November 15th, 1885 — July 12th, 1953
The quietly dignified Herbert Rawlinson was, like so many other serial character actors, a star in silent chapterplays; he made twelve serial appearances in all during the sound era. He was most frequently cast as military officers or civilian dignitaries; roles of this sort typically gave him little to do, but he always handled them with an appealing combination of thoughtfulness, uprightness, and urbanity. He listened and reacted to reports from various serial heroes with a convincingly keen and intelligent expression, issued orders to those same heroes in a crisp, commanding, and calmly self-assured voice, and congratulated the aforesaid heroes on well-completed assignments in warm and gentlemanly style. Inactive though his characters typically were, he usually made them seem extremely worthy of their positions of authority.
Herbert Rawlinson was born in Brighton, England; he came to America before he was out of his teens and spent the first part of his thespian career as a traveling stage player. According to the 1910 federal census, he immigrated to the US in 1897; the same census also lists him as currently living in a St. Louis boarding house–his occupation, of course, is given as “actor.” Rawlinson was approaching the end of his theatrical touring days when this census record was made; a year later, he went to work for the Hollywood branch of Willam Selig’s Polyscope movie studio, at the recommendation of distinguished stage actor Hobart Bosworth (who also worked for Polyscope). Rawlinson appeared in innumerable short Polyscope films over the next four years, frequently playing young secondary heroes in dramas that starred the much older Bosworth; he also played in support of other Polyscope stars like Harold Lockwood and Tom Santschi, and took solo leads in yet more of the studio’s films. He departed Polyscope in 1914; later the same year, he signed on at Universal later the same year, where he consistently won top-billed roles in features and at least one serial (the 1915 outing The Black Box). Rawlinson left Universal to freelance in 1919; now well-established as a prominent and popular leading man, he played leads in dramas, adventure films, romantic comedies, and serials for a wide variety of studios throughout most of the 1920s.
Towards the end of the 1920s, Rawlinson departed Hollywood for New York, where he starred or co-starred in multiple Broadway plays; upon his 1933 return to California, he found that he was now considered too old for leading-man roles. However, his smooth, British-accented voice and his dignified but realistic acting style made him a useful asset to producers in the new talkie era; he was given plenty of credited character roles (usually as officials of some kind) during the remaining years of the 1930s, particularly at Universal and Warner Brothers. He also lent his services to serial-producing studios like Republic Pictures, taking his first sound-era chapterplay role in that studio’s 1936 serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island. Though he was prominently billed, his part in Clipper Island was small, and also a good deal more antagonistic than most of his other serial roles. As Grant Jackson, the wealthy financial backer of a trans-Pacific dirigible company, he spent almost all of his screen time in the company’s office. His character began the serial in very unsympathetic vein, aggressively insisting that the company’s flagship dirigible must proceed on schedule despite a sabotage risk, in order to save corporate face; he later switched to pessimistically grouching about the company’s impending doom, after the dirigible was in fact wrecked–all the while maintaining a smugly haughty manner calculated to make viewers think that he was H. K., the serial’s mystery villain; however, he was revealed as a red herring in the final episode (expectedly so, since he acted so emphatically suspicious).
Blake of Scotland Yard (Victory Pictures, 1937), Rawlinson’s second sound serial, gave him the last starring role of his film career; he was cast as the serial’s title character, Sir James Blake—a scientist and retired Scotland Yard inspector committed to keeping a dangerous death ray out of the hands of a master villain called the Scorpion. Blake was a heavily padded and very cheaply produced serial—but wasn’t a complete disaster, thanks largely to Rawlinson’s excellent leading performance. The Blake character was more or less an older version of the suave and polished scientific-detective heroes Rawlinson had portrayed in silent serials like the aforementioned Black Box or the 1919 chapterplay The Carter Case, and Rawlinson played him with the same shrewdness, joviality, and jaunty dignity he had brought to those earlier outings—whether he was energetically slugging it out with henchmen, conducting undercover investigations disguised as rustic laborers or Cockneys (complete with suitable accents), coolly examining important clues, or assuredly explaining his intelligent deductions for the benefit of impressed good guys or capture villains.
The 1937 Republic serial SOS Coast Guard featured Rawlinson in the first of the dignified background roles he would play in most of his later serials; as Coast Guard Commander Boyle, he gravely supervised Coast Guard Lieutenant Terry Kent’s (Ralph Byrd) search for the munitions smuggler Boroff (Bela Lugosi)—but never left Coast Guard headquarters himself. He only briefly took the spotlight in the final chapter, when he authoritatively assumed charge of the hunt for Boroff after Kent was temporarily captured by the villain; his quietly grim refusal to give in to Boroff’s demands after the villain threatened to execute Kent was particularly good (“Boroff and his kind must be annihilated regardless of cost; that’s what Kent would want”).
Rawlinson didn’t appear in another serial until 1940, when Universal gave him a couple of scenes as the tense and irritable Dr. Frohmann in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. His character was one of a group of famed scientists working to find the cure for the extra-terrestrial “Purple Death” plague being visited upon Earth, and was the only member of the group to vocally doubt whether heroes Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov (Buster Crabbe and Frank Shannon) would be able to halt the onslaught of the disease by a flight to the planet Mongo, from whence the Purple Death emanated.
King of the Royal Mounted (Republic, 1940) gave Rawlinson one of his best serial supporting parts; as Inspector King of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the father and superior officer of hero Sgt. Dave King (Allan Lane), he actively participated in the Mounties’ fight against Nazi agents during the serial’s first three episodes—sternly confronting the villains in person instead of merely issuing orders to other Mounties. In his interactions with Lane, Rawlinson did an excellent job of conveying fatherly pride and affection while simultaneously maintaining military reserve; his strong and likable performance and his good rapport with Lane made his character’s heroic death scene in Chapter Four (in which he saved the hero’s life at the cost of his own) one of the most affecting serial sequences of its kind.
Rawlinson found himself playing uncredited character bits more and more often during the early years of the 1940s, as his silent-era fame steadily faded from studio executives’ memory; however, his name still retained enough marquee appeal for Republic to assign him sixth billing for a mere three-scene role in the serial King of the Texas Rangers (1941). As Ranger colonel Lee Avery, Rawlinson only appeared in King’s first and final chapters, but handled his scant screen time well; his solemn kindliness as he presented the badge of a murdered Ranger to the dead officer’s son (hero Sammy Baugh) was particularly memorable. Don Winslow of the Navy (Universal, 1941) gave him similarly prominent on-screen accreditation, but even less to do; he popped up briefly in the first episode as Admiral Wharton, who approvingly watched Winslow (Don Terry) demonstrate his naval know-how during an introductory maneuvers sequence.
Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942) featured Rawlinson as a Canadian railroad builder named Richard Winton, whose track-laying project was beset by outlaws and by the Indians they duped into doing their dirty work; Winton did nothing to help RCMP Sergeant MacLane (Robert Kellard) deal with this situation—angrily blustering at the Mountie for his lack of investigative success and crabbily snarling at Indian chieftains during supposed peace negotiations. As in Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Rawlinson proved quite as effective in an antagonistic part as in his more typical sympathetic roles, but was far more unrelievedly cranky than in either of the aforementioned serials–probably due to the urgings of Perils’ director James W. Horne, who liked to elicit exaggerated performances from his actors. Unlike some of the other character players who worked in Horne’s serials, Rawlinson remained believable and didn’t lapse into overacting—but still made Winton seem so consistently and realistically unpleasant that it was hard to care whether he got his railroad finished or not.
Above: John Elliott (standing) tries to negotiate a peace settlement between the stubborn Art Miles (the Indian chief on the far left) and the equally stubborn Herbert Rawlinson in Perils of the Royal Mounted (Columbia, 1942). Nick Thompson, as medicine man Black Bear, is seated between Miles and Rawlinson; leading lady Nell O’Day is on the far right.
Rawlinson began accepting work as a radio actor in 1942, and by 1944 was appearing far more often on the airwaves than on the screen; he became a particularly familiar voice on the NBC Red Network’s anthology shows Cavalcade of America and Lux Radio Theatre. He still continued to appear in films during the remaining years of the 1940s, albeit much more sporadically; he worked chiefly in B-pictures for Monogram and Republic, and (most frequently) in the Hopalong Cassidy films produced by Harry Sherman and later by William Boyd. He also played four more serial parts, all but one of them small ones; the first of these turns was in the 1942 Republic chapterplay Perils of Nyoka. Cast as an explorer named Major Reynolds, he appeared in the serial’s introductory sequence to deliver some important expository dialogue concerning heroine Nyoka (Kay Aldridge) and her long-lost archeologist father; his character was murdered in his next scene by villainess Lorna Gray, who pricked him with a poisoned ring to keep him from interfering with her attempt to impersonate Nyoka. Rawlinson was so likably self-assured and affable in his initial scene that it was slightly disappointing to see him killed off so early—although his abrupt and unexpected demise served the worthwhile narrative purpose of dramatically establishing Gray’s character as both a hateful and formidable heavy.
Rawlinson concluded his Republic serial career with a pair of one-chapter bits in the 1943 chapterplays Daredevils of the West and The Masked Marvel. In the former, he was T. J. Sawyer, an astute and helpful banker who identified some greenbacks and provided hero Allan Lane with an important clue; in the latter, he was a distinguished industrialist named Kellering, the president of America’s wartime Industrial Production Board, who narrowly escaped being assassinated by Japanese spy Sakima (Johnny Arthur).
Above: Herbert Rawlinson receives a timely phone-call warning, just before opening that booby-trapped box on the table in front of him in The Masked Marvel (Republic, 1943); the two standing players are Richard Clarke (center) and David Bacon.
Rawlinson made one last return to the serial genre in Columbia’s 1948 chapterplay Superman—which gave him his biggest serial part since Perils of the Royal Mounted and his best serial part since King of the Royal Mounted. He played an eminent scientist named Dr. Arnold Graham, who invented an atomic “reducer ray” which Superman (Kirk Alyn) was assigned to protect from the evil Spider Lady (Carol Forman). Rawlinson only appeared once (to introduce and demonstrate the ray) in Superman’s first half, but figured prominently in the serial’s last seven episodes; his character was kidnapped by the Spider Lady and drugged into helping her complete the ray–but shook off the effects of the drug in the last chapter and satisfyingly blasted the villainess to bits during the serial’s final showdown. Rawlinson’s role here gave him many good scenes; he explained imaginary scientific principles with convincing assurance, stood up to the villains with dignified indignation, plotted against his captors with quiet craftiness, and affected a pathetically dazed and broken manner in his character’s drugged scenes that made Graham’s climactic reversion to his old self a cheer-inducing moment. He also received an brief chance to be atypically villainous; one chapter had the Spider Lady’s scientific henchman Dr. Hackett disguising as Graham–allowing Rawlinson to play the bogus inventor as well as the real one and indulge in some nicely sinister smiles and sneers. With the exception of Blake of Scotland Yard, no other sound serial gave Rawlinson as meaty a role as this final chapterplay did.
Rawlinson appeared in a few more feature films and on a couple of television shows during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but devoted most of the remaining years of his career to radio acting. He made his final movie appearance in the low-budget and amateurish Ed Wood production Jail Bait–in which he played a central role originally intended for Bela Lugosi. Despite being seriously afflicted by lung cancer, he proved a trouper to the last, doing his best to bring some dignity and coherence to Wood’s long-winded and nonsensical dialogue; sadly, he passed away the day after he finished filming the picture.
One of the least bombastic and least pompous of serial “solid citizens,” Herbert Rawlinson was also one of the most distinguished; his composed and thoughtful manner gave him a screen personality every bit as strong and dignified as those of chapterplay actors who were far more grandiloquent (William Farnum, Edward Hearn) or far more self-important (William Gould, Ed LeSaint). Though most of his sound-era serial characters received little screen time, his forceful but understated presence always enhanced the chapterplays he worked in.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Chuck Anderson’s Old Corral page on Rawlinson, which provided me with plenty of valuable information; the info pertaining to Rawlinson’s Broadway and radio work was especially helpful.