Frank McHugh: A Beloved Character Actor Who Played an Important Role in World War II
Unless you’re a classic film buff, you’ve probably never heard of Frank McHugh, and most of the hundred odd movies he appeared in during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s have fallen into obscurity. Born into a theatrical family, McHugh (1898-1981) grew up touring in a Vaudeville act with his brother and sister. He honed his acting skills in the 1920s, performing in regional/stock productions and on the Broadway stage. He landed in Hollywood in 1930, along with the rash of New York theatre actors talking pictures created a demand for.
McHugh quickly became one of Warner Brothers’ most reliable supporting players. His diminutive stature, sunny face, comic timing and appealing manner made him a beloved character actor, very popular in his day. McHugh’s films include The Front Page (1931) Gold Diggers of 1935 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Four Daughters (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), Going My Way (1944), Mighty Joe Young (1949) and The Last Hurrah (1958).
Though McHugh got a few star parts, more often he supported stars James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. Irish-Americans McHugh, Cagney, O’Brien and Spencer Tracy were close friends and the core members of a group known as, “The Irish Mafia,” which also included Allen Jenkins, Ralph Bellamy, Lynne Overman and Frank Morgan.
Like many of his fellow stars, he was a keen supporter of the war effort. A discovery I made while processing the library’s very small collection of Frank McHugh’s Papers was a trove of interesting letters, photographs, and publicity materials on the USO tours McHugh participated in during World War II.
In 1942, five months after Pearl Harbor, McHugh was a member of the Hollywood Victory Caravan. At the request of the War Activities Committee a crew of 21 stars traveled across the US by train, performing in several cities over the course of three weeks to raise money for the Army and Navy Relief Fund.
The dazzling line-up of stars, headed by Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Cary Grant featured the talents of some of Hollywood’s biggest names. McHugh and his Irish Mafia pals James Cagney and Pat O’Brien were on board, along with Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Merle Oberon, Rise Stevens, Eleanor Powell, Laurel and Hardy, Bert Lahr, Charlotte Greenwood, Olivia de Havilland, Desi Arnaz and Groucho Marx.
The show they performed was a musical revue, put together by Mark Sandrich (a director known for the Astaire/Rogers musicals) and Alfred Newman (20th Century Fox’s house musical director and composer) with contributions from several top screen and song writers. Everywhere the Caravan went, it was greeted by cheering crowds, and its stop in Washington D.C. included a trip to the White House, where the stars were greeted and thanked by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
After the tour, photographer Gene Lester compiled a booklet of 30 photographs from the tour for the participants. McHugh’s copy is available in the collection. This amazing resource is a mix of posed publicity shots and candids of the stars hanging out backstage, at meals or on the train. Many of the stars recalled the Hollywood Victory Caravan as one of the most incredible and memorable experiences of their lives.
McHugh’s dedication to helping the war effort was not over. He first toured England in August and September of 1942 in a USO tour, appearing in the American Variety Show with Al Jolson, Merle Oberon, Patricia Morrison and Allen Jenkins.
Two years later, McHugh came back to Europe with his own show. He designed and starred in “McHugh’s Revue” which toured France, Holland, Belgium and Germany in November and December of 1944. The show was actually in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. This USO show featured McHugh, four beautiful girls (actresses Mary Brian, June Clyde, Charlotte Greer and Nina Nova) and a piano-player (Eddie Eisman), touring the front line, entertaining and meeting the troops. The McHugh Papers include many accounts of the tour.
Here is McHugh’s own account of traveling to Europe in the company of servicemen:
"Getting acquainted with my companions was something that I looked forward to with great apprehension. They were all so many years my junior that I suddenly felt very old and very far away from them. But I was mistaken — I have never met a bunch of young fellows that were so good humored, agreeable and easy to get along with. I’ll always remember them and wonder what their individual careers were in the army.”
The November 4, 1944 editions of the Special Service Publication, Trans Quips described meeting up with McHugh for an interview:
“I found him and June Clyde talking to a bunch of G.I.s, looking at the pictures of their girls, cracking jokes and signing autographs. He talked to the men about their home towns, and Frank really knows the home town of almost everybody on board… He did shows in all the big towns and cities in the States.”
McHugh’s USO tour earned him a Citation “for exceptionally meritorious service while working as a member of an entertainment unit” from the army, signed by Major General Raymond S. McLain. In a 1945 letter to McHugh and his troupe, McLain wrote:
“I want to make of record what I was glad to say to each of you when you left and what many of the command said to you then and what they have said to me since — “That your show was like an oasis in this desert of hardship and suffering”. It reminded us what a vital factor a bit of entertainment is in this business where boredom is almost as difficult to bear as the hardships of the campaign. Your show was sparkling, and left a refreshing atmosphere in the spirit of many battle weary soldiers.”
To learn more about Frank McHugh’s career and war effort activities, see the Frank McHugh Papers in the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library.