October 7th, 1887 — June 1st, 1979
Once a popular leading man in silent features and serials, Jack Mulhall appeared frequently as a supporting good guy and occasional hero in the chapterplays of the sound era. Like William Farnum, Herbert Rawlinson, William Desmond, and other silent stars who worked in talking serials, he was typically cast as responsible authority figures–although the fast-talking, brisk-mannered Mulhall possessed none of the calm dignity that characterized the aforementioned players. Exuberance, not gravitas, was the defining characteristic of Mulhall’s serial performances; the soldiers, policemen, and detectives that he usually portrayed were always very quick to grin widely or laugh heartily. Mulhall’s infectious cheerfulness was invariably balanced by his energetically determined air; the enthusiastic but assured fashion in which he rattled off orders or rushed into action made his characters seem reassuringly capable as well as buoyantly good-humored.
John Francis Joseph Mulhall was born in Wappinger Falls, New York, and began his show-business career at the age of fourteen–neglecting an apprentice position as a steel worker to take temporary jobs (as a hypnotist’s foil, a strong-man’s assistant, a sideshow barker, etc.) with various carnivals. From carnivals he advanced to musical repertory companies and the vaudeville stage, and from there to New York City dramatic troupes; he augmented his scanty theatrical income during this period by working as a model for the famed Charles Dana Gibson and other magazine illustrators. In 1910, he got a job as a dress extra at New York City’s Biograph Company (America’s first motion-picture studio); by 1913 he had worked his way up to actor status at Biograph, taking his first prominent screen part in the feature House of Discord. Over the next three years, he starred or co-starred in films for Biograph’s New York and California branches, most frequently playing effervescent young heroes in dramas and romantic comedies. In 1916 he settled permanently on the West Coast and left Biograph to sign a two-year contract with Universal, starring in numerous features and one serial (The Brass Bullet) for that company. Mulhall was well-established as a leading man by the time his Universal contract expired; from 1918 to 1925 he played heroes in features for many studios–and also starred in three more serials: The Social Buccaneer (Universal), Into the Net, and Wild West (both Pathe). In 1925 he signed a contract with powerful First National Pictures, which would merge with Warner Brothers in 1928; the studio paired him with popular actress Dorothy Mackaill in several extremely successful romantic dramas that helped to make him a major box-office attraction.
By 1929, Mulhall was one of the country’s wealthiest actors–but lost his entire fortune in that year’s great stock crash; sadly, his acting fortunes also began to dim shortly afterwards. Though he transitioned easily to sound films (his voice being perfectly suited to the chipper image he had developed in the silents), he was becoming too old for the romantic leads that had been his stock-in-trade during the 1920s; he top-lined several more A-features for First National and Fox in 1930, but by 1931 all the major studios had lost interest in him as a star. In need of money, Mulhall began to capitalize on his once-famous name in by taking leading roles in B-films for small outfits like Mayfair and Columbia–and, beginning in 1933, Mascot Pictures, a shoestring studio that specialized in serials. Mulhall’s first chapterplay for Mascot was The Three Musketeers, an entertaining Foreign Legion adventure; he played one of the titular trio of Legionnaire pals, a boisterous Brooklynite named Clancy. The “three modern musketeers” were saved from massacre by an American pilot (John Wayne), and returned the favor by helping the flyer clear himself when he was framed for gun-running by the villainous rebel chieftain El Shaitan. Though Wayne was the chief protagonist of Musketeers, Mulhall was top-billed and took part in about as many fights and chases as the younger hero did; Clancy and the other musketeers (Raymond Hatton and Francis X. Bushman Jr.) carried the action by themselves in more than one chapter. If Mulhall considered this co-starring role in a low-budget serial a comedown, he gave no sign of it; he played his happy-go-lucky soldier of fortune with delightful ebullience–joyously clowning around with his Legionnaire buddies and flashing ear-to-ear grins even when he was facing hordes of attacking Arabs.
Above: Jack Mulhall introduces himself to John Wayne (back to camera) in The Three Musketeers (Mascot, 1933); Raymond Hatton is partially hidden behind Mulhall, and Francis X. Bushman Jr. is almost completely hidden by Mulhall and Wayne.
Mulhall almost immediately followed Three Musketeers with another Mascot chapterplay, The Mystery Squadron (also 1933); his role in this outing was decidedly smaller than in Musketeers, albeit pivotal. As Hank Davis, a former World War 1 flying ace serving as the foreman of a construction project, he was assigned to recruit two of his wartime buddies–hero Bob Steele and sidekick Big Boy Williams–to help combat attacks on the dam by the airborne forces of a mysterious criminal called the Black Ace. Though his character spent much of his time incapacitated by an injury (supposedly inflicted by the Black Ace’s followers), Mulhall was characteristically breezy and likable whenever he appeared on screen–making his last-chapter unmasking as the Black Ace himself one of the most jarring mystery-villain reveals in any serial. The Mascot production team wisely realized that Mulhall was simply too pleasant a screen presence to be convincing as a ruthless fiend for any length of time; they allowed him to remain affable until the last possible moment, cheerily dismissing damaging evidence until he was finally forced to make a hurried (and fatal) getaway attempt.
Mulhall’s third and final Mascot serial was the lively and action-packed Burn-‘Em-Up Barnes (1934), one of the studio’s best chapterplays and his best sound-serial showcase. He played the title character and principal hero, a plucky former race-car driver determined to help heroine Marjorie Temple (Lola Lane) keep her bus line running, despite the schemes of a tycoon (Edwin Maxwell) out to ruin the bus company and force Marjorie to sell him some valuable oil land. The beaming and energetic Mulhall was perfectly cast as the good-hearted daredevil Barnes, and delivered an extremely engaging lead performance; his jovial interactions with his kid sidekick (Frankie Darro) and his comic mechanic (Julian Rivero), his cheerful encouragements of the beleaguered heroine, his boyish fascination with racing, his fervent earnestness as he tangled with the villains, and his smiling and off-handed dismissals of his own death-defying feats were all very appealing.
With one exception, Mulhall would play no more starring roles after completing Burn-‘Em-Up Barnes; he spent the rest of 1934 and all of 1935 playing bits, small character parts, and (occasionally) prominent supporting roles in B-films and A-films. In 1936 he was retained by Louis and Adrian Weiss’s “Stage and Screen Productions” to appear in a pair of serials, the first of which was Custer’s Last Stand, a low-budgeted but ambitious attempt at a large-scale historical Western. Mulhall was only one of many former silent stars (others included George Chesebro, William Farnum, and Reed Howes) in Custer’s large and excellent cast; despite prominent billing, he had less screen time than many of his co-stars. As a Seventh Cavalry lieutenant named Cook, he served as one of Custer’s (Frank McGlynn Jr.) aides, but remained in the background through most of the serial; however, he was given a few good dramatic bits in several episodes–expressing regret over having to preside over the dishonorable discharge of his friend and former West Point classmate Lieutenant Roberts (George Chesebro), and trying to persuade Roberts to straighten up. Mulhall’s was also given a memorable death scene in the climactic Last Stand sequence–during which his character exultantly listened to the music of a phantom regimental band as he slowly slipped into the next world (“Garry Owen…a good tune…to die to”). Mulhall played this unusual scene to floridly dramatic but genuinely moving effect.
Mulhall’s second Stage and Screen serial, The Clutching Hand, was also his final starring film; he was cast as master detective Craig Kennedy–an Americanized version of Sherlock Holmes originally created by author Arthur B. Reeve and popularized in several silent serials. Hand was an extremely illogical and convoluted “mystery” chapterplay, but Mulhall’s lead performance was a jaunty and entertaining one, even though he was rather miscast in the part of a coolly rational super-sleuth. He rarely managed to sound natural when called upon to give verbose Holmesian explanations of his brilliant deductions, rattling off these speeches with in energetically brisk but decidedly stiff fashion; he was equally energetic (but seemed far more at ease) when authoritatively confronting villains or cheerfully and confidently issuing orders to his policeman allies. Mulhall also brought welcome gusto to the various scenes in which Kennedy donned disguises to carry out his investigations, delivering theatrical but enjoyable character-acting turns as a genteel Frenchman and several roughneck waterfront types.
After taking his last bow as a leading man in Clutching Hand, Mulhall spent the remainder of the 1930s playing major and minor supporting roles in various features and serials. His next chapterplay part definitely qualified as “minor;” Undersea Kingdom (Republic, 1936), gave him only half-a-dozen lines in its first chapter and a few additional lines in its last one; as US Navy Lieutenant Andrews; he first appeared to praise the all-round heroism of naval-cadet protagonist Ray “Crash” Corrigan, then briefly lent a hand in the Navy’s climactic battle with the forces of the evil Unga Khan (Monte Blue). The Universal chapterplay Radio Patrol (1937) also gave him a minor role, albeit a recurring (and amusing) one; as a peppery police desk sergeant, he provided several funny moments through his humorously exasperated reactions to comic patrolman Sam’s (Adrian Morris) crossword-puzzle obsession (Morris: “Sarge, what’s a three-letter word meaning ‘pest?’” Mulhall: “S-a-m—Sam!”)
Mulhall had a much bigger role in his next Universal serial, the excellent Tim Tyler’s Luck (also 1937). As Sergeant Gates of the “Ivory Patrol” (a Mountie-like cavalry unit dedicated to battling jungle criminals), Mulhall took part in a good deal of the serial’s action and served in effect as a secondary hero–Frankie Thomas, as young Tim Tyler, being the serial’s principal hero. Mulhall’s part in Tyler was his last really prominent serial role, and it gave him many good opportunities to display his characteristic congeniality and perform heroics with his usual enthusiasm; his Sergeant Gates unhesitatingly led mounted charges against the tank-like “jungle cruiser” of villain Norman Willis, shrugged off injuries sustained during a leopard attack, generously refused to arrest henchman Earl Douglas after the latter redeemed himself by saving Thomas’s life, and generally behaved with typical Mulhall magnanimity.
Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (Universal, 1938) gave Mulhall three very brief scenes as a Martian “stratosled” pilot, while Scouts to the Rescue (also Universal, 1938) gave him a little more to do as the avuncular Scoutmaster Hale, who led hero Jackie Cooper and other Boy Scouts on a hike into the mountains in the first chapter, but was forced to rush back to town and an ailing wife–leaving the troop (and the serial) in Cooper’s charge for the remainder of Scouts’ episodes. He had more screen time in Buck Rogers (Universal, 1939) as Captain Rankin, one of the officers of a resistance army holding out against the 25th-Century dictator of Earth, Killer Kane (Anthony Warde); it was Mulhall’s character who discovered and revived Buck Rogers (Buster Crabbe) and Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran), aviators who’d been in “suspended animation” since a dirigible crash back in the 20th-Century dirigible crash. After this important initial action, Mulhall receded to the background but remained a noticeable presence throughout Rogers, giving and taking orders in typically brisk and good-natured fashion and tossing off “futuristic” technological terms in convincingly matter-of-fact style. He also got one great character moment in which his Captain Rankin decided to risk a court-martial and help Buddy rescue Buck from Killer Kane’s citadel, despite strict instructions to the contrary.
Mulhall continued to work steadily as a supporting player during the early 1940s; he still won occasional featured roles in B-pictures, but would never again play a major serial role. Mysterious Doctor Satan (Republic, 1940), his first chapterplay of the decade, gave him good billing but little screen time as Police Chief Rand, who provided occasional backup to the masked crimefighter the Copperhead (Robert Wilcox). Limited though Mulhall’s appearances were in this serial, he did get to energetically “grill” a murder suspect, cheerfully reassure the heroine that “nobody’s going to murder your father,” and concernedly argue with the hero as to the advisability of cutting off the city’s power in a desperate attempt to thwart the villainous Dr. Satan (Eduardo Ciannelli).
Above, left to right: Robert Wilcox, Ella Neal, William Newell, Jack Mulhall, William Stahl, and Robert Wayne question the seated Paul Marion, an agent of the Mysterious Doctor Satan (Republic, 1940).
Adventures of Captain Marvel (Republic, 1941), gave Mulhall a small but important first-chapter role as Howell, the most down-to-earth and responsible member of an archaeological expedition that discovered a deadly and priceless ancient device called the Golden Scorpion. His character checked the enthusiasm of his colleagues by pointing out the dangers of possessing the Scorpion, and persuaded them to divide the device’s lenses (the keys to its power) among themselves, so that no one expedition member could make possibly evil use of it. Of course, one of the archaeologists then set out to gain sole control of the Scorpion, murdering the other members of the group over the course of the serial; Mulhall’s character was the villain’s first victim, stabbed in the back while successfully slugging it out with some henchmen.
Above: Jack Mulhall proposes the division of the Golden Scorpion’s lenses to (left to right) George Lynn (almost cut off at the extreme left edge), George Pembroke, Robert Strange (partially hidden), Harry Worth, John Davidson, Frank Coghlan Jr., and Louise Currie in Adventures of Captain Marvel (Republic, 1941).
The Spider Returns (Columbia, 1941), an unusually farcical chapterplay, featured Mulhall in three scenes as a police detective named Farrell; he took part in a couple of comedy bits with plenty of flair—reacting amusedly to the blustering rants of his police-inspector superior (Joseph Girard), adopting a self-congratulatory swagger after arresting a suspect who subsequently proved to be innocent, and bellowing noisily after being kicked in the shins by the irate suspect. Sea Raiders (Universal, 1941) seemingly featured him in a five-second non-speaking bit as a ship captain, but his footage was borrowed in entirety from an earlier Universal feature film.
Above: Jack Mulhall looks pleased as Joseph Girard (far right) hollers at Warren Hull (center) in The Spider Returns (Columbia, 1941). The other players in the scene are Kenne Duncan (in turban) and Dave O’Brien.
Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (Republic, 1941) gave Mulhall his last notable serial part; he figured prominently in Chapters Five and Six as G-man Jim Wilson, one of Dick Tracy’s (Ralph Byrd) agents. Wilson astutely trailed a suspect, took part in a gunfight, a boat chase, and a fistfight, and then discovered that the serial’s villain, the Ghost, had the power to make himself invisible; wounded, he was kidnapped from a hospital by the Ghost’s gang to keep him from revealing this information. Tracy went to the rescue, but was nearly shot by the driver of the phony ambulance containing Wilson; the injured G-man wound up saving his chief’s life at the cost of his own–plugging the driver from a cot in the rear of the ambulance and sending the vehicle plunging off a cliff. Mulhall handled this short-lived role with all his accustomed vigor and affability—racing through a dockyard right alongside the younger Ralph Byrd and smiling in quiet satisfaction after making his heroically self-sacrificing gunshot.
Mulhall’s last 1940s serial was Gang Busters (Universal, 1942), which featured him in two scenes as an alert and competent police-lab analyst named Randall. Later in 1942, he joined the cast of Ken Murray’s enormously popular stage revue Blackouts—which played at Los Angeles’ El Capitan theater for the next seven years and later enjoyed a short run on Broadway; Mulhall’s lengthy stint with Murray’s troupe left him less time for movie work, causing his screen appearances to dramatically decrease during the 1940s.
After Blackouts finally ran its course in late 1949, Mulhall began concentrating principally on television work, appearing on Ken Murray’s TV show and taking character parts on other series of the early 1950s–chief among them the short-lived Craig Kennedy, Criminologist show, which starred Donald Woods in the same role played by Mulhall himself back in 1936. Mulhall also made one final serial appearance during this period, popping up very briefly as a briskly businesslike government official in the chapterplay Blackhawk (Columbia, 1952); he managed to act suitably enthused over the discovery of a new self-renewing fuel, despite the fact that the “demonstration” of the fuel’s efficacy was carried out by means of a miniature truck that was obviously a electrically-powered toy.
Mulhall kept making appearances on television and in occasional feature films throughout the 1950s; Alex Gordon, producer and avid movie buff, gave him his last big-screen role in 1959, a small but credited part as the Secretary of Defense in the sci-fi film The Atomic Submarine. He played his final television role the same year, a nice extended cameo as a former silent-movie star on the Warner Brothers detective show 77 Sunset Strip. After quitting the acting profession for good, he went to work for the Screen Actors’ Guild as a contract negotiator; he retired from this job in 1974 and passed away five years later in Woodland Hills’ Motion Picture Hospital.
Although he was over forty years of age when he made his first talking chapterplay, Jack Mulhall always managed to infuse his sound-serial characterizations with some of the boyish effervescence that had made him a popular leading man during the silent era. He made his chapterplay characters seem quite mature in their energetic devotion to their duty, but also conveyed an exuberant love of adventure which gave him a perennially youthful aura—and which helped him to win a firm place in the equally adventure-loving hearts of serial buffs of all ages.
Acknowledgements: Most of the biographical information in this article is derived from “Jack Mulhall: The Ever-Smiling Irishman with an Enviable Serial Career”—a lengthy piece on the actor by serial expert Buck Rainey, published in issue #13 of the magazine Cliffhanger in 1990.