Classic Movie Travels: Doug McPhail

Classic Movie Travels: Doug McPhail
Los Angeles, Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Betty Jaymes and Doug McPhail in Babes in Arms (1939)
Betty Jaymes and Doug McPhail in Babes in Arms (1939)

While Doug McPhail’s name may not be well remembered today, his brief time in the film industry is to be appreciated. Typically appearing in lighthearted musical fare with his booming, melodious voice, McPhail is best remembered for his appearances in early MGM musicals alongside the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Sadly, his life was tragically cut short by suicide.

Douglas Saunders McPhail was born on April 16, 1914, in Los Angeles, California, to Norman and Caroline Kemp McPhail. His father was of Scotch-Irish descent, born in Massachusetts, and worked as a salesman in the oil industry, while his mother was born in South Dakota. Douglas also had a brother named Norman or “Kemp,” who was one year older.

McPhail and his brother attended Beverly Hills High School in the 1930s. Though McPhail would complete one year of college, he would soon transition to working in the film industry, capitalizing on his baritone voice. He appeared with various nightclub bands in South America before eventually being hired on to carry out bit parts in films, usually as an uncredited singer.

Doug McPhail young
a young McPhail

When McPhail performed in the chorus of San Francisco (1936), actress and singer Jeanette MacDonald took a personal interest in him, advocating for him to sing in more of her films. For example, he can be seen in Maytime (1937) and Sweethearts (1938) in very minor roles. He can also be spotted performing a short solo in the “Entrance of Lucy James” scene in Born to Dance (1936). At age 19, he was signed on by the studio to perform in the chorus of The Girl of the Golden West (1938), though he actually did not appear on-screen.

The best years of his career were in 1939 and in 1940, in which he worked in several different musical films. He worked with Rooney and Garland in Babes in Arms (1939), Eleanor Powell in Honolulu (1939), and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), and as Garland’s love interest in Little Nellie Kelly (1940). He would actually perform with Betty Jaynes, whom he secretly married in 1938, in Babes in Arms. According to census records, they supposedly lived together at some point in Dayton, Ohio, in 1935, though I could not locate an address for them.

Doug McPhail and Betty Jaymes
James and Betty

McPhail and Jaynes would go on to have a daughter named Joan Lorraine McPhail on January 5, 1940. Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived, with the couple divorcing after about three years of marriage. With his career on the rise, McPhail was being groomed as the next Nelson Eddy, though this reality would not come to pass. The studio recognized that moviegoers were tiring of Eddy’s singing style, leading them to take less interest in McPhail. Jaynes was given sole custody of their daughter.

McPhail enlisted in the Army in 1942 within the Quartermaster Corps. His service time was cut short due to a fall in basic training, which left him bedridden for eight months He was given a medical discharge at the rank of private.

Though he tried to restore his film career, MGM did not renew his contract in 1943. He worked four hours a day as a gardener and took music lessons in hopes of securing a concert. McPhail turned to alcoholism and attempted suicide in the same year.

In the following year, McPhail attempted suicide again. He suffered from acute nervous exhaustion and swallowed poison at his Hollywood home, passing away at the General Hospital on December 6, 1944. He is buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery.

Today, some locations of relevance to McPhail remain.

In 1920, he and his family lived at 3909 Halldale Avenue in Los Angeles, California. The original home has since been razed. This is the property today:

3909 Halldale Avenue, Los Angeles, CA
3909 Halldale Avenue, Los Angeles, CA

His alma mater, Beverly Hills High School, does still remain. In fact, it happens to house the still functional “swim gym” that appeared in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).

Beverly Hills High School
Beverly Hills High School

By 1940, he and Jaynes were living at 11150 Cashmere St. in Los Angeles with their daughter, Joan; housekeeper Anne Hardin; and nurse Marie Marsel. Both he and Jaynes are listed as actors and singers.

11150 Cashmere St., Los Angeles, CA
11150 Cashmere St., Los Angeles, CA

In 1942, he relocated to 10355 Cheviot Dr. in Los Angeles. This is the home today:

10355 Cheviot Drive, Los Angeles, CA
10355 Cheviot Drive, Los Angeles, CA

McPhail’s suicide occurred at 1818 N Vine St. in Hollywood, which is now the location of the Vine Lodge Hotel.

1818 N Vine Street, Hollywood, CA
1818 N Vine Street, Hollywood, CA

Though McPhail’s time in films was short, viewers can continue to enjoy his vocal talents in his films available today.

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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2 Responses to Classic Movie Travels: Doug McPhail

  1. Barry Lane says:

    Anyone who has ever seen or heard Douglas McPhail woud recognize at once the screen world lost a great talent.

  2. Paul Malamphy says:

    Hi Annette,
    Nice article. I have enjoyed McPhail’s vocalizing in “Sweethearts” as Nelson Eddy’s understudy, his rich baritone introduction of “I Concentrate on You” in “The Broadway Melody of 1940”, his most famous appearance singing the rallying cry of youth, the title song in “Babes in Arms” and the classic “Where or When” with his wife. He proved he had the versatility to sing everything from Victor Herbert to Cole Porter to Rodgers and Hart. He went on to sing George M. Cohan’s title song in “Little Nellie Kelly” and robustly join Judy Garland on “It’s A Great Day for the Irish!” as well as starring in “Born to Sing” in which he impressively leads the title number—perhaps the least known of his small canon of work. After Nelson Eddy left M-G-M they didn’t graduate Douglas McPhail to team with Kathryn Grayson or lend him out to Universal to sing opposite Deanna Durbin. Perhaps the shadow of the MacDonald and Eddy success loomed too large and boogie boogie was now ever present. A looser baritone style would eventually emerge with Dick Haymes and Gordon MacRae, both former band singers. But the stalwart would not remerge at M-G-M until 1950 and the arrival of Howard Keel.

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