Years ago, an actor shone his light in every film role he played. You would have seen him in many roles—he appeared in over 100 films.
He was delightful in comedies…and strong, resilient in dramas. He was a wonderful actor who always offered solid, warm, believable portrayals.
That actor was Harry Davenport. He was born in New York City in 1866, but when he moved to Canton, Pennsylvania with his family five years later, Canton became his home until 1934 when he left for California. His wife had died and staying in Canton was too painful. He spent the rest of his life and died in California. But his heart was always in his beloved Canton.
Davenport built his film career with solid performances. He always played a man of authority…a doctor in GONE WITH THE WIND, a judge in YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, Nick Charles’s doctor-father in THE THIN MAN GOES HOME, and my favorite—Judy Garland’s delightful, charming grandfather in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS.
Bette Davis praised him: “As a human being and actor, Harry Davenport will never be forgotten. Without a doubt he was one of the greatest character actors of all time.”
THE THEATER …HIS TRUE LOVE
Davenport came from a family of stage actors. His parents, Edward Loomis Davenport and Fanny Vining Davenport, an English actress, were stage actors. Six of his siblings went on to careers in the arts. Two of his sisters were an actress and an opera singer, and his daughter, Dorothy, was also an actress.
Davenport made his first appearance in the theater when he was five years old. By his teens he was performing Shakespeare in stock companies. He made his Broadway debut in an 1894 musical comedy.
His true love was the theater and he spent the greater part of his life on the stage. But he also built a solid, successful career in films later in his life.
DAVENPORT TAKES ON BROADWAY THEATER OWNERS
As delightful as he was, Davenport was also a tough, principled man who had the courage to stand up for his beliefs. He loved the theater, but in the early 1900s, Broadway theater owners didn’t treat actors very well.
In 1913 Davenport, along with Broadway legend Eddie Foy, co-founded the Actors’ Equity Association to alleviate poor conditions in theaters. They led the actors in a strike refusing to appear on stage that forced the closing of all the Broadway theaters (except for George M. Cohan and his company).
It took nine months for the strike to end—that’s when the theater owners finally met the actors’ demands, which included plumbing in dressing rooms and a six-day workweek. But the owners weren’t happy and Davenport, as a leader of the actors’ strike, decided to leave Broadway to find work in films.
So in 1914, Davenport made his screen debut in the silent film TOO MANY HUSBANDS with Vitagraph Studios in New York. He continued acting and directing silent films until 1921 when he decided to return to his first love—the theater. He performed on stage through the 1920s and into the 1930s.
HIS BELOVED WIFE, PHYLLIS
Davenport met his future wife, musical comedy star Phyllis Rankin, when they both appeared in the Broadway musical THE BELLE OF NEW YORK in 1895. They married the following year and continued performing in Broadway musicals through 1918. Phyllis was an actress and singer whose career ran from 1884 to the 1920s. By 1921, she had performed on stage for 50 years.
When his beloved wife passed away in 1934, Davenport left his cherished home in Canton, saying: “…Mrs. Davenport passed away in that house. I haven’t stepped inside its doors since it happened. I want to let these memories stay closed up there for a while, for they are very dear.” He never returned to his home.
In 1934, he drove out to California with his son, Ned, to test the movies again. This time, he struck gold!
HOLLYWOOD FILM STAR AT 70 YEARS OLD
At 70, Davenport arrived in Hollywood in 1935. Within two years, he was one of the most sought after actors in films. Everybody wanted him—RKO, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, even Alfred Hitchcock for his film, Foreign Correspondent.
And during World War II, when his son Ned enlisted in the Army, Davenport and his daughter volunteered to work in the Hollywood Canteen, spearheaded by Bette Davis to entertain soldiers before being shipped out to the front. Davenport served as a busboy.
Davenport appeared in more than 100 films—many of them becoming classics—until his death in 1949 at the age of 83. On the day he died of a heart attack, he had just spoken to his agent confirming plans for him to start filming in another film the following week.
Davenport appeared in three Academy Award Best Picture winners: The Life of Emile Zola, 1937; You Can’t Take It With You, 1938; and Gone With The Wind, 1939.
He also acted in Best Picture nominees: All This and Heaven Too, 1940; Foreign Correspondent, 1940; One Foot in Heaven, 1941; Kings Row, 1942; and The Ox-Bow Incident, 1942.
In his obituary that appeared in the Toledo Blade he was called “the white-haired character actor with the longest acting career in American history.”
As impressively stated by Matthew Carl, President of LeRoy Heritage Museum and Executive Director of the Bradford County Historical Society: “Harry Davenport was loved by his friends in Canton, PA. He was always very down-to-earth, a friend to everyone, and both he and his wife did much to support the community. He came to Canton when he was 5 years old and only left for California after his wife passed away but stayed connected with friends back in Canton for the remainder of his life.”
Matt also produced a greatly entertaining and informative program on Harry Davenport. Please check it out at YouTube. It’s terrific.
Harry Davenport—an accomplished actor, talented, committed, a wonderful presence in every film he appeared in—and always a delight to watch and enjoy. He remains a man of character and principles and kindness. Many people called him shy and gentle—that he was the same when times were good for him and when they were bad. He never changed. He was simply a gentleman and a man of great talent and character.
After almost 75 years since his death, Harry Davenport remains a man very much remembered with respect and love, not only in his beloved Canton, but throughout the country.