1891 – 1956
Jack Buchanan was Fred Astaire before Fred Astaire was Fred Astaire. Jack was tall, handsome, a great “make it look easy” song and dance man, and, as his friend and frequent costar Bea Lillie noted, no one wore white tie and tails like Jack. Today, he’s mainly remembered as the hammy, aging costar of Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (and a damn good performance, too). But looking at the 62-year-old hoofing “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” doesn’t really show you the gorgeous matinee idol of the 1910s and ’20s.
Jack Buchanan and Elsie Randolph in “I’m in a Dancing Mood.”
Born in Scotland to a family of swiftly-declining fortunes, he took to the stage with little training and was taken under the wing (metaphorically or not, my dears, I have no idea) of actor/producer Ivor Novello. In the 1910s he rose through the ranks of musicals, finding his happiest home in André Charlot’s Follies-like revues, clowning with Bea Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence. Though we know him today only from his films, of course, Jack’s career was largely onstage, both in England and the U.S. (he stayed in London during the war, and was bombed out of more than one theater). From the 1920s almost till his death, Jack starred in and sometimes produced such popular, now-forgotten theatrical fluff as A to Z, Battling Butler, That’s a Good Girl, Stand up and Sing, Mr. Whittington, This’ll Make You Whistle, Top Hat and Tails, Don’t Listen, Ladies! and As Long As They’re Happy.
Jack made a handful of British silents, but much of his charm was in his voice (he had an ingratiatingly boyish giggle) and his lanky dancing. He was snapped up by Hollywood when talkies hit, but for some reason, he never became the movie star he should have: he was delightful and sexy in Monte Carlo (with Jeanette MacDonald, directed by Ernst Lubitsch), but he patriotically decided to shore up the ailing British film industry and spent the 1930s in such vehicles as A Man of Mayfair, the umpteenth remake of Brewster’s Millions, When Knights Were Bold, Alias the Bulldog and The Amazing Mr. Forrest. Those films, and his stage work, made Jack a veritable institution in the UK, but he was pretty much forgotten in America till Vincente Minnelli cast him in The Band Wagon in 1953.
He was already in poor health by then; his last movie, The Diary of Major Thompson (1955), was also the swan song of director Preston Sturges. Jack died in 1957, shortly after guesting on the British TV series of Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, who had also become popular heroes by staying in London during the war. I interviewed Jack’s second wife, Suzzie, when I was writing about Kay Kendall (the Buchanans were friends of Kay and Rex Harrison). Suzzie was quick to note that Jack and Rex were poles apart: “Jack was such a good-natured chap, thank goodness.”
I leave you with a clip (not a very high-quality one, I’m afraid) of Jack with his frequent costar Elsie Randolph in This’ll Make You Whistle (1938). Jack was pushing 50 and had already been a star for two decades, but you can still see the lithe young man who had the gallery girls sighing back in the 1920s: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQwK6AZozZw