Family & Companions
The best dressed man in America, the ever debonair Adolphe Menjou quickly made his mark during the waning days of silent cinema as a suave ladies’ man, clad in the finest of formal wear and always sporting the most impeccable moustache in the room. After toiling in small roles for a few years, Menjou first gained notoriety in Charlie Chaplin’s "A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate" (1923) and he settled into an easily discerned persona that he showcased wonderfully in films like "Morocco" (1930). His Oscar-nominated turn as an acerbic, fast-talking editor in "The Front Page" (1931) demonstrated his ease with verbal humor and he went on to give memorable portrayals in everything from the Shirley Temple confection "Little Miss Marker" (1934) to Stanley Kubrick’s bracing anti-war drama "Paths of Glory" (1957). Fluency in several languages also helped the Pittsburgh-born actor to convincingly play all manner of sophisticated foreigners, though Menjou’s exceedingly conservative political views and happiness to name names for the House Un-American Activities Committee eventually tarnished his reputation to a degree. Menjou appeared in well over 100 films, where he proved regularly that he was equally comfortable at being charming or villainous, and could also do a fine job of combining those two characteristics when called for.
Regarded by many fans as a quintessential Frenchman, Adolphe Jean Menjou was actually a native of Pittsburgh, PA. Born on Feb. 18, 1890 to a father who was a veteran hotelier, Menjou was expected to carry on the tradition of hotel management. He was not at all interested, but Menjou’s initial plans suggested a more traditional and stable career path than he ended up taking. Following stints at Culver Military Academy and Stiles University Prep School, he attended Cornel University and studied engineering. Acting entered Menjou’s life when he became involved in the institution’s dramatic productions. He soon switched from Engineering to Arts, but ultimately left Cornel before obtaining a degree. Seeking to establish himself as a professional performer, he relocated to New York City and helped to run his father’s restaurant, Maison Menjou. Film roles started to come in 1914, but he took time off to do his part in World War I by serving in the Ambulance Corps in France. Upon returning to acting, Menjou began to obtain jobs that were significant enough for him to start receiving screen credit.
Paramount Pictures put Menjou under contract and his notable early credits included a turn as the King of France in Douglas Fairbanks’ energetic take on "The Three Musketeers" (1921) and a supporting assignment in Rudolph Valentino’s silent classic "The Sheik" (1921). However, it was his performance as an arrogant French playboy in Charlie Chaplin’s "A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate" (1923) that earned Menjou his first real notice. The film – which featured Chaplin only in a cameo appearance – was not a commercial success in the U.S., but Menjou’s screen presence and poise aptly displayed his qualifications for the sort of dapper and urbane roles that would come his way for years to come. His emerging stardom was further strengthened by films like Ernst Lubitsch’s "Forbidden Paradise" (1924), "The Swan" (1925), and D.W. Griffith’s "The Sorrows of Satan" (1926), where he was wonderful as a debonair incarnation of the titular fiend, though the film itself turned out be among that year’s biggest disappointments. Audiences first heard Menjou’s voice in "Fashions in Love" (1929) and unlike some of his counterparts from the time, he had no trouble making the transition to talkies. Interestingly, some critics and audience members reportedly expressed surprise that this archetypal Frenchman spoke English with no accent whatsoever. His tenure with Paramount soon came to an end, though Menjou had one of his most memorable parts from that stage of his career in "Morocco" (1930), in which he battled with Gary Cooper for the hand of newly minted star, Marlene Dietrich.
His services were optioned by MGM, which took advantage of Menjou’s multilingualism to star him in four films – three in French and one in Spanish – that MGM was also simultaneously shooting in English with different casts, a common practice before dubbing became technically feasible. MGM specialized in elaborate and beautifully realized films and Menjou’s stately screen image was a fine fit, even if his drawing power had waned somewhat. However, one of his greatest roles came while he was on loan out for "The Front Page" (1931), a hilarious adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s like-named Broadway smash. The part of conniving newspaper editor Walter Burns was originated on stage by Osgood Perkins and imposing character actor Louis Wolheim was hired for the film incarnation. However, Wolheim’s sudden death just before shooting left it open and Menjou was enlisted. The rat-a-tat-tat comic dialogue fit Menjou’s style perfectly and he earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination. While the film’s more popular remake, "My Girl Friday" (1940), largely supplanted "The Front Page" in the public’s perception, it featured some of Menjou’s finest comedic work.
MGM had not produced "The Front Page," but happily took advantage of the notoriety Menjou gained from it by keeping him busy throughout the duration of his time with the studio. He was one-third of a romantic triangle with Barbara Stanwyck and Ralph Meeker in "Forbidden" (1932) and played the Italian major whose jealousy compels him to try and separate Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in the first screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s "A Farewell to Arms" (1932). Menjou proved his versatility with his splendid turn as a scruffy bookie whose heart is won over by adorable Shirley Temple in "Little Miss Marker" (1934). The role was a step away from his established identity, but "Sorrowful Jones" ended up being one of the actor’s best known and loved characters. He effectively played the understanding studio head in "A Star is Born" (1937) who oversaw the rise of new talent Janet Gaynor and the fall of alcoholic star Fredric March, while "Stage Door" (1937) found him to be just as persuasive as an unscrupulous promoter out to take advantage of young actresses. He reteamed with Stanwyck in the engaging prize fighting drama "Golden Boy" (1939) and amused as a conman in the screwball comedy "Hi Diddle Diddle" (1943), one of the few mid-career films for which he received star billing.
A dedicated Republican, Menjou co-founded the conservative organization the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which also boasted such A-Listers as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney and among its members. Like many performers, he also spent some time entertaining American troops fighting overseas during World War II. Even when he was not making movies, one could hardly glance at the entertainment news of the time and not find columnists remarking on how the actor seemingly always maintained the same degree of well-groomed perfection off-screen. In fact, Menjou was named the Best Dressed Man in America on several occasions over the course of his career and, fittingly, his 1947 autobiography was titled It Took Nine Tailors. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee staged a series of hearings with the goal of publically identifying communists in the entertainment industry and called a number of suspects in to testify. However, some entertainment personnel voluntarily appeared as friendly witnesses and Menjou was prominent among them. He gave a fiery speech on November 3rd of that year in which he unrepentantly labeled himself "a witch hunter," denounced Communism as a "foul philosophy," and stated that he had seen movies (citing the pro-Stalinist 1943 film "Mission to Moscow" specifically) that he thought should never have been made. That overt stance and his whole-hearted cooperation with HUAC made for a prolonged state of chilliness on the set of "State of the Union" (1948), where an unapologetic liberal Katherine Hepburn would speak only to Menjou when delivering scripted lines in front of the camera.
The number of roles offered to Menjou had dwindled by the time the 1950s rolled around, but he did solid work as a dogged detective hunting a killer in "The Sniper" (1952). The tense and well-crafted B-thriller also gave audiences the all-but-unknown sight of Menjou sans moustache. He had quipped in interviews that he felt naked without it and quickly went back to his trademark look after the filming of this movie. During that time, he also made his television debut as host of the series "Your Favorite Story" (NBC/syndicated, 1953-55), which featured mini adaptations of classic works by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, and Herman Melville, among others. Menjou gave one of his finest latter day performances as a pitiless French general in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece "Paths of Glory" (1957) and returned to the small screen as host of "Target" (syndicated, 1958), a horror and suspense thriller anthology program that ran for one season. Menjou’s right wing politics and strong support of the blacklist sullied his reputation somewhat, a situation further heightened by his proud membership in the recently established John Birch Society. However, at the beginning of the new decade, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and provided solid support in an atypical role as a cranky old hermit who succumbs to the charms of Hayley Mills in the Walt Disney hit "Pollyanna" (1960). He retired from acting after that assignment, but early in 1963, Menjou contracted hepatitis and after a nine-month battle with the disease, died on October 29th.
By John Charles