September 6th, 1888 — April 15th, 1963
A regular member of the Mascot Pictures serial stock company during the 1930s, former stage and silent-film actor Edward Hearn played a couple of chapterplay villains–but was most frequently cast as fathers, officials, and other upright types. Many of these characters were as beleaguered as they were honest, and their various plights gave the incorrigibly hammy Hearn all the excuse he needed to indulge in over-the-top theatrics. When buffeted by treachery or misfortune, he would glare, gesture, and declaim with an almost frenzied intensity which was sometimes melodramatically effective, sometimes unintentionally comic, and always very distinctive.
Guy Edward Hearn was born in Dayton, Washington, and attended Whitman College in the same state; by the time he was 22, however, he had become a traveling thespian–as evidenced by the 1910 federal census, which lists his residence as a boarding house in Snohomish, Washington, and his occupation as “actor–vaudeville.” He lived and (presumably) acted in Canada (where he met his wife) from 1912 to 1915, but by 1916 had landed in Hollywood, where he played starring and co-starring roles in short dramas and adventure films for Universal, its subsidiary Rex, the Kalem Company, and other movie companies during the second half of the 1910s. He continued to work as a both a primary and secondary Hollywood leading man throughout the 1920s, starring in lower-budgeted action features, playing second fiddle to bigger stars (as in the silent serials Daredevil Jack and The Avenging Arrow) and occasionally taking top billing in “big” films (like the Fox feature The Man Without a Country); his most frequent employers during this decade were Universal and the studio/distribution outfit FBO (Film Booking Office). Hearn’s clear and solemn voice withstood the advent of the talkies–but didn’t help him to survive a corporate shakeup at FBO. That studio was absorbed into the new company RKO in 1928, and by mid-1929 had stopped turning out its own films, sending Hearn and its other regular actors out to freelance in the tumultuous world of the early sound era.
The first half of the 1930s found Hearn playing lawmen and heavies in several B-westerns (most of them for an studio named Allied), and taking numerous bits in bigger films at Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount, and many other outfits; however, his steadiest employer from 1930 through 1935 was Mascot boss Nat Levine, who cast him in many of his small outfit’s chapterplays. Hearn’s first Mascot serial was 1931’s The Vanishing Legion, in which he played a major supporting role as Jed Williams–a wanted fugitive who spent most of the serial dodging the law, the titular vigilante group, and the henchmen of a criminal called “the Voice,” before finally getting cleared of a murder charge by his young son Jimmy (Frankie Darro) and wildcatter “Happy” Cardigan (Harry Carey). Among Hearn’s major sound-serial roles, this part was perhaps the one best-suited to his acting style; his grandiosely dramatic displays of grief (when being torn from his son by the minions of the law) or anger (when confronting his various accusers) seemed more than a bit frantic at times, but this franticness felt appropriate to his desperate character–as did the emphatic collection of wary and despairing facial expressions he used in his non-dialogue scenes.
Hearn’s (and Mascot’s) next serial was The Galloping Ghost (1931), which starred the famed Harold “Red” Grange as a college football player who was wrongfully accused of taking a bribe, and had to battle a gambling syndicate in order to clear himself. Hearn was cast as Grange’s football coach Harlow, a role that didn’t give him as much screen time as his Vanishing Legion part had–but which did give him several chances to chew the scenery, particularly in the scenes in which he furiously denounced the misjudged Grange, and in which he vehemently but gloomily tried to rally his team (which went on a losing streak as soon as Grange was suspended). His feverish urgency in these and other sequences seemed more suited to a life-and-death military campaign than to a collegiate athletic competition–but, considering the fanaticism with which college coaches, both then and now, approach the football season, it’d be hard to actually call his performance overdone.
The Shadow of the Eagle (Mascot, 1932) featured Hearn as Nathan Gregory, a former World War 1 flying ace nicknamed “the Eagle;” shot down during the war by his own fellow-airmen while flying a captured German ship, Gregory was presumed dead, but survived to run a small carnival–and to discover, in the serial’s opening chapter, that the five former colleagues responsible for his wartime accident were now running an airplane factory, and making a lot of money from an aeronautical invention he’d been developing before he was shot down. When a masked criminal also calling himself “the Eagle” began threatening the factory directors, Gregory immediately became a prime suspect, but his daughter Jean (Dorothy Gulliver) and his carnival stunt-pilot Craig McCoy (John Wayne) eventually managed to unmask the real culprit. Hearn was kept off-stage in many of Eagle’s scenes, in order to keep audiences thinking that he might be the new Eagle, after all; however, he still figured prominently in many other scenes–giving his character an effective combination of bitterness and kindly dignity part of the time, but periodically becoming excessively and almost absurdly theatrical; his impassioned outburst in Chapter One, after Gregory learned of the apparent treachery of his wartime comrades, was particularly overdone.
Hearn went from the American air squadrons of World War 1 to the British army of the French and Indian war in his next serial, playing Colonel Munro in Mascot’s loose 1932 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel The Last of the Mohicans. As in the book, Munro earned the undying enmity of the Huron warrior Magua (Bob Kortman) by ordering him flogged; Magua’s attempts to avenge himself on Munro’s daughters Alice and Cora (Lucile Browne and Edwina Booth), and the great frontiersman Hawkeye’s (Harry Carey) efforts to protect the girls, then provided much of the basis for the serial’s action. As the commander of a military contingent, Hearn’s character wasn’t able take part in much of the woods-based skirmishing that made up the bulk of said action, but did appear at regular intervals throughout the serial–parleying with his French opponent General Montcalm (Mischa Auer), conferring with Hawkeye and secondary hero Major Hayward (Walter Miller), supervising the defense of Fort William Henry, leading his soldiers into battle against Magua’s Indians, and dramatically lamenting over the perilous situation of his daughters. Hearn handled these laments–and his expressions of regret when he was forced to surrender his fort to Montcalm–with his characteristic histrionic flourishes, but his old-fashioned theatricality actually came across as fairly natural in the serial’s 18th-century setting.
Fighting With Kit Carson (Mascot, 1933) put Hearn on the villains’ team for a change; as an outlaw named Morgan, one of the henchmen of the ruthless Cyrus Kraft (Noah Beery Sr.), he regularly battled hero Carson (John Mack Brown) for a gold shipment, and became the serial’s principal action heavy after his predecessor in that office (Al Bridge) bit the dust in Chapter Seven. This straightforward henchman role didn’t allow Hearn any moments of high melodrama, but he played it with fervor nonetheless, alternately glowering murderously or cringing furtively during his clashes with Brown.
Hearn was more sympathetic–but had much less screen time–in his next serial, The Mystery Squadron (Mascot, 1933); he played a capable rural sheriff who appeared in two early episodes to help the hero (Bob Steele) question suspicious characters, then popped up again in the final chapter to help apprehend the villainous Black Ace and his henchmen. Hearn adopted a laid-back and rustically informal demeanor in his early scenes in this serial, but snapped back to stagy vehemence when it came time to chase fugitives, accuse suspects, confront criminals, or puzzle over confusing evidence.
Hearn switched over to the villains’ side again in Burn ‘Em Up Barnes (Mascot, 1934), as a henchman-pack member named Parker–who entered the serial in Chapter Two to move some road-markers as part of a plot to frame racecar-driver hero Barnes (Jack Mulhall) for murder; however, Parker’s skullduggery was filmed by Barnes’ young cameraman friend Bobby Reilly (Frankie Darro), forcing Parker and his fellow-henchmen to spend most of Chapters Three and Four chasing Barnes and Reilly in hopes of suppressing this damaging evidence. Their efforts were in vain, though; the film was shown to the police in Chapter Five, and Parker was subsequently gunned down while fleeing arrest. Hearn was effectively aggressive and blustery in this comparatively short-lived role, charging Barnes with murder and demanding the film from Bobby in angrily self-important fashion.
Mystery Mountain (Mascot, 1934), featured Hearn as a freight-line owner named Lake, a rival of heroine Jane Corwin’s (Verna Hillie) freighting company who was strongly suspected of being the mysterious “Rattler”–the mystery villain trying to sabotage the Corwin outfit and the railroad it was supplying; however, another suspect was unmasked as the Rattler at the end. Hearn delivered one of his more restrained performances here; though he responded to (and hurled out) accusations with forcefulness, and adopted a vigorously sinister look as he lurked suspiciously around the railroad construction camp, he also retained a gruffly taciturn manner that kept him from seeming too overwrought.
Above: The mounted Edward Hearn orders his men to take Ken Maynard into custody in Mystery Mountain (Mascot, 1934). Gene Autry is on the far left, Smiley Burnette in the center of the group on the right.
The Miracle Rider (1935) was Hearn’s last Mascot chapterplay, and gave him one of his biggest serial roles–as a crooked storekeeper named Emil Janss, the secondary villain. Janss was plotting to drive the Ravenhead Indians off their reservation, in order to make the government buy some new reservation land from him; this petty real-estate scheming got him entangled in the far more ambitious schemes of the serial’s main villain, Zaroff (Charles Middleton), who was secretly mining a powerful new explosive called X-94 from the Ravenheads’ land. Zaroff found the shady Janss a convenient scapegoat for his own campaign against the Ravenheads, and for some time managed to make heroic Texas Ranger Tom Morgan (Tom Mix) think that Janss was the mastermind behind all the attacks on the reservation. After discovering the secret of X-94 in Chapter Eight, Janss blackmailed his way into an uneasy partnership with Zaroff, and served as his co-conspirator until Chapter Eleven–in which Janss was exposed by Morgan and forced to go on the run, finally getting killed off at the beginning of Chapter Thirteen. Hearn’s part in Rider allowed him to be coolly self-assured (when blackmailing Zaroff), thunderously pompous (when protesting his innocence or accusing others of criminality), and hysterically panicked (when fleeing from the hero after his unmasking) by turns; he handled all these aspects of the role with unsubtle but commanding energy, establishing a firm presence in the serial despite the overshadowing personalities of Mix and Middleton.
Later in 1935, Mascot merged with several other outfits to create Republic Pictures; Hearn would play some credited and many uncredited supporting roles in the new studio’s features (particularly their B-westerns) during the second half of the 1930s, while also appearing (chiefly as a bit player) in many non-Republic features and a few chapterplays. However, by this time sound-film acting was becoming more fine-tuned, which made it harder for the broadly stagy Hearn to get major acting assignments, even in B-films and serials; his Republic feature parts shrank noticeably in size as the 1930s wore on, while Republic chapterplay roles that would probably have gone to him a few years earlier were instead awarded to subtler players like C. Montague Shaw and Herbert Rawlinson.
The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok (Columbia, 1938), was Hearn’s first serial since Miracle Rider, and his first sound-era cliffhanger for a studio other than Mascot; he appeared in its last two chapters–and got to display a little of his characteristic dignified indignation–as a Chicago cattle buyer named Tom Stedman, who came to Abilene to purchase a herd from a group of impoverished Texas ranchers, was kidnapped by villains who’d spent most of the serial trying to derail the Texans’ cattle drive, but was rescued by Hickok (Bill Elliott) in time to make a deal with the drovers. Red Barry (Universal, 1938), gave him a less important role as a police detective named O’Hara, who was assigned to tail a suspect in one chapter, and gravely showed some fingerprint evidence to superiors Buster Crabbe and Wade Boteler in another. He was a policeman again in The Spider’s Web (Columbia, 1938)–playing a bit part as a desk sergeant–while Dick Tracy’s G-Men (Republic, 1939), his last 1930s serial, cast him in another law-enforcing bit, as a forest ranger.
Hearn became almost exclusively a bit player during the early 1940s, as far as feature films were concerned–but still managed to win some noticeable character parts in serials. His first chapterplay of the decade was Adventures of Red Ryder (Republic, 1940), in which he made a first-episode appearance as an army colonel named Lang, briefly reporting on frontier lawlessness to a board of concerned railroad tycoons. He received a much more substantial part in Deadwood Dick (Columbia, 1940) as Tom Sharp–a stage-line owner and a member of a committee of solid Dakota Territory citizens bent on crushing the outlaw menace known as the Skull; Sharp, like most of the other committee members, came under strong suspicion of being the Skull himself at one point in the serial–but was ultimately cleared. Although Hearn only occasionally got to leave the committee’s council-room in Deadwood Dick, he received more opportunities to exhibit grandiloquent outrage than he had in any serial since The Miracle Rider; his irate denunciations of the outlaws’ activities, and his even more irate reaction when he was accused of being the Skull, recalled his glory days at Mascot. Dick’s director, James W. Horne, was fond of encouraging normally low-key players to wildly overact for comic effect–and was undoubtedly pleased to find, in Hearn, an actor who didn’t need any prodding to make him ham it up; all of Hearn’s remaining major roles would be in Horne’s serials.
Above: Lee Shumway watches Edward Hearn enthuse over a plan to stop the Skull in Deadwood Dick (Mascot, 1940).
The Green Hornet Strikes Again (Universal, 1940) gave Hearn a pair of amusing bits as a policeman who bounced a couple of good wisecracks off of reckless reporter Mike Axford (Wade Boteler) during a traffic stop, and then popped up again in the next chapter to exasperatedly receive Axford’s flustered report of a shooting. The Green Archer (Columbia, 1940) featured him as a less humorous policeman, who appeared out of nowhere to shoot down villain James Craven in the last chapter–in a scene that was obviously originally intended to show Craven committing suicide, but was apparently altered for censorship reasons in post-production; Hearn was never seen in the same frame as any of the other characters, or even really acknowledged by them.
James Horne’s White Eagle (Columbia, 1941), an uneven combination of spoofery and Western action, gave Hearn one more of his trademark upright-but-persecuted roles as a trading-post owner named Gardner, whose business was frequently targeted by the outlaw followers of “Dandy” Darnell (James Craven). Hearn reacted to these raids with his typically extravagant displays of anguish and righteous anger–but was so deadly serious throughout that his performance came off as likably sincere, in comparison to the equally overdone and obviously tongue-in-cheek characterizations of several of Eagle’s other actors (especially Craven and comic sidekick Raymond Hatton).
Don Winslow of the Navy (Universal, 1941) and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (Republic, 1941) cast Hearn in small parts as (respectively) one of a group of henchmen who ambushed the hero inside an abandoned sea-mill, and a Coast Guard captain whose cutter engaged, rammed, and sunk the craft of a group of seagoing gold thieves. After these bits, he rejoined James Horne for Holt of the Secret Service (Columbia, 1941), which gave him in his last prominent serial part; as a Secret Service agent named Jim Layton, he served as the contact for undercover operatives Jack Holt and Evelyn Brent for much of the serial, regularly giving them covert assistance in their quest to infiltrate and destroy a counterfeiting ring. Hearn’s attempts to convey tense alertness in Holt were so overstated that they often made him seem merely jittery instead; however, as in White Eagle, the sheer seriousness of his performance made him a nice counterweight to the humorously cartoonish behavior of some of his co-stars–particularly Holt, who played his character’s undercover “swaggering hoodlum” pose for maximum comic effect.
Hearn continued playing small feature-film roles on a regular basis up until 1945, when (at least according the Internet Movie Database), he began a five-year break from movie-making. A 1953 newspaper item (see the Acknowledgements) suggests that he might have done radio work during this hiatus; he could possibly have made a temporary return to stage acting as well. In any case, Hearn came back to the screen in 1950–and made one last serial appearance in that year, doing a brief but enjoyable character turn as a cantankerous scientist named Professor Stone in Columbia’s Atom Man vs. Superman. Hearn’s character agreed to analyze one of Luthor’s (Lyle Talbot) teleportation coins on behalf of the Daily Planet newspaper, but was overpowered and imprisoned by Luthor’s henchmen, who were anxious to retrieve the coin. The angry Hearn then tried to incinerate the thugs with a hidden flame-throwing ray, but wound up nearly roasting Lois Lane (Noel Neill) and Jimmy Olsen (Tommy Bond) by mistake; Superman (Kirk Alyn) came to the rescue in time, and then, in his Clark Kent persona, explained things to Hearn. However, Hearn by now was so irked by the whole situation that he kicked the Planet reporters out of his lab, in a last grand burst of formalized fury.
Hearn kept his hand in the movie business over the next few years, playing credited roles in a couple of RKO Tim Holt B-Westerns, taking uncredited bits in several A-films (chiefly at Warners), and making a few appearances on early TV shows. However, by 1956 he had left the screen again, this time for good; seven years later, he passed away in the Los Angeles area.
Many serial character players–among them Forrest Taylor, John Davidson, and Wheeler Oakman–permanently endeared themselves to serial fans by being slyly, humorously, and deftly hammy. Edward Hearn’s hamminess was too intensely and heavily serious for him to become similarly beloved, but the toweringly overdramatic earnestness with which he soldiered through his serial roles made him appealing in his own fashion; acting subtleties aside, it’s hard for a chapterplay devotee not to like someone who took serials as seriously as Hearn did.
Acknowledgements: The information in this article was derived from multiple federal censuses, Hearn’s World War 1 draft-registration form, his 1921 passport application, an entry in a 1920 Who’s Who On Screen book, a column from the February 6th, 1926 edition of the St. Petersburg Times, and a small item in the June 13th, 1953 edition of the Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review.