More Morgan for Your Money

We were watching an old movie the other night. Y’know, like we do. And in a small role as a kindly judge was an actor who reminded us of Frank Morgan, he of The Wizard of Oz (and dozens of other 1930s movies) fame. Only this guy didn’t have the gregarious yet halting manner of speech that Morgan had (or that he affected, in any case). He was much lower key in his approach.

“He was probably up for many of the same roles as Morgan,” we found ourselves thinking as we continued watching. Finally, we turned to our research library (IMDb.com, don’t you know) and learned that the actor in question, whom we were sure we’d seen before but who wasn’t terribly familiar to us, was named Ralph Morgan and was, in fact, Frank Morgan’s older brother.

Boy, was our face red!

The pair were two of eleven siblings born to a well-to-do New York family; their father, George Diogracia Wuppermann, who was born in Venezuela of German and Spanish descent, made his fortune as the co-founder of the firm that distributed Angostura Aromatic Bitters in the United States.

Ralph launched his acting career first, having graduated from Columbia University with a law degree (Frank attended Cornell) before quickly abandoning the law for the theatre. With Ralph having found success in stock theatre and on Broadway, younger brother Frank was encouraged to follow the same path, and as we now know, his success would eventually overshadow Ralph’s.

Frank Morgan Ralph Morgan

Ralph made a few silent pictures in the 1910s, when the film industry was still active on the East Coast, but he eventually moved west, working in motion pictures, radio and television. He was one of the founders and charter members of the Screen Actor’s Guild, serving as the organization’s first president beginning in 1933. Even today, the Ralph Morgan Award is given annually to a SAG member who has provided distinguished service to his fellow actors.

Frank was more active in silent pictures than was Ralph, but it was in the 1930s that he really found his niche, playing blustery, often befuddled middle-aged characters. W. C. Fields was originally slated to play the wizard role for which Morgan is best remembered today, but contractual issues kept the deal from being finalized, so MGM instead turned to Morgan.

Frank was said to be something of a heavy tippler, which may have accounted for his relatively early passing in 1949 at 59. Ralph, born seven years before his younger sibling, also outlived him by nearly seven years, passing away in 1956 at the age of 72.

The Morgans were born with the family name Wupperman, and we wonder at Frank’s decision to also use Morgan as his stage name. It’s likely he did so in an attempt to ride Ralph’s professional coattails to a certain degree, and perhaps he did so with Ralph’s blessing, but we can’t help but wonder if Ralph ever resented Frank’s higher degree of success. We hope not.

A tip of the ol’ Cladrite fedora goes out to both these talented brothers, and while we’re a bit mortified that we weren’t previously aware Frank had an older sibling who was also an actor (we can’t really imagine how that info eluded us all these years), we’re glad to give Ralph his due credit now.

A Reynolds wrap

Many years ago, we attended a “Hollywood: Legend and Reality,” an exhibition of movie memorabilia from the Golden Age of Hollywood at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The exhibition included such offerings as an eight-inch gorilla figure used in the filming of the original King Kong, the golden calf from Cecil B. DeMille‘s The Ten Commandments, Rudolph Valentino‘s matador costume from Blood and Sand (1922), Tom Mix‘s 10-gallon hat, and best of all, for our money, Sam’s piano from Casablanca. We wanted so badly to reach out and tinkle those tiny keys (the piano’s a miniature, with something fewer than 88 keys, sized so that it might be easily pushed from table to table in a nightclub, as Dooley Wilson does in Rick’s Cafe.

Looking back, we’re now left wondering if a number of the artifacts in that exhibition weren’t loaned by Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds long held out hope that her extensive (to put it mildly) collection of Hollywood memorabilia would one day be housed in a museum, but with no funding forthcoming, she’s now auctioning much of it off. The sale is to be held on June 18.

“My lifetime dream has been to assemble and preserve the history of the Hollywood film industry. Hollywood has been an enormous part of my life as I know it has been for countless fans all over the world. This collection represents a lifetime of collecting Hollywood artifacts and this is a rare opportunity to own a piece of Hollywood History for those who love the movies as much as I do. For the first time in nearly five decades, these iconic pieces will be made available to the public through a series of auctions presented by Profiles in History beginning in June 2011.”—Debbie Reynolds

It’s hard to name a star who’s not represented in Reynolds’ collection. Humphrey Bogart? A brown sport coat he wore in Knock on Any Door (1948) is up for auction. Harpo Marx? One of his familiar top hats with attached blonde wig is included (it was a gift from Harpo to Reynolds many years ago). Judy Garland? There are no fewer than seven items associated with her up for sale, including the blue dress she wore playing Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.

We could go on and on. It’s a very impressive collection, and frankly, it’s heartbreaking that these amazing pieces will now go into the hands of private collectors, quite possibly never again to be enjoyed by the general public. It’s a crying shame that the collection couldn’t have been kept together and placed on permanent exhibition somewhere, anywhere.

The official website for the auction has much more information (if you’re in the Los Angeles area, you should make it a point to attend the public previews that precede the sale; who knows when you’ll again have the opportunity to see these treasures?). There’s also a bound catalogue for sale on the website for $39.50, but for those of us for whom even that is a bit more than we’re comfortable spending, there’s a PDF catalogue for the downloading, too.