January 23rd, 1878 — November 3rd, 1949
One of the most popular male serial stars of the silent era, William Desmond became one of the chapterplay genre’s most prolific supporting players during the first half of the 1930s. His heavy build, sternly handsome face, powerful voice, and forceful demeanor gave him a strong and theatrical (but never uncontrolledly hammy) screen presence, and made him memorably effective as several different types of character–the overbearing villain, the comic blusterer, and the fiercely honest authority figure. The last-named species of role was Desmond’s sound-serial specialty; though he played a few heavies and blowhards, he was usually featured as pioneers, scientists, builders, lawmen, and other stalwart types.
William Desmond Mannion was born to Irish immigrant parents, in either Dublin or New York; most biographies give the former location, but the 1940 federal census lists the latter as his place of birth. Wherever he was born, he spent his childhood in New York City, did amateur acting during his school years, and went on the stage professionally not long after his schooling was finished. He worked for several years in vaudeville and in touring stock companies before signing up with West Coast theatrical impresario Oliver Morosco in 1904; over the next six years, he appeared in Morosco productions in both Los Angeles and New York, and established himself as a popular stage star. In 1910 Desmond began a tour of Australia’s theaters that lasted for more than three years; by 1914, he had returned to North America, and was starring in a Morosco play in Toronto. By 1915, he was back in the States, where he made his screen debut in a couple of features produced by Morosco’s new “Photoplay Company;” he subsequently signed a contract with the Triangle Film Corporation, and starred in a multitude of dramas and adventure films for them from 1915 through 1918. Desmond then did a string of similar films for Pathé producer Jesse Hampton, before moving to Universal in 1922. There, he found great success as a serial hero, top-lining twelve silent Universal chapterplays from 1922 through 1928, among them the phenomenally successful The Riddle Rider (1924); in between these serial assignments, he starred in various Universal action features.
When the talkie era arrived, Desmond’s stage-trained voice caused him no problems. However, by this time he was past fifty, and was also getting too portly for leading man roles; he made his sound-film debut as a supporting player, in the 1929 Warner Brothers feature No Defense, and then temporarily returned to stage acting for a few years. In 1931, he came back to Hollywood–and to the serial genre, taking a major part in Mascot Pictures’ second all-talking chapterplay, The Phantom of the West. Tom Tyler and Dorothy Gulliver were the stars of this production, but Desmond took a prominent secondary role as rancher Martin Blair, one of seven seemingly respectable citizens threatened by the mysterious “Phantom,” apparently because of their involvement in the long-ago murder of Tyler’s father–for which Gulliver’s father (Frank Lanning) had been sentenced to prison. Desmond and his associates spent most of the serial trying to eliminate Lanning (who’d escaped jail to prove his innocence, making him the prime Phantom suspect); they dealt high-handedly and ruthlessly with Tyler and Gulliver whenever the hero and heroine got in their way, and showed equal ruthlessness when dealing with any members of their own group who showed signs of revealing their collective guilty secret. In the end, Desmond’s Blair turned out to be the real murderer of Tyler’s father, and was arrested both for that crime and for the other misdeeds he’d committed in trying to cover up the original killing. With the Phantom a menacing but peripheral presence for most of the serial, Desmond functioned as the chapterplay’s de facto chief villain (along with his principal co-conspirators Philo McCullough and Tom Santschi); unlike some of Phantom’s new-to-talkies actors, he handled his dialogue assuredly, if somewhat floridly at times–switching between robust aggressiveness and oily suavity with aplomb, and retaining, throughout his evildoing, an aura of genuine dignity which made his final arrest and exposure seem like a tragic fall from grace as well as a just comeuppance.
Desmond almost immediately followed his Phantom of the West performance with a second supporting turn in a Mascot serial, The Vanishing Legion (1931); here, he was cast as an antagonistic and wrong-headed Sheriff who repeatedly chased and arrested the wrong people, interfering with the pursuit of the mysterious criminal known as the Voice and thus giving rise to the suspicion that he could be the Voice himself. However, another character was unmasked in the final scene, and the Sheriff was absolved of everything but incompetence. Desmond’s bombastic portrayal of this tenacious but blundering lawman was quite entertaining, particularly when he was conveying boundless (and unjustifiable) self-confidence, ferociously snapping at suspicious characters, or irritably reacting to the coolly sarcastic remarks of hero Harry Carey.
Above: “You’re one step away from the death house!” William Desmond gloats after erroneously arresting Harry Carey (center) in The Vanishing Legion (Mascot, 1931); the deputy on the far left is Al Taylor.
After these two Mascot turns, Desmond played character parts in a handful of independently-produced features before reuniting with his old boss Henry MacRae–who’d produced Desmond’s silent Universal serials and was now turning out sound chapterplays for the same studio; MacRae gave his former star the first of many sound-era Universal serial roles in 1931’s Battling With Buffalo Bill. This Western outing featured Desmond as John Mills, a prominent citizen of the beleaguered frontier mining town of Hard Rock–who, along with his daughter (Lucile Browne), his prospective son-in-law (Rex Bell), and the famed scout Bill Cody (Tom Tyler), led the townspeople in resistance to the schemes of the villainous land-grabber Jim Rodney (Francis Ford). The pugnacious but dignified Desmond was very well-cast as this staunchly courageous settler, and brought grand energy and assertiveness to his defiances of the villains and his exhortations of the townsfolk; although he took a back seat in the action scenes to young heroes Tyler and Bell, he also got to participate in many battles with Ford’s henchmen and with rampaging Indians.
Desmond did some stage acting in New York in early 1932, but by the middle of the year had returned to MacRae’s Universal serial unit, where he played another heroic pioneer in Heroes of the West. This time he was cast as John Blaine, a contractor trying to build a railway through the frontier wilderness, in the face of sabotage attempts and Indian attacks organized by the agents of a rival contractor. Desmond’s character spent nearly all of Heroes riding herd on his construction project, leaving most of the serial’s active adventuring to his son (Noah Beery Jr.), his daughter (Jacqueline Wells), his surveyor (Onslow Stevens), and his crew-chief (Edmund Cobb); however, he still received a lot of screen time–during which he firmly but affectionately arbitrated comic disputes between the youthful Beery and Wells, and earnestly and authoritatively discussed the railway’s progress and problems with Stevens, Cobb, and treacherous foreman Philo McCullough.
The Last Frontier (1932), RKO’s only serial release, gave a major role to Desmond’s daughter Mary Jo, but only featured Desmond himself in its first chapter, as a gravely energetic General Custer. He was more prominently showcased in his next serial, The Jungle Mystery (Universal, 1932), as explorer John Morgan–who, accompanied by his daughter (Cecilia Parker), journeyed to Africa in search of his missing son, and was assisted by heroes Tom Tyler and Noah Beery Jr. during ensuing clashes with ivory poachers, natives, and wild animals. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say anything more about Desmond’s role in this outing; though Jungle Mystery still exists in the Universal vaults, it’s been unavailable to both collectors and the general public since its original release.
Desmond did all of his 1933 film work for Mascot and Universal, appearing in one feature and one serial for the former, and making three B-westerns and four serials for the latter. His first chapterplay of the year was a Universal effort–Clancy of the Mounted, in which he did an amusingly boisterous character turn as a well-intentioned but blundering Irish-Canadian lumberjack named Dave Moran. Moran strongly disapproved of the duty-bound RCMP Sergeant Clancy’s (Tom Tyler) attempt to arrest his brother Steve (Earl McCarthy) on a murder charge (“It ain’t human!”) and interfered with Clancy’s efforts to keep Steve out of trouble and find the real killer–first by urging Steve to flee from the Mounties, then by organizing a mob to break him out of jail; his habit of self-importantly disseminating important news in the villainous MacDougal’s (William L. Thorne) trading post created additional difficulties for the Clancys.
Desmond was more respectable in his next 1933 serial, Mascot’s The Three Musketeers, but had much less screen time; he appeared in one extended sequence as Captain Boncour, a French Foreign Legion officer who led his men in an attack on an Arab rebel stronghold, and emerged victorious thanks to the assistance of hero John Wayne–whom Desmond was then reluctantly forced to arrest on a false gunrunning charge.
Desmond’s third serial of the year was Universal’s The Phantom of the Air, in which he played inventor Thomas Edmonds, the creator of the gravity-defying chemical compound “Contragrav.” Edmonds planned to use Contragrav to power airplanes, and recruited Border Patrol flyer Bob Raymond (Tom Tyler) as his test pilot; both the inventor and the aviator soon found themselves battling the henchmen of airborne smuggler Mort Crome (LeRoy Mason), who was determined to steal Edmonds’ valuable discovery. Desmond played a central role in Phantom’s action, serving not only as the villains’ principal target but also as the hero’s principal ally; his character used a variety of ingenious inventions (including a remote-controlled plane called the “Phantom”) to help Raymond fight Crome’s henchmen, and finally destroyed the chief villain all by himself. Desmond explained the powers of Edmonds’ various gadgets in convincingly solemn and vigorous fashion, displayed fatherly joviality in his interactions with Tyler and with leading lady Gloria Dea (who played Edmonds’ daughter), and conveyed grim but noble determination when refusing to hand his inventions over to the villains (his final confrontation with Crome was particularly dramatic).
Desmond’s fourth 1933 serial, Universal’s entertaining Western saga Gordon of Ghost City, cast him as John Mulford, a hot-tempered rancher who, harassed by rustlers, hired range detective Buck Gordon (Buck Jones) to track down the cattle thieves, and supported him in his investigations despite his foreman Radigan’s (Walter Miller) continual criticisms of the newcomer (Radigan, of course, was the rustlers’ secret leader). Desmond was both dignified and comic in this part–seriously and intelligently conferring with Jones, but also growling stubbornly at the carping Miller, laughing uproariously whenever Jones showed Miller up, irritably telling off the underachieving local lawmen, and impulsively confronting Miller after learning of his foreman’s treachery. This premature accusation earned Desmond’s character a punch in the eye, and led to the villains’ temporary escape; Desmond’s furiously embarrassed demeanor when he met Jones after this slipup was hilarious.
Desmond’s last serial of 1933 was Universal’s The Perils of Pauline, which featured him in its last four chapters as Professor Thompson, an affable scientist who helped Pauline’s (Evalyn Knapp) father Professor Hargraves (James Durkin) unlock the secrets of a deadly ancient gas formula, and who also provided ready assistance whenever the Hargraves family and their ally Bob Warde (Robert Allen) had to fight off the henchmen of the evil Dr. Bashan (John Davidson).
Above: James Durkin (far right) explains the properties of that container of gas to (left to right) Robert Allen, Sonny Ray, Evalyn Knapp, and William Desmond in The Perils of Pauline (Universal, 1933).
Desmond continued to appear frequently in Universal’s serials throughout 1934 and 1935, alternating this chapterplay work with numerous appearances as sheriffs, military officers, and occasional villains in B-westerns and other low-budget action films for independent outfits like Imperial, Argosy, and Sunset; during this period, he also did one B-western each for the more upscale studios RKO and Paramount, and took a few bits in A-pictures for MGM and Warners. His next serial outing was Pirate Treasure (Universal, 1934), which gave him a good character part as a kindly but tough and salty sea captain named Carson, who put himself and his ship at the disposal of hero Richard Talmadge, heroine Lucille Lund, and her father Pat O’Malley–accompanying them on a treasure hunt, and steadfastly helping them battle treasure-seeking villains along the way.
Desmond was again a dependable ally of the hero’s in The Vanishing Shadow (also Universal, 1934)–a newspaper editor named MacDonald, who provided his late publisher’s son Stanley Stanfield (Onslow Stevens) with unyielding support in his fight against corrupt businessman Wade Barnett (Walter Miller). Most of Desmond’s scenes here were brief ones that took place inside the newspaper office, but he made the most of them–conducting professional chores with businesslike briskness, dignifiedly but wholeheartedly promising to back Stanfield, joking avuncularly with reporter heroine Gloria (Ada Ince), and reacting with entertaining surprise to the various science-fictional devices that Stevens employed in his crusade.
The Red Rider (1934), one of Universal’s best serials, gave Desmond a couple of good scenes as Campbell, a capable, intelligent, and fair-minded sheriff who figured out that hero Buck Jones was helping his friend Grant Withers–a supposed murderer–evade the law, but who also realized that if the trustworthy Jones believed in Withers’ innocence, there was a good chance that the fugitive wasn’t really guilty as charged. After thoughtfully discussing the rights and wrongs of the case with Jones, Desmond agreed to suspend his hunt for Withers in order to give the heroes a chance to clear things up on their own.
Desmond was much less honorable in his next serial, Tailspin Tommy (again Universal, 1934), in which he played Sloane, the shifty clerk of ruthless transportation magnate “Tiger” Taggart (John Davidson); he did little but receive and issue reports or sit in on plotting sessions in most of the serial’s episodes, but he became temporarily prominent in the penultimate chapter, in which he was caught by the good guys after colluding in a sabotage attempt, and then subjected to an “aerial third degree” by “Tailspin” Tommy (Maurice Murphy), who took him up in a biplane and did some dangerous stunt flying to scare him into squealing on Taggart; Desmond very effectively registered fear, anger, and desperation during this sequence, particularly when he was frenziedly pointing a gun at Tommy and threatening to kill him unless he landed.
The Rustlers of Red Dog (Universal, 1935) gave Desmond a more typical role as Ira Dale, a gruff, rather excitable, but doughty wagon-master whose kept his wagon train together in the face of repeated Indian attacks. Desmond and his train figured prominently in this serial’s first half, during which the wagons served as the main setting of the chapterplay’s action; Desmond also received multiple scenes in the serial’s second half, and was allowed to be both fierily indignant (when reacting to outlaw skullduggery) and almost boyishly enthusiastic (when he heard reports of a gold rush and convinced heroine Joyce Compton to join him on a jaunt to the gold fields).
Desmond spent more time in the background in his next serial, The Call of the Savage (Universal, 1935)–in which he straddled the fence between protagonist and antagonist before finally crossing over to the villains’ side. His character, Allen, sturdily but (mostly) silently served as the guide for an expedition whose members were hunting the jungle boy Jan (Noah Beery Jr.) for both good and bad reasons; in Chapter Eight, the good explorers joined forces with Jan and his friend Borno (Harry Woods), while the bad ones (Walter Miller and Fredric McKaye) were sent back to civilization, in custody of Allen. However, Miller’s character (Dr. Bracken) asked Desmond’s Allen to ally with him, promising rich rewards, and the guide succumbed to the temptation (after Desmond did a good job of conveying a mental struggle between conscience, caution, and greed); he served as Bracken’s henchman in the serial’s last third, and was ultimately killed along with him.
The Roaring West (Universal, 1935) gave Desmond his last major Universal serial role; as in so many of his earlier Universal outings, he played the heroine’s (Muriel Evans) father–a rancher named Jim Parker, who helped cowboy Montana Larkin (Buck Jones) battle a band of rustlers and claim-jumpers led by Parker’s treacherous foreman Gillespie (Walter Miller). The situations of Jones, Desmond, and Miller’s characters strongly echoed their relations in Gordon of Ghost City, but the later serial was otherwise inferior to the earlier one, and gave its (oversized) cast less distinctive character material to work with. However, Desmond still enjoyed plenty of screen time, and turned in another solid performance as the respectable but two-fistedly tough Parker, who was equally at home presiding genially over his ranch or grimly slugging it out with Gillespie’s gang.
Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (Universal, 1935) featured Desmond in a small but recurring character part as Burke, the jovial and hardy foreman of an oil-drilling crew that was harassed by Latin American revolutionaries but aerially protected by pilots “Tailspin” Tommy (Clark Williams) and Skeeter Milligan (Noah Beery Jr.). Desmond’s first serial of 1936, the “Stage and Screen” production Custer’s Last Stand, gave him a brief first-chapter bit as a wagon-master who helped stand off an Indian attack; he stayed on screen longer in The Adventures of Frank Merriwell (Universal, 1936), appearing in two chapters in as a friendly but formidably sturdy sea captain (highly reminiscent of his Captain Carson in Pirate Treasure), who angrily attacked the villains when he found them causing trouble on his ship, but who remained cordial towards the good guys even after their struggle with the heavies caused the destruction of his vessel.
Above: William Desmond’s greeting to pilots Noah Beery Jr. (left) and Clark Williams (right) is interrupted by the arrival of another plane in Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery (Universal, 1935).
Above: William Desmond and his passengers reach safe harbor after a shipboard explosion in The Adventures of Frank Merriwell (Universal, 1936). Walter Law is on the far left, Don Briggs (as Merriwell) is wearing the striped shirt, the girl in the background is Carla Laemmle, and the young fellow in the dark suit is John King.
Desmond would lose his serial-department foothold at Universal in 1936, after Henry MacRae was temporarily ousted from his position as the studio’s cliffhanger producer; the last Universal chapterplay Desmond made before this shakeup was Flash Gordon (Universal, 1936), in which he played the captain of the watch-tower in the realm of the Hawk Men of Mongo. Desmond carried himself with commendable solemnity in this colorful minor role, despite being saddled with a huge pair of ornate false wings; he barked orders to his followers, operated ray machines, and keenly scanned the skies for rocket-ships with the same foursquare conviction he’d displayed in his less weird parts.
Desmond spent the rest of 1936 playing character parts in B-westerns for Grand National and Warner Brothers and appearing in three more serials. The biggest of these chapterplay assignments was in The Vigilantes Are Coming, produced by Desmond’s former employer at Mascot, Nat Levine, for the new studio Republic. This colorful story of early California cast Desmond as a settler named Anderson, the most notable supporting member of the squad of “vigilantes” assembled by the masked Eagle (Bob Livingston) to battle tyrannical administrator Jason Burr (Fred Kohler Sr.) and his Russian allies. Desmond’s job here was basically that of a sergeant-major; he generally rode close behind the Eagle and his two sidekicks (“Big Boy” Williams and Raymond Hatton) whenever the Vigilantes went into action, and decisively issued orders to the rank-and-file when none of the three stars were around. Though he was given no real individualized moments, he was well-suited to his role and handled it energetically.
Desmond’s other two 1936 serials were a pair of low-budgeted Stage and Screen productions, The Clutching Hand and The Black Coin. In the former he made a series of short-lived appearances as Steve, the shifty bartender in a waterfront crooks’ hangout, while in the latter (filmed around the same time and on the same sets) he had a smaller bit as a barkeeper in a similar establishment. The following year Louis and Adrian Weiss, the bosses of Stage and Screen, gave Desmond another bit part (a miniscule walk-on as a backwoodsman) in the serial The Mysterious Pilot, produced by the Weissess for Columbia; also in 1937, he returned briefly to Universal to play an animal trader in the first chapter of Tim Tyler’s Luck. Here, he appeared long enough to fiercely caution the stevedores handling his animal shipment and express his sympathy for young Tim Tyler (Frankie Thomas), who wanted to look for his missing father in the African wilds. Although Henry MacRae was by now beginning to regain his position at Universal, Desmond didn’t spend any more time at that studio during the 1930s; his Tim Tyler performance, in fact, would be his last film work of any kind for some time.
From 1937 to 1940, Desmond spent virtually all of his acting time on the West Coast stage; his census entry for the latter year lists his occupation as “actor–theatrical.” Although he probably continued this theatrical work during the 1940s, he did dabble in the movie business throughout that decade–making nearly all of his screen appearances at Universal, where he played bits and served as an extra in A-features, B-films, and serials. The 1940 Universal chapterplay Winners of the West gave him the last decent-sized character role of his film career; as Bill Brine, the dedicated, outspoken, and dependable foreman of a railroad construction crew, he appeared at intervals throughout the serial to rebuke trouble-making workmen, report on the state of the railway to hero Dick Foran, and (in the final chapter) exuberantly join in celebrating Foran’s triumph over villain Harry Woods.
All of Desmond’s remaining serial appearances were in Universal efforts; all gave him (at most) only a few lines and a few minutes of screen time at most. He played policemen in both Junior G-Men (1940) and Sky Raiders (1941); in the former, he briefly clashed with the rowdy Dead End Kids, while in the latter he wordlessly watched as a colleague questioned some suspects. He made equally fleeting appearances in Don Winslow of the Navy (1941), Gang Busters, and Junior G-Men of the Air, (both 1942), doing walk-ons as–respectively–a plant foreman named Pat (who helped to dig the hero out of some rubble after an explosion), a bystander at a crime scene, and a man buying auto parts in a junkyard. Overland Mail (also 1942) featured him in two different bit parts as a goateed banker named Williams (who reluctantly allowed villain Noah Beery Sr. to withdraw twenty thousand dollars from his bank) and a clean-shaven townsman (who took part in a shootout with Indians). The Overland banker role was the best of Desmond’s later serial bits, since it let him to do some entertaining comic acting in reaction to Beery’s abrupt withdrawal request; he first registered astonishment, then suppressed irritation, then forced professional politeness, then (once Beery was out of sight) baffled exasperation.
Desmond was strictly an extra in his last two serials, The Royal Mounted Rides Again (1945) and The Scarlet Horseman (1946); he could be seen as part of a crowd watching a riverboat fire in the former, while in the latter he sat at a poker table in the background of some saloon scenes. He played several more feature-film bits over the next two years, but a serious respiratory ailment put an end to his screen work in 1948; he was eventually admitted to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, where he died in 1949.
The average serial fan tends to think of William Desmond merely as an important but nebulous figure of silent days and not as a noteworthy sound-serial actor–since all of his major sound-era work was done in the frequently neglected (and frequently hard-to-find) chapterplays made between 1930 and 1936. However, any buff who starts to delve into the cliffhanging productions from those years will soon come to know Desmond’s strong and hearty screen personality very well indeed, and will soon realize that he was one of the talking chapterplay’s most reliable regular actors during the first half-decade of its life; he played his parts as stalwartly and dynamically as his serial characters tackled their various challenges.
Acknowledgements: The entries on William Desmond in George Katchmer’s A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses (McFarland, 2002) and Allan Ellenberger’s Celebrities in Los Angeles Cemeteries: A Directory (McFarland, 2001) helped me put together this article. This genealogical site gave me additional information, as did two newspaper articles (one Australian, one Canadian) that helped me to fix the dates of Desmond’s sojourn in the Land Down Under; Google’s newspaper archives contain many more interesting items about his Australian work. Desmond’s obituary in the November 12th, 1949 issue of the entertainment weekly The Billboard was also useful, as was the Internet Broadway Database and an article by Charles Stumpf (“William Desmond–Dean of Serial Actors”) published in issue #27 (2000) of the magazine Cliffhanger.