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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.

Ian Keith in 1929 and about 30 years old.

Ian Keith in 1944 and about 45 years old.

Ian Keith

Real name: Keith Macaulay Ross

1899 - 1960

Ian Keith's first major role on Broadway was in "The Silver Fox" which ran for 100+ performances in late 1921. When that ended, he immediately went to work in "The Czarina" which ran for 100+ performances from January - May, 1922.

Above are Florence Vidor and Ian Keith in CHRISTINE OF THE HUNGRY HEART (Thomas H. Ince/First National, 1924). This was one of Keith's earliest film appearances and he was about 24 years old when he did this film.

Above - Ian Keith and Gloria Swanson in MANHANDLED (Paramount, 1924).

Above - Ian Keith as "Vitamin Flintheart", ham actor and helper to Dick Tracy, in DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL (RKO, 1946) and DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA (RKO, 1947). He was in his late forties when he portrayed "Vitamin Flintheart".

Trade publications had some positive comments:

"... Vitamin Flintheart, played by Ian Keith, is a delightful cinematic portrayal."
"Ian Keith, whose interpretation of the role of Vitamin Flintheart is priceless parody ..."
Ian Keith was born in Boston in 1899, and his birth name was either Keith Macaulay Ross or Macaulay Keith Ross. He was the only child of William Andrew Ross and Mahala 'May' Wilson Ross. His parents divorced and father William passed away in Charleston, West Virginia in 1927 and mother Mahala died in Los Angeles in 1931.

In his early theatrical work, he was known as Keith Macaulay Ross, Keith Ross, and Ian Keith Ross, but finally settled on Ian Keith as his moniker. A good looking guy, Keith was slim and about six feet, two inches in height.

His theater and movie career spanned about forty years. He loved the stage, became an expert on Shakespeare, and was a mentor to many performers. On the downside, he had issues with alcohol abuse and there were marriages, divorces, financial problems, more.

In between movie assignments, he returned to Broadway and played local stock in California, Chicago, Minneapolis, Des Moines, St. Louis, many other locales. My inclination is that Keith considered theater as his main calling and Hollywood was secondary, though it did provide him with frequent paydays.

A few mentions of his early theatrical work:

His intro to Broadway occurred in "The Silver Fox" in 1921, "The Czarina" in 1922, and "Laugh, Clown, Laugh!". "Clown" ran for 100+ performances in late 1923 - early 1924, was produced by David Belasco, and starred Lionel Barrymore.

His invitation to Hollywood came about when Gloria Swanson saw him in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh!" and selected Keith to play opposite her in MANHANDLED (Paramount, 1924) and HER LOVE STORY (Paramount, 1924). Another early movie job was in CHRISTINE OF THE HUNGRY HEART (Thomas H. Ince/First National, 1924). That starred Florence Vidor and the trio of male leads were Clive Brook, Warner Baxter and Keith. Then came more silents starring Swanson, Corinne Griffith, Mary Astor, Anna Q. Nilsson, Norma Shearer, Lon Chaney Sr., Mae Busch, others for Paramount, Fox, Universal, Columbia, MGM, more.

With his stage trained voice, Keith successfully transitioned to talking pictures. But things changed and his days as a cinema leading man ended. He moved to character roles, often portraying an authority figure or someone that was slick and slippery. You can spot him in major / credited parts in A grade productions such as QUEEN CHRISTINA (MGM, 1933) with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. He was the crazed "John Wilkes Booth" in the 1930 D. W. Griffith production of ABRAHAM LINCOLN which featured Walter Huston as Abe. And Keith played "Rochefort" in THE THREE MUSKETEERS (RKO, 1935) as well as the Gene Kelly version of that Alexandre Dumas novel at MGM in 1948. One of my favorite Keith performances is his portrayal of the despicable "Bill Thorpe" who vies for the affection of Marguerite Churchill in John Wayne's first starrer, THE BIG TRAIL (Fox, 1930).

We all know that Bela Lugosi starred as Dracula in the 1931 movie from Universal. Prior to Lugosi landing the part, sources indicate that other actors considered for the Dracula role included Keith, Conrad Veidt, Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, a few others.

There may have been a friendship with Cecil B. de Mille as Keith has credited roles in de Mille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (Paramount, 1932), CLEOPATRA (Paramount, 1934), THE CRUSADES (Paramount, 1935) and THE BUCCANEER (Paramount, 1938). Nearly twenty years later, he's back with de Mille for an unbilled part in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount, 1956).

His movie work is light during the years 1938 - late 1941. He appears to have temporarily settled down in the Chicago area and Midwest, probably because fourth wife Hildegard Pabst Smits was from Chicagoland. In late 1938, he's directing and starring in "The Copperhead" at Chicago's Blackstone Theater. In May, 1939, Keith had the lead in "Hamlet" at the Blackstone and Variety had a blurb: "Ian Keith drew fine notices and show is a cinch for a fine play during three-week stay." Then he was out of the country for about six months doing plays in Australia ... and accompanied by wife Hildegard. In August, 1941, he's starring in "Twentieth Century" at the St. Louis Civic Theater. And November, 1941, he's heading a little theater group at the Guild theater in Evanston, Illinois.

Variety had a December, 1941 article on Keith's return to California: "'To Live Again', a stage drama, opens at the Belasco theater (Los Angeles) Dec. 29 (1941) ..." and "Ian Keith draws the star spot and Julie Bishop, Warners contract player, has the femme lead."

Circa 1942, Keith begins to appear in many B films including the Charlie Chan and the Bowery Boys series. He even does an uncredited part in the serial ADVENTURES OF THE FLYING CADETS (Universal, 1943). He probably had a great time playing "Vitamin Flintheart", ham actor and helper to Dick Tracy, in DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL (RKO, 1946) and DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA (RKO, 1947).

And there were about a dozen 1940s oaters with range heroes Wild Bill Elliott, Charles Starrett, Bob Steele, Don Barry, Eddie Dean, Lash LaRue, and the Trail Blazers:

There were more A grade films such as his portrayal of a ship's captain in THE SPANISH MAIN (RKO, 1945). And in the Tyrone Power NIGHTMARE ALLEY (20th Century Fox, 1947), Keith is a onetime mystic / mind reader who has fallen on hard times due to drinking problems. His real life issues with alcohol abuse probably impacted his performance and further down this webpage, there's a link to a 2 1/2 minute video clip of a drunken Keith palavering with Tyrone Power in NIGHTMARE.

In the 1950s, he remained busy doing theater and films and also appeared in various television shows which originated in New York and Hollywood. He must have been a real character and I chuckled when reading about an incident in 1953 when Keith delivered a less than positive commercial for Nash cars:

From the December 14, 1953 issue of Broadcasting magazine (available at the Internet Archive): "IAN KEITH was suspended from membership last week in the New York local of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA) for three months as a result of charges growing out of his delivery of a commercial on the Nov. 17 performance of 'Dark Victory' on WOR-TV New York." and "... derogatory remarks made by Mr. Keith with reference to Nash cars, a sponsor of WOR-TV's Broadway Tv Theater series on which 'Dark Victory' was presented."

More details were in the December 12, 1953 issue of Television Digest and Electronic Reports (available at the Internet Archive): "For 'insulting' sponsor's product with a cute nose-thumbing on WOR-TV's 'Broadway TV Theater', actor Ian Keith has been suspended by AFTRA for 3 months ..."

He was back on Broadway in the short-lived "Edwin Booth" in late 1958. Keith was "Junius Brutus Booth", the father of John Wilkes Booth and Edwin Booth. It was produced and directed by Jose Ferrer who also starred as Edwin Booth.

About a year later, Keith and Jose Ferrer reunited for "The Andersonville Trial" which ran for about 175+ performances from December, 1959 through June, 1960. George C. Scott and Albert Dekker were the stars and Keith played "Dr. John C. Bates". Ferrer was the director.

Newspapers from late March, 1960 had articles on Keith's death in New York City: "Character actor Ian Keith, 61, died yesterday (March 26, 1960) in Medical Arts hospital ... of a heart attack and perforated duodenal ulcer." ; "The veteran performer was appearing in the Broadway play 'The Andersonville Trial.' " ; "He was stricken yesterday afternoon at the Lambs club."

Shortly after Keith's death, George C. Scott donated $1,000.00 and established an annual "Ian Keith Award" at the New York Shakespeare Festival. The award was presented to the festival actor who "reflects the spirit embodied in the kindness and love Ian Keith had in his life for his fellow players."

As mentioned, Keith enjoyed alcohol as well as night life and partying, and that is confirmed based on marriages, divorces ... and much publicity. There were four wives. Actress Blanche Yurka was number one and she was about a dozen years older than he. They tied the knot in 1922 and it ended in 1928 with Blanche claiming that Keith was romantically involved with stage star Marjorie Rambeau. Blanche also sought legal action against Keith for missing alimony payments. A few days after the divorce from Yurka, Keith married actress Ethel Clayton who was also older than he. That lasted until 1932 and in the divorce action, Clayton claimed that "Ian sniffed the cork once too often". Soon after the legal split from Clayton, Ian married actress Fern Andra, and that relationship ended in 1935. Wife number four was Chicago socialite Hildegard Pabst Smits. They married in 1936 and were together through his passing in 1960.

While I enjoy watching B western heavies such as Roy Barcroft, Leroy Mason, Dick Curtis and many others, it's a pleasure to see someone different as the brains behind the villainy. I like Ian Keith ... and wished he did more cowboy films. An interesting man and very busy actor.

Above is a portion of the trade biography on Ian Keith from 1937. There is a spelling error - Sargeant School in New York City should be spelled Sargent.

Some tradezines and fan magazines mention that Keith served in the Merchant Marine or U. S. Navy during World War I. Doubtful if that occurred as Keith registered for the World War I draft in September, 1918 and the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. In the 1930 census, Keith indicates that he was not a military veteran.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from L-to-R are Ian Keith, Bill Elliott, George 'Gabby' Hayes and Herman Willingham in a scene from BORDERTOWN GUNFIGHTERS (Republic, 1943). Keith is a saloon owner running a crooked Texas state lottery. He was the brains heavy in two others with Elliott: THE MAN FROM THUNDER RIVER (Republic, 1943) and the Red Ryder adventure, PHANTOM OF THE PLAINS (Republic, 1945).

(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above - production still from the first Trail Blazers' adventure, WILD HORSE STAMPEDE (Monogram, 1943) with Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson. Outlaw leader Ian Keith is on the right in the suit. Lots of faces in this photo, and below is a crop/blowup:

L to R are Ken Maynard, three unidentified players, Bob Baker, Reed Howes (mustache), and Hoot Gibson. Looks like onetime child star Buzz Barton in the background with hands in the air.

L to R are unidentified player, Tex Palmer, Tom London, and Ian Keith. On the stairs is Fox O'Callahan.

(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Al La Rue (as the "Cheyenne Kid") rolls a cigarette as he makes a deal with Bob Barron (center, as 'Dixon') and Ian Keith (right, as 'Landow') to ruin Sarah Padden and her ranch and newspaper. Still from Eddie Dean's first singing western, the Cinecolor SONG OF OLD WYOMING (PRC, 1945). Couple years later, Larue got his own series and Keith played a crooked doctor in Lash's BORDER FEUD (PRC, 1947).

(From Old Corral collection)

VALLEY OF ZOMBIES (Republic, 1946) was filmed in 1945 and was one of Bob Livingston's last starring roles at Republic Pictures. The heroine was Republic contractee Adrian Booth (Lorna Gray). Ian Keith is the ghostly (ghastly) adversary shown on the left.


  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on Ian Keith:

The Internet Broadway Database has Ian Keith in seventeen New York stage productions during the years 1921-1960:

The Playbill Vault has playbills from many of the Broadway productions in which Keith appeared:

Wikipedia has info on the Lambs Club in New York City which is an organization of actors, songwriters, and others involved in the theater:

The Images Journal website has a photo of Keith, Marguerite Churchill, and John Wayne in director Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL (Fox, 1930):

The New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection, has five photos of Ian Keith:[]=Billy+Rose+Theatre+Division.+The+New+York+Public+Library&q=%22ian+keith%22

New York Heritage, Digital Collections has a photo of Keith playing "Macbeth" at the 1953 Hofstra University Shakespeare Festival in Hempstead, New York:

J. David Goldin's RadioGoldIndex website has Ian Keith in a few radio shows. When you get to the site, click "Start Here", then select "Search By Artist", then select K, then scroll down for Ian Keith radio credits:

YouTube has Ian Keith in several public domain films and trailers which you can stream/download:

ABRAHAM LINCOLN (D. W. Griffith, 1930):
HERE COMES KELLY (Monogram, 1943):
NORTHWEST TRAIL (Action Pictures, 1945):
Trailer for IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (Columbia, 1955):

2 1/2 minute clip from NIGHTMARE ALLEY (20 Century Fox, 1947) with Ian Keith and Tyrone Power:

On the trail of Ian Keith.
The Family Search website (free), (subscription) and newspapers have information on Ian Keith and his parents. There is confusion about his real name being Keith Macaulay Ross or Macaulay Keith Ross. I've highlighted those name variations in this color:

  • City of Boston birth index - a son was born February 27, 1899 to William A. Ross (born Iowa) and Mahala Ross (born St. Louis) in Boston. However, no first name is listed for the child:
  • World War I draft registration dated September 14, 1918 at the Covington, Virginia draft board - 19 year old Keith Macaulay Ross was born February 27, 1899 and home address is Boston, Massachusetts. Occupation is "Actor" and employer is Miller and Risser, 220 West 42nd Street, New York City. Nearest relative is his mother, May Wilson Ross, Stamford, Connecticut:
  • The Sunday, November 27, 1927 issue of the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette had a death notice on Ian's father: William A. Ross: "... had been a resident of Charleston about six years, having come here about 1921 from New York city representing the Baltimore Engine company ..." ; "Later he organized his own business under the name of William A. Ross Company, manufacturers' agent ..." ; "... he leaves only a son, a theatrical and movie man well known on the stage as Ian Keith. The latter was in Chicago when informed by wire of his father's death and will fly to Charleston ..." ; "He long was sales manager for Babcock and Wilcox, one of the great boiler manufacturers ..."
  • Ancestry had the January 18, 1927 will and probate document for Ian Keith's father William Andrew Ross. Couple of tidbits from the will:
    "... bequeath to my only child and son, Macaulay Keith Ross, and to my niece, Dorothy DuShane Burdette, all of ... estate ... "
    "... one dollar ($1.00) shall be paid to my former wife, Mahala Wilson Ross, from whom I am legally divorced."
    "I appoint my son, Macaulay Keith Ross, and my niece, Dorothy DuShane Burdette, executors of my estate ..."
  • 1930 census - 31 year old Ian Keith Ross resides in Los Angeles. He is married and born about 1899 in Massachusetts:
    1930 census takers worksheet - 31 year old Ian Keith Ross and 39 year old wife Ethel Clayton Ross (born Illinois) are renting on Franklin Avenue, Los Angeles. He is not a military veteran; occupation is "Actor - Stage and Films". No occupation listed for wife Ethel:
  • Newspapers from late March, 1931 had articles on the March 20, 1931 death of Ian's mother in Hollywood: "Mrs. Mahala Keith ... mother of Ian Keith, film actor, died at a hospital today of burns suffered at her home last night."
  • 1939 ship's passenger list - 40 year old Ian Keith, born February 27, 1899 in Boston, and 41 year old Hildegard Keith, born February 12, 1898 in Chicago, are traveling together on the ship Monterey, which sailed from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles in December, 1939. Their home address is 8555 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, California. 1939 issues of Variety reported that Keith was doing plays in Australia:
  • 1940 census - 41 year old Ian Keith is living in Los Angeles:
    1940 census takers worksheet - Ian Keith resides at the Wilcox Hotel, Selma Avenue, Los Angeles. There's a question mark next to the married indicator on the census form. Keith was born in Boston and completed four years of high school; occupation is "Actor - Motion Pictures", and in 1939, he worked 20 weeks and earned $1600.00:
  • 1940 census - 40 year old Hildegard Keith is living in Chicago with her 67 year old mother Emma Pabst (born Germany) and two brothers:
    1940 census takers worksheet - there's a question mark next to the married indicator on the census form:
  • Find A Grave website has a record for Ian Keith and notes that he was cremated in New York:

Marriages, divorces and assorted turmoil.
Keith had four wives. The first three were stage and/or screen actresses. Number four was successful and continued through his death in 1960. Ian Keith was married to:

Film and stage actress Blanche Yurka from 1922 - 1928.
Film and stage actress Ethel Clayton from 1928 - 1932.
Film actress Fern Andra from 1932 - 1935 (they initially married in 1932, and re-married in 1934; see trade blurbs below).
Chicago socialite Hildegard Pabst Smits from 1936 through his death in 1960.

The Internet Archive has many tradezines and fan magazines. Ian Keith and his four wives, alcohol problems, financial woes, and other issues were well represented in articles. Some highlights and quotes below:

  • July 2, 1924 and July 9, 1924 issues of Variety: "Ian Keith, at Hollywood in films, denies all the charges made by his wife, Blanche Yurka, in her action for divorce ..." ; "Keith says he merely extended to Marjorie Rambeau the respect due to her stage position."
  • July 16, 1924 Variety: "Ian Keith has gone to the coast to appear in pictures, signed by Thos. H. Ince ..."
  • June 17, 1925 Variety: "Ian Keith has filed an action for divorce against Blanche Yurka, Metropolitan opera star." ; "In his action Keith declares his wife is insanely jealous."
  • July 15, 1925 Variety: "Ian Keith Ross has filed suit for divorce from Mme. Blanche Yurka in Los Angeles Superior Court, charging desertion. The opera singer sued Ross, who is known professionally as only Keith, for divorce in New York last year, naming Marjorie Rambeau co-respondent."
  • August 19, 1925 Variety: "Blanche Yurka has started suit in Superior Court to force her husband, Ian Keith, to pay her back alimony ..."
  • February 1, 1928 Variety: "Ian Keith and Ethel Clayton are scheduled for the Riverside (theater), New York, in two weeks." ; "Blanche Yurka ... was granted a divorce from Ian Keith ... on allegations that Keith tossed a chair at her two weeks after they were married in 1922."
  • February 15, 1928 Variety: "... in Ethel Clayton he has found his 'soul mate.' " ; "... he and Miss Clayton have been married." ; "Blance Yurka just obtained a divorce from Keith a few weeks ago. Miss Clayton played in stock here before going into the movies."
  • August, 1931 Photoplay magazine: "Ian Keith and Ethel Clayton have separated. 'I drink too much and Ethel gets fed up,' explains Ian."
  • May, 1932 Movie Classic magazine: "Ethel Clayton filed suit for divorce against Ian Keith ..." ; "... Ian upset the apple-cart by being very frank with the newspaper boys who interviewed him in his dressing-room between acts of the stage play 'Grand Hotel.' 'What really fretted Ethel,' said Ian graphically, 'was my continual, confounded drinking!'" ; "Mrs. Ian Keith is now Miss Ethel Clayton again; she won her decree on the grounds that Ian sniffed the cork once too often."
  • May 17, 1932 Variety: "Ian Keith and Fern Andra engaged to be married."
  • April, 1933 Picture Play magazine: "Tallulah Bankhead is rehearsing a play, 'Forsaking All Others,' in which Mary Duncan, Ian Keith and Anderson Lawlor will appear in her support. Keith has been welcomed back to Broadway with open arms. Producers would also like to lure his wife into appearing in a play. As Fern Andra she was the dominant picture star and theater favorite in Europe a few years ago."
  • February 20, 1934 Variety: "Fern Andra (married) to Ian Keith at Tia Juana, Feb. 15, to insure the legality of their first ceremony in 1932."
  • September 25, 1934 Variety: Headline: "COURT REFUSES NAME CHANGE TO IAN KEITH." ; "After using the name Ian Keith professionally for 15 years, he can't use it legally according to a decision of Superior Judge .... Keith petitioned the court to change legally from Keith MacCauley [sic] Ross. Judge ruled on the ground that once the actor went through bankruptcy, and although he has been discharged, the courts still regard his debts as unpaid."
  • May 22, 1935 Variety: Headline: "Ian Keiths Divorced." ; "Chicago, May 21. Fern Andra obtained a divorce from Ian Keith, who is appearing in 'Mary of Scotland' here. Miss Andra will receive $25,000 in settlement."
  • July 15, 1936 Variety: "Ian Keith lost an appeal to the California courts to have his stage name legalized. (he) ... is Keith Macauley [sic] Ross."
  • September, 1936 Hollywood magazine: "IAN KEITH, one of the better actors of the stage and screen, is the second husband of HILDEGARD PABST SMITS, Chicago socialite and heiress."
  • 1939 issues of Variety reported on Keith doing plays in Australia (and fourth wife Hildegard was with him).

Ian Keith's wives Blanche Yurka, Ethel Clayton and Fern Andra at the Internet Movie Database and Internet Broadway Database:

Wife number four - Hildegard Pabst Smits:

Blanche Yurka (1887-1974) circa 1922
Ethel Clayton (1882-1966) circa 1915

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