The contract player is extinct in Hollywood. These were actors who were under contract with a studio and who were cast in dozens of films to play small and often similar roles. Sometimes they would work their way up to featured and starring roles, but they were always dependable, both for the job and for their performance. And Frank McHugh was the very definition of a contract player.
He was born in Homestead, PA, son of theatrical parents.* By the age of 10, he was appearing on stage, and in 1927, he made his Broadway debut. The timing was good: at the time he established himself as a Broadway regular, talkies were coming in and Hollywood was looking to Broadway for new talent.
He signed with Warner Brothers and made his movie debut in The Dawn Patrol with Errol Flynn in 1930. But that sort of adventure wasn’t his forte, and he started working on more comedic roles, including as one of the reporters in the original version of The Front Page.
He first came to my attention in Footlight Parade, one of the great Busby Berkeley musicals.** It stars James Cagney as a producer of “prologues” – live music shows performed in theaters before the main show.*** McHugh played Francis, the dance director, most notable for telling Cagney “it’s can’t be done, I tell you. It can’t be done.” He made in impression in every scene he was in.
Here is a nice compilation of his roles****
The movie seemed to spur a friendship with James Cagney; the two appeared in 11 films together. McHugh appeared in over 100 films and easily made the transition to TV when the studios system collapsed.
*His sister Kitty and brother Matt also had long careers as contract players.
**With songs by the ultimate great but forgotten composer, Harry Warren. Eventually, I’ll write about him.
***One of the great bits of movie magic is when you realize that Berkeley’s musical numbers could never be performed on a theatrical stage, let alone the stage in a movie house.
****Footlight Parade has more clips than anything else.