Wallace Beery Overview:

Legendary actor, Wallace Beery, was born Wallace Fitzgerald Beery on Apr 1, 1885 in Kansas City, MO. Beery died at the age of 64 on Apr 15, 1949 in Beverly Hills, CA and was laid to rest in Forest Lawn (Glendale) Cemetery in Glendale, CA.


Wallace Beery started in films in low comedy, became type-cast as a villain and was given a new lease on life by the Talkies, whereupon he specialized in bluff lovable rogues with hearts of gold. Physically, if he was not going to be the baddie, this was the only solution. As Beery said "Like my dear old friend, Marie Dressler, my mug has been my fortune." For a long while he was extremely popular and occasioned such comments as this in Picture-Goer by Frank shaw in 1931: He is o the salt of the earth, and is a son of the earth." 


Wallace was born in Kansas City, Missouri, half brother to Noah Beery (1882-1946) who went into films not long after he did and had a more or less parallel career, but without the same fame. Their father was a policeman and the family, which was numerous, was not well-off. Wallace ran away from home when he was 16 and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus, assisting the man who looked after the elephants. He is supposed to have quit after two years, but he was certainly in New York in 1903 as a chorus boy in the shows of Henry W. Savage in, among others, "The Prince of Pilsen". He had a big role in "A Yankee Tourist' (1907). For the next few years he did stock in the summer and sang for Savage in the winter; eventually he garnered a small renown playing 'grotesque old woman' parts. 

His first film appearance was in the split-reel His Athletic Wife (1913), but he first became known for his role of the dumb Swedish housemaid in the 'Sweedie' series at Essanay Studios (Chicago) which he continued to play over the next year. He moved with Essanay from Chicago to Hollywood where he wrote and directed or Universal before moving over to Keystone, where he renewed his acquaintance with Gloria Swanson -- and they were briefly married. He appeared with her in a couple of two-reelers, and his colleague from his 'Sweedie' days, Ben Turpin. Then he made his mark as a villain in Patria (1917), a serial with Mrs. Irene Castle. With clipped hair, he could pass as a wicked Hun and was thus employed by Mary Pickford in The Little American (1917) and Johanna Enlists (1918).


He imprinted himself on the filmgoing consciousness for the first time as the Hun who tried to rape Blanche Sweet in The Unpardonable Sin (1919). At Paramount he got another break when he replaced his brother in The Love Burglar which starred Wallace Reid and Anna Q. Nilsson. Over the course of the next few years he appeared in numerous films, reaching top billing in 1925 Victor Fleming's The Devil's Cargo and Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost WorldThe Great Divide (1925) was his last work as a freelancer, after which he signed a featured contract with Paramount. In 1926, Paramount teamed him up with another actor mainly associated with villainy, Raymond Hatton, for an army comedy called Behind the Front. It was a wild success. Paramount released a series of comedies for him and Hatton (We're in the Navy Now, Fireman, Save My Child, Now We're in the Air, Wife Savers, Partners in Crime and The Big Killing), but the films did not do well at the box office, and Beery and Hatton suffered from both overexposure and from the cheapness of the later films. Paramount lost interest but WIlliam A. Wellman gave him a good part -- a return to villainy -- in Beggars of Life with Louse Brooks, and used him again in Chinatown Nights (1929). 


Paramount was convinced that Beery was not going places with Talkies and dropped him. MGM however was interested, and considered teaming him with Bust Keaton in Free and Easy, but instead used him in a part intended for Lon Cheney before he died: The Big House (1930), as the thug who leads the prison revolt, a thug without a single redeeming feature. Beery's ferocious performance brought rave reviews and a long-term MGM contract. All the same, MGM could not have guessed at this point that this ugly character actor would become one of their biggest money-makers over the next 20 years. Real stardom was only a step away. He played P.T. Barnum in A Lady's Morals, and Pat Garret in Billy the Kid. Then the studio cast him and Marie Dressler as sparring partners, Min and Bill: in the era of the Depression, these two old soaks making do and making up were a tonic, and the film hit the astonishing gross of $2 million. 

In 1931 he starred in The Champ, playing his usual role, a dirty rogue - but this time with a heart of gold -- opposite boy star Jackie Cooper. Under King Vidor's direction he was more lovable than he had been with Dressler. Audiences cried buckets: enough of them to put this one, too, among the year's top grossers. Beery won the year's Best Actor Oscar (along with Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- Beery was in fact just a few votes behind) and, at the end of 1932, found himself for the first time, among the year's top 10 box office draws. A few more big films followed in 1931 including submarine drama Hell Divers, and Grand Hotel in which he played the nasty little financier. 

Tugboat Annie (1933) was the second film he did with Dressler -- more sentiment and laughs, and more good film-making and big box office. MGM signed Beery to a new starring contract. He was cast in Dinner at Eight (1933), which also starred Dressler, but his character was only concerned with the carrying-on of his tarty wife Jean Harlow. He was loaned out to 20th Century Pictures (the new production company formed by Darryl F. Zanuck and Joseph M. Schenck) for their first film, The Bowery (1933) in which he played against George Raft (to quarrel/fight with) and Jackie Cooper (for sentiment). Then, Beery had what could be considered one of his best parts - Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1934!), a good account of the Mexican Revolution.  He played Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1934), with Jackie Cooper as his Jim Hawkins, and then he played P.T. Barnum again in 20th's The Mighty Barnum (1934).  1935 was his last consecutive year in the top 10 box office list, with films including China Seas with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, and O'Shaughnessy's Boy, again with young Jackie Cooper.

He was loaned to 20th Century again for another Mexican subject, A Message to Garcia (1936) with Barbara Stanwyck top-billed, and was officially 'demoted' from the roster of top MGM stars. He increasingly made programmers - 'mush and muscle' pictures as they were called: Old Hutch (1936), The Good Old Soak (1937), Bad Man of Brimstone (1937), and more. 


Beery made a surprise reappearance in the top money-making stars of 1940: The Man from Dakota, Twenty-Mule Team and Wyoming in which a small-part actress, Marjorie Main, was effectively cast as a blacksmith. It was Main who seemed most to fit Dressler's boots. Beery and MGM were delighted and she was signed to a long-term contract, after which she and Beery starred in a number of films together: Barnacle Bill (1941), The Bugle Sounds (1942) and Jackass Mail (1942).  Beery was off screen for a while, returning in Salute to the Marines (1943) with Fay Bainter, and in Rationing with Main, which did not do so well. 

In 1946 he did another film with Main, Bad Bascomb, and then did The Mighty McGurk (a remake of The Champ) with Dean Stockwell in 1947. After a short interval, he made Alias a Gentleman (1948) and then a musical with Jane Powell and Carmen Miranda called A Date with Judy (1948). His last film, Big Jack (1949) was released posthumously. 

Beery died of a heart attack in 1949, just as he was about to start what would have been his first non-MGM film in more than a decade, Johnny Holiday (William Bendix replaced him).


Beery married actress Gloria Swanson in 1916, divorcing in 1919. In 1924 he married actress Rita Gilman (2 films, uncredited) and they divorced in 1939.

(Source: available at Amazon The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years).



Wallace Beery was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning one for Best Actor for The Champ (as Champ) in 1931/32.

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1929/30Best ActorThe Big House (1930)'Machine Gun' Butch SchmidtNominated
1931/32Best ActorThe Champ (1931)ChampWon

He was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures. Wallace Beery's handprints and footprints were 'set in stone' at Grauman's Chinese Theater during imprint ceremony #18 on Jan 31, 1931.

BlogHub Articles:

On DVD: and Dean Stockwell in The Mighty McGurk (1947)

By KC on Jul 2, 2019 From Classic Movies

picks up where he left off with Jackie Cooper in the 1930s in The Mighty McGurk (1947), a drama of an ex-boxer in the Bowery who finds himself responsible for a British orphan (Dean Stockwell). Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, if you didn’t see the extra mileage on Beery... Read full article

Warner Archive: Margaret O'Brien and Team Up in Bad Bascomb (1946)

By KC on Aug 7, 2015 From Classic Movies

As outlaw Zed Bascomb, is charmed by Mormon orphan Margaret O'Brien in Bad Bascomb (1946), an under seen western now available on DVD from Warner Archive. While Bascomb is terrorizing the Rocky Mountain territories with his gang, federal agents are on the search for the crude crimina... Read full article

Warner Archive: in Viva Villa! (1934)

By KC on Jun 15, 2015 From Classic Movies

The MGM version of the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa takes the expected liberties with the truth, but it doesn't plunge too far into fantasy. On DVD now available from Warner Archive, leads a strong cast through this rousing pre-code epic. Remarkably polished for its... Read full article

The Tyrannical : Gloria Swanson – Part 2

By Emma on Jun 29, 2014 From Lets Misbehave: A Tribute to Precode Hollywood

For all those new to the odd and perhaps scandalous relationship between and Gloria Swanson, check out part 1. If not let’s catch up with the story: As I said before, despite the age difference, Hollywood, family and arguments, Swanson and Beery were finally marriage. It w... Read full article

The Tyrannical : Gloria Swanson – Part 2

By Emma on Jun 29, 2014 From Lets Misbehave: A Tribute to Precode Hollywood

For all those new to the odd and perhaps scandalous relationship between and Gloria Swanson, check out part 1. If not let’s catch up with the story: As I said before, despite the age difference, Hollywood, family and arguments, Swanson and Beery were finally marriage. It w... Read full article

See all articles

Wallace Beery Quotes:

Long John Silver: A treaty's only good until you find a chance to break 'em, matey.

Long John Silver: You ain't gonna let honesty stand in the way o' bein' smart?

Chuck Connors: Never tie yourself to a guy that's on the downgrade.

read more quotes from Wallace Beery...

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Best Actor Oscar 1931/32

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Wallace Beery Facts
At MGM, Wallace Beery's public image was carefully crafted by Howard Strickling as that of a big lovable slob with a heart of gold. In reality, Beery was anything but. Co-star Jackie Cooper said he treated him like an unwanted dog the second the cameras stopped.

In the summer of 1941, he was billed by MGM as the "champion movie location commuter," the studio estimating that he had journeyed more than 100,000 miles to make pictures. According to studio records, Beery covered 15,000 miles in Mexico alone while filming Viva Villa! (1934).

Between 1925, when he took up flying, and 1941, he had accumulated 14,000 hours of flight time as a pilot. While making Treasure Island (1934) on Santa Catalina Island, he commuted daily by plane from his Beverly Hills home.

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