshall best as the suave star of one of Ernst Lubitsch's best movies, Trouble in Paradise (1932), the peace-loving diplomat with a secret in Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), Bette Davis's husband in two films, The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941), a stand-in for writer W. Somerset Maugham in two adaptations of his work, The Moon and Sixpence (1942) and The Razor's Edge (1946), or the French police inspector in the sci-fi classic The Fly (1958). Even in the latter role, he seemed the epitome of British-ness, the proper gentleman who seemed to have been born with a stiff upper lip. That quality made him particularly popular among the many Anglophile producers in Hollywood's golden age, while his mellifluous voice and easy demeanor guaranteed continuous work in later years in film, television and radio.
The London born actor worked as an accounting clerk before breaking into the theatre, making his stage debut in 1911 at the age of 21. During World War I, he lost a leg to a sniper's bullet, but developed a careful, erect posture that disguised the fact that he had a prosthetic limb. When he moved into the movies, scenes that required climbing stairs were often done with a double.
Marshall made his Broadway debut in The Voice from the Minaret in 1921. He didn't try film until 1927, when he had the second male lead in the British silent Mumsie. Silents were hardly his medium, however, as they hid his beautifully modulated speaking voice. He returned to film for the early talkie version of The Letter (1929), playing the lover Jeanne Eagels kills at the film's start. Paramount filmed the picture at its studios in New York, where Marshall was scoring a Broadway hit in Frederick Lonsdale's comedy of manners The High Road, which co-starred his second wife, Edna Best (he had divorced first wife Mollie Maitland and married Best in 1928).
On his return to England, he landed the leading role in the early Hitchcock talkie Murder! (1930). He starred as a juror who has voted to convict a killer, then realizes there were holes in the Crown's case and starts investigating the crime on his own. The film was the first to use a voiceover recording of a character's thoughts. As sound technology was still primitive, however, instead of post-dubbing his thoughts, Marshall had to record them for playback during the scene in which he basically talks to himself.
Broadway brought Marshall back to the U.S. rather quickly. He starred in Phillip Barry's Tomorrow and Tomorrow in 1931 and co-starred with Best in John Van Druten's There's Always Juliet in 1932, both moderate successes. That also put him in place for another film shot at Paramount's New York studios, Secrets of a Secretary (1931), in which he co-starred with Claudette Colbert. After co-starring with Best in three British films, he moved to Hollywood to play Marlene Dietrich's long-suffering husband in Blonde Venus (1932), one of director Joseph von Sternberg's most outré films.
Then Lubitsch chose him over Cary Grant for the role of a sophisticated, seductive jewel thief in Trouble in Paradise. For fans used to Marshall's more reserved characters in later films, his performance is a revelation, particularly the scene in which he and fellow thief Miriam Hopkins flirt by stealing items from each other unobserved, including her underwear. The film was a big hit, but had to be taken out of circulation in 1935 with the arrival of strict Production Code enforcement.
As Marshall moved into his forties, he started getting roles as the solid man who can provide the leading lady with security but doesn't offer the excitement of the younger-looking leading man. In some cases, this meant losing the leading lady to a bigger star; in others it meant standing by understandingly as she almost strayed. He's a staid British lord whose marriage to Norma Shearer is threatened by playboy Robert Montgomery in MGM's Riptide and dealt with similar issues with Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil (both 1934). A trip to RKO meant taking a back seat to teen star Anne Shirley, who's out to get widowed father Marshall married, a sure ticket to disaster in Make Way for a Lady (1936).
In the '40s, Marshall started relaxing into character roles, though often in prestigious films. On the increasingly rare occasions that he received top billing, he was cast as established professionals or settled married men. In Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, he even had a grown daughter, Larraine Day, with leading man Joel McCrea carrying most of the action in that tale of international intrigue at the start of World War II. He returned to The Letter, remade by Warner Bros., but this time played the male lead, as Bette Davis's husband. With William Wyler directing, it would be one of his best performances. He reunited with Davis and Wyler a year later for The Little Foxes, the film adaptation of Lillian Hellman's hit play about corruption in a small Southern town. This time Teresa Wright played his daughter. For MGM's remake of Rachel Crothers' hit play When Ladies Meet (1941), he was fourth billed as the married publisher whose flirtation with novelist Joan Crawford forces his wife (Greer Garson) to spring into action.
Perhaps Marshall's ideal casting in that decade was as writer Geoffrey Wolfe, a stand-in for original author W. Somerset Maugham, whose memories capture the adventures of rebellious painter George Sanders (in a character inspired by Gauguin) in The Moon and Sixpence. The film, which marked the directorial debut of screenwriter Albert Lewin, was hailed as one of Hollywood's most literate and sophisticated films, a status greatly aided by Marshall's intelligent reading of the narration.
In Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble (1944), Marshall was billed below the Hardy family, even though his role as Mickey Rooney's college advisor and romantic rival was more important. On radio, age was less of a problem. The same year as the Hardy film, he started a starring role as an American secret agent in The Man Called X. The series would run for eight years, even as Marshall continued playing supporting roles as a sympathetic friend of tortured lovers Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire in The Enchanted Cottage (1945), Maugham again, commenting on Tyrone Power's and Gene Tierney's tangled love lives in The Razor's Edge and Jennifer Jones's doomed father in Duel in the Sun (1946). He was the principal of many suspects in the murder of Robert Taylor's wife in the psychological thriller High Wall (1947), then moved into more benign territory as Archibald Craven, the owner of the estate in which orphaned relation Margaret O'Brien cultivates The Secret Garden (1949). Then it was back to villainy as a corrupt publisher contending with crusading reporter Dan Duryea in The Underworld Story (1950).
In the '50s, Marshall combined television work with a mixed bag of films, some prestigious like The Virgin Queen (1955), his third film with Bette Davis, and some scraping the bottom of the cinematic barrel, like Gog (1954), a science-fiction film starring Richard Egan. He was much better served on television, where he and daughter Sarah Marshall co-starred in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls on Robert Montgomery Presents, played Dorothy McGuire's father in Best of Broadway's adaptation of The Philadelphia Story and brought his British bearing to the leading role of the failed teacher in the Lux Television Theatre version of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version.
Marshall finished his career bringing gravitas to smaller roles in films like The List of Adrian Messenger, The Caretakers (both 1963) and his last film, The Third Day (1965). Even playing a paralyzed family patriarch who can no longer speak, he scored a solid emotional connection with leading man George Peppard as his amnesiac son-in-law. By that point, Marshall was in no physical condition to act further. He died of heart failure in 1966 at the age of 75.
TCM's Summer Under the Stars pays tribute to Herbert Marshall with 14 films -- The Letter (1929), Murder! (1930), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Riptide (1934), Make Way for a Lady (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), When Ladies Meet (1941), The Moon and Sixpence (1942), Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble (1944), High Wall (1947), The Secret Garden (1949) and The Underworld Story (1950).