|The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawman, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.|
(From Old Corral image collection)
While most of the B film baddies and supporting players are forgotten by the current generation of movie viewers, there's one actor from that period and genre who is probably remembered. It's none other than Charles Middleton, and his most famous role was that of 'Ming the Merciless' in the three FLASH GORDON serials which starred Buster Crabbe.
Charles Brown Middleton was born in Elizabethtown, Kentucky in 1879, and his parents were Hugh and Mary Middleton. Father Hugh was a Confederate officer in the Civil War, attaining the rank of Captain in the Georgia Infantry.
The Middleton family were in Chattanooga, Tennessee when the 1900 census was taken. Father Hugh was a Justice of the Peace and son Charles was an actor.
Middleton's early years as an actor was highlighted in a July, 1902 article and photo in the Paducah (Kentucky) Sun newspaper. Excerpts from that article: "... Charles B. Middleton, leading man and stage director with the La Belle Park Theater stock company. This is Mr. Middleton's second season in Paducah ..." ; "Mr. Middleton is a native Kentuckian, having been born in Elizabethtown." ; "Mr. Middleton will star with his own company ... the coming winter season."
He met actress Leora Spellmeyer in the early 1900s and they began working together and touring on the vaudeville circuit circa 1906. Charles and Leora tied the knot in 1908 in Pennsylvania, and settled down in the Freeport and Hempstead areas in Nassau County, New York. Located about thirty five miles from New York City, Freeport and Hempstead were popular communities for stage and vaudeville performers. Daughter Leora was born in 1915. And Charles was a long time member, director, and president of the L.I.G.H.T.S. Club (Long Island Good Hearted Thespian's Society). There's many trade publication mentions of "Middleton, Spellmeyer and Company" and "Middleton and Spellmeyer" playing various locations in the United States and Canada. And 1909 and 1910 issues of Variety noted their tours in England. Below are a few trade and newspaper ads.
|Charles and Leora's act was one of many on a bill at theaters and vaudeville houses, and they performed together from about 1906 through the late 1920s.|
On the left is an ad for Middleton, Spellmeyer & Co. and their "A Texas Wooing" playlet in January, 1910 in Boston.
In large letters at the bottom of the ad is Added attraction James J. Corbett - that's "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, heavyweight boxing champ.
In the early movie business, many production companies were located in New York and New Jersey. Leora and Charlie were cast in one film, probably due to their New York residence. Grossman Pictures, Inc. had their studio in Ithaca, New York and produced the serial $1,000,000 REWARD (1919) ... and that cliffhanger is among the lost/missing. The Middletons continued traveling and performing, including a tour on the Orpheum circuit. But by the late 1920s, vaudeville was in decline and they headed west to Hollywood and newfangled talkin' pictures. Charlie was about fifty years old when he made this career change. Slim and with a chiseled face and booming voice, he became typecast as an evil / maniacal character or authority figure. And you can spot him portraying over zealous preachers ... shyster lawyers ... the town leader whippin' up a lynch mob ... a sinister lawman or judge ... the conniving and vicious boss of an orphanage or reform school. And he occasionally portrayed political leaders Abraham Lincoln and Confederate States president Jefferson Davis.
He did some low-budget westerns, and following are a few examples:
However, Middleton's claim to fame are the villain and character roles he did in many serials. Here's my favorites:
He free lanced everywhere, doing a mix of meaty parts and bits in A and B grade films. Examples: he's the frustrated Foreign Legion commandant in the Laurel and Hardy short BEAU HUNKS (Hal Roach/MGM, 1931) and feature THE FLYING DEUCES (RKO, 1939); he's a prosecutor vs. the Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (Paramount, 1933); in the Three Stooges short SPOOK LOUDER (Columbia, 1943), Charlie plays a butler; he's the "strangler" in one of PRC's best, STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP (PRC, 1946); and Middleton was the boss of the wrecking crew in the chaotic MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (Selznick/RKO, 1948). He also appeared in a half dozen Will Rogers films in the 1930s as well as four Cecil B. de Mille epics during the years 1932-1947. Long time ago, I was watching our local PBS TV station which was running SHOWBOAT (Universal, 1936) with Irene Dunne and Alan Jones ... and Middleton is a lawman and gets a couple lines of dialog. A busy man.
Les Adams has Middleton identified in about 175+ sound era films - that number includes 45 westerns and 15 serials.
The real Charles Middleton was the exact opposite of the vile evildoer that he often portrayed on the screen. I was in Arizona at a business conference in the early 1980s and was able to visit Buster Crabbe. I recall him smiling when he reminisced about Charles Middleton, calling him "Charlie Middleton" and that he was a "nice man" devoted to his craft and family.
Leora passed away September 4, 1945. Charles suffered for years from heart problems and died on April 19, 1949 at the Jared-Sidney Torrance Memorial Hospital, Torrance, California.
Middleton is one of my favorites. And I recall him screaming the names "Flash Gordon !!!" and "Tom Morgan !!!" in response to Buster Crabbe and Tom Mix foiling another nefarious deed. Wonderful memories!
Above is a photo of Leora Spellmeyer Middleton courtesy of the Freeport, New York Historical Society and Freeport, New York Memorial Library. The publisher of the photo was the Press Bureau of the Palace Theater.
You can find more details at the New York Heritage Digital Collections website at: http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15281coll12/id/3428
Above - from the November 5, 1932 issue of Hollywood Filmograph, available at the Internet Archive.
(From Old Corral collection)
Left to right are Charles Middleton (as 'Zaroff'), Jason Robards, Sr., and Tom Mix in the chapterplay, THE MIRACLE RIDER (Mascot, 1935), Mix's last film.
The 'Zaroff' character may have been inspired by Basil Zaharoff, a World War I arms and munitions dealer, and Wikipedia has info on him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil_Zaharoff
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on:|
Charles Middleton: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0585481/
Middleton's wife, actress Leora Middleton (1888 or 1890 - 1945): https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0817702/
Middleton's grandson, actor Burr Middleton: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0585476
The New York Heritage Digital Collections website has a 21 page L.I.G.H.T.'S. Club (Long Island Good Hearted Thespian's Society) souvenier program from their third annual Circus and Wild West show in July, 1922. The group toured Long Island, New York and the cast included Middleton, Eddie Foy, Victor Moore, and George Jessel: http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15281coll12/id/16144
Though he reportedly did a lot of stage plays, the Internet Broadway Database lists one play for Middleton, the February-March, 1946 Broadway production of "January Thaw". This was about six months after the death of his wife Leora: https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/charles-middleton-52970
There's a lot more details about Middleton's extensive work in cliffhangers at Daniel Neyer's "The Files of Jerry Blake" website: https://filesofjerryblake.com/serial-villains/charles-middleton/
Lengthy interview about Charles Middleton with his grandson, actor/entertainer Burr Middleton:
On the trail of Charles Brown Middleton
The Family Search website (free), Ancestry.com (subscription), Variety, ProQuest obituaries, Newspaper Archives and the death certificate provide more on Middleton and family. Lots of confusion with his birth year - in the info below, you'll find 1875, 1876, 1878, and 1879:
Jim Tipton's Find-A-Grave website notes that Charles Middleton and and his wife, actress Leora Theresa Spellmeyer, are interred at Hollywood Forever cemetery, Los Angeles, California.