The Accidental Star: The Life and Films of Warner Baxter
Dan Van Neste
BearManor Media, 2023
Before picking up Dan Van Neste’s new biography of the prolific actor Warner Baxter, I didn’t know much about it. My first exposure to him was as the sickly musical director in 42nd Street (1933); the first time he charmed me was opposite Myrna Loy in Penthouse (1933), there were a handful of other performances I could remember, but I realized I knew nothing about Baxter himself. Van Neste’s book introduced me to a complex, thoroughly engaged man, with a life both blessed and turbulent.
I always liked Baxter, but I didn’t know the scope of what he achieved. Not only did his career span three decades, but he found popular success throughout his career, from the silents to ‘B’ serials. Despite significant personal difficulties, he easily managed the transition from silents to sound, won the second Oscar for best actor, and was for many years one of the most beloved and wealthy stars in Hollywood. He also found the time for a fulfilling personal life, including over three decades of happy marriage to the actress Winifred Bryson and an astonishing array of social groups, charitable pursuits, and hobbies.
While this remarkably humble and self-preserving man would never reach the career heights of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and his friend and inspiration Ronald Coleman, his filmography is nevertheless an impressive one. He appeared in the first film version of The Great Gatsby (1926), the only adaptation made in the same decade the book was written, participated in the rebirth of the movie musical with 42nd Street and worked with some of the best directors of the studio age including Frank Capra, John Ford, and William Wellman, if not necessarily on their best films. He was able to find employment that pleased him until the end, emerging from a partial retirement to once again find great success in the 10-film Crime Doctor series.
Baxter’s accomplishments are all the more impressive considering how much he suffered emotionally. It is never clear what mental illness afflicted him, though there are hints of social anxiety, depression, and bi-polar disorder, all categorized under “nervous breakdown” at the time. Somehow the actor didn’t let his problems destroy his career, likely a testament to the support he had in his marriage and the financial resources that gave him the ability to take long breaks for relaxation. That latter point is especially powerful, demonstrating that even in an age where his condition remained a mystery in many ways, simply having the resources to step away from work was life-changing.
Van Neste has spoken with several of Baxter’s former co-workers and their memories reveal a kind man who was always willing to help others and never put on the airs of a star. He liked being a famous movie actor, but he seemed too interested in his life to make much of it. I was surprised and fascinated to learn about the rich, interesting life the man most famous for his pep talk to Ruby Keeler’s Peggy Sawyer had.
Note--The book has an unusual structure: The first half is Baxter's biography, while the second contains a especially detailed filmography. I found it useful to have access to a lot of production details which would have been too numerous to include the telling of his story, but were interesting to know.
Many thanks to Dan Van Neste for providing a copy of the book for review.