He wasn’t handsome like fellow MGM star Clark Gable or as cultured as Ronald Colman. He could be a slob or a fool and could be made a fool of onscreen.
And yet, with a mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye, Beery was like that favored uncle you had as a kid. While the grown-ups rolled their eyes, the kids loved him because he wasn’t afraid to fall on his face and pick himself up again. He could crack jokes and rub his nose on his sleeve yet still recite a poem with moving tenderness.
At his best, Beery’s characters provided surprising insight and showed boundless ingenuity. He could play working class or upper class, or someone who scraped himself up from one to the other. He could be lovable or despicable. And filmmakers wisely paired him with strong women who could stand their ground in a fight, providing memorable sparks.
In watching Beery, you have to wonder how he landed in Hollywood, although at the same time you get the feeling he had every odd job available. Is it surprising that he joined the circus at age 16 to work with elephants? Or that he was singing in variety shows by the age of 20? Or that he created his own production company and tried to produce films – in Japan? Or that he married Gloria Swanson in 1916 before either became a star?
He worked in comedies early in his career, but he proved to be versatile, with a big hit coming in 1925’s dinosaur adventure “The Lost World.” He made that all-important transition to talkies, and in 1930 scored with “The Big House,” the first major prison drama in which he was terrific as tough guy Butch. This early talky remains surprisingly strong despite the limitations of filmmaking at this time, and Beery is commanding in all of his scenes.
Beery, who was under contract at MGM, worked nonstop during the first half of the decade. Also in 1930 came “Min and Bill,” pairing him opposite the wonderful Marie Dressler. They made a great team – neither had the classic Hollywood looks, but they both possessed a spirit and charisma that made this waterfront melodrama fun to watch. They play off of each other with such ease, and their relationship is surprisingly adult during this time before the Production Code was fully enforced.
In 1931 he starred in one of his most beloved movies, playing an alcoholic ex-prizefighter in “The Champ.” This unabashed tearjerker pairs him with young Jackie Cooper (above) and won Beery an Oscar (famously tying with Fredric March for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). It was a popular win, and he was rarely better on screen.
In a change of pace, Beery joined the all-star cast for the super “Grand Hotel,” playing a powerful German businessman who belittles Lionel Barrymore to the chagrin of Joan Crawford. Here Beery uses his physical size to powerful effect. He’s a menace and demonstrates his versatility after audiences expected a slob with less intelligence.
He reteamed with Dressler for “Tugboat Annie” before playing opposite Jean Harlow in “Dinner at Eight” (below), another all-star cast. It’s a treat to watch Beery – a wealthy businessman – square off against Harlow, his trophy wife, and the two don’t hold back. Before you wonder how Beery could snag Harlow, she could be just as salty, and it’s logical that this blustery businessman could marry a blunt dame who smells money and believes she can outsmart him. They would square off again a few years later in "China Seas."
His last great role of the decade came in 1935’s “Ah! Wilderness,” playing Uncle Sid, an alcoholic uncle – much like the uncle I described earlier. You so want him to sober up yet worry that what you love about him may be lost if he does.
I’ve rushed through his resume, as there are so many roles – Pancho Villa in “Viva Villa!” or Long John Silver in “Treasure Island” or P.T. Barnum in “The Mighty Barnum.” He clearly was a valued player on the Metro lot. While his career would wane by the end of the decade, he never stopped working until his death in 1949.
Beery was the kind of actor whose physical appearance would keep him off screen today or relegate him to typecast supporting roles. In the 1930s, he was allowed to create a wide variety of memorable characters, marking each with his own brand of personality. Just watch his work again and enjoy.