Roy D’Arcy, photo courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Discovered by the great silent film director Erich von Stroheim and introduced to films in his magnificent “The Merry Widow,” suave Roy D’Arcy, born Roy Giusti, fashioned his screen persona and perhaps even his life, after the extravagant Teutonic director. Like von Stroheim, he grew up in Europe, perhaps witnessing Austrian-Hungarian aristocracy and an old-world way of life soon to be destroyed by World War I. Unlike most Hollywood actors, he began at the top, and worked his way down. A top character actor for a short while in the late 1920s, D’Arcy’s life remains mostly in shadow, perfect for the often reptilian characters he portrayed on screen.
Born February 10, 1892 in San Francisco, California, to dentist Dr. John Giusti and his wife, per US immigration records, Roy appears to traveled the world as a young man before employing his artistic talents. The San Francisco Chronicle noted in their May 27, 1900 edition that Dr. and Mrs. Giusti and child departed New York May 24, 1900 on the steamer Grosser Kurfuerst for Germany. Here things grow a little murky.
D’Arcy explained his wanderlust in a 1926 Motion Picture magazine story describing the life of the “sophisticated screen villain.” The magazine stated that D’Arcy “followed his rainbow all over the world. He is at home in the court circles of Europe or among the cattlemen of Argentina.” Their colorful story states that his family departed San Francisco when he was a baby and moved to Berlin, where his father served as a dentist to the Crown Prince of Saxony, other royalty, and diplomats. From this vantage point, he could have daily witnessed the colorful goings-on and rarified life of Austrian well-to-do.
D’Arcy described leaving home at 16 to make his way in the world, traveling from place to place, working menial jobs to support himself while soaking in atmosphere, among these traveling with gypsies around Europe, hauling suitcases, cleaning, and studying art in Paris. He ended up staying six years in Argentina and South America, teaching dance classes, cattle ranching, heading expeditions into the jungle, ending up as a sub-accountant for Standard Oil in Buenos Aires.
Immigration records dated July 17, 1918, however, note that Roy Giusti, living in Bueno Aires, Argentina, had served as a clerk in San Francisco before arriving in Argentina in 1912, where his father was a dentist. Now serving as a clerk for the National Cash Register Co., he wanted to obtain a passport to return to the United States for the war effort.
D’Arcy himself told Motion Picture magazine that he moved to Los Angeles after the war, where he ended up working as a $5 a day extra. After finding little work, he turned to the stage, supporting himself with his gorgeous voice.
Along with other members of the New York Princess Theatre players and Comstock-Elliott Co. in 1919, Giusti traveled the United States in “Oh Boy,” a musical revue by Guy Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse, and Jerome Kern. He played George Budd in the production, singing as part of a trio with Harry R. Hoyt and Mrs. Charline Mayfield, one of the show’s highlights.
He must have continued bouncing between the coasts, supporting himself singing. In 1921, Giusti sang solos with members of the California Theatre at programs of Los Angeles’ Gamut Club, noted as an Italian baritone in write-ups for Pacific Coast Music.
The Los Angeles Times mentions him in a January 13, 1922 review of “Will Morrissey’s Revue,” playing at the Pantages Broadway, highlighted by Johnny Hines in “Burn ‘Em Up, Barnes,” backed up a by chorus of 50. Giusti received high praise for his “very beautiful voice” while singing “The Rose of Verdun.” His light operatic tenor voice pleased much of the audience, though he did show a tendency to overact. During the summer, he sang in Fanchon and Marco’s Little Club in San Francisco, singing character Neopolitan numbers, which won praise from Variety. In 1923, he sang as part of “Earl Carroll’s Vanities” on Broadway, where he was injured when Harry Burns hit him over the head with a “break-away violin” for a skit.
Back on the Los Angeles stage in 1925, Giusti performed in the stage show, “The Clinging Vine,” where von Stroheim’s wife Valerie spotted him, describing him as perfect for the role of the dastardly Crown Prince Mirko for “The Merry Widow,” per Richard Koszarski in “The Man You Love to Hate.” von Stroheim had originally created the role for himself, but MGM quickly kaboshed the idea, which would have made it more difficult to fire the director.
MGM quickly began spreading the word about their new dashing player. The January 11, 1925 Los Angeles Times called Giusti “von Stroheim’s find,” a newcomer to the screen, “recently seen as the foreigner in “The Clinging Vine” at the Playhouse.” On March 4, the paper revealed that “Roy Giusti’s name is so difficult to pronounce that he is to be renamed Roy D’Arcy in “The Merry Widow.” It is somewhat problematical, however, if the question of easy pronunciation has been solved by this transition of cognomen.”
D’Arcy achieved immediate success in his inaugural role on screen, stealing many of the scenes in which he appeared and praised by many reviewers as one of the film’s highlights. Director von Stroheim assisted D’Arcy in fashioning the role around von Stroheim’s screen persona, matching his gait and capturing his disdainful, snide attitude as the haughty but suave Crown Prince. Author Arthur Lennig notes in his biography, “Stroheim,” that D’Arcy played the reprehensible villain to the hilt, “grotesquely and entertainingly overacted his role so that he was as unpleasant as possible. In fact, he was so hateful that audiences were delighted to see him constantly thwarted, and were pleased with his assassination.”
Many reviews praised all the leads, but particularly his embittered and cruel monocled tyrant, with his ape-like sneer and toothy smile gaining great recognition. Motion Picture News called D’Arcy “a remarkable screen villain.” Several magazines noted his over the top but wicked performance, adding an entertaining slice of ham to proceedings. Others pointed out his eloquent and direct eyes that reflected pain. Upon the film’s release, MGM signed him to an exclusive contract, assigning him meaty, over the top, leering villain parts.
D’Arcy played mostly full bore villains in his next several films like “Graustark,” “La Boheme,” “Monte Carlo,” and “the Temptress,” grinning maniacally and emitting charisma as slimy bad guys out to manipulate thoughtful heroes. Several film trade journals and fan magazines praised him for his portrayals, noting how clever and wicked his villains were, and pointing out his “toothy or toothpaste smile.”
Picture Play magazine called D’Arcy “…a true artist, highly intuitive, imaginative” in one review, and “hypnotic and piercing” in another, while the Motion Picture Directory noted his clear mind and diplomatic nature, calling him “orderly, vivacious, and talented.”
The April 18, 1926 Los Angeles Times, noted he gave his roles an extra panache, thanks to the fun twinkle in his eye. D’Arcy explained why he loved villain roles, stating that both on screen and off, they seemed a tiny bit funny, and needed just a touch of humor to come over well. He particularly stated that he hoped not to play heroes or good looking, romantic roles, but juicy villainous parts that stole the show.
On May 16, the Times suggested that producers and directors cast the diabolical but dashing D’Arcy in a comedy every once in a while rather than heavy drama “emphasizing that horrible dental grin. That leer of his is distasteful.”
He received great notices from the Times on September 5, for his role in “Bardelys the Magnificent.” “D’Arcy has overcome his chief distracting mannerism, the one of continually showing his teeth considerably in his pictures. This is the best portrayal he has done in many respects.” On the other hand, Picture Play noted that his teeth “did a great deal of acting” in the film. D’Arcy seemed to be channeling von Stroheim in his comments to the magazine, stating, “Art – that is the bunk. Screen acting is merely a case of dog eat dog…no matter how small the part, I decide what I can do to run away with the picture.” Egotistical D’Arcy also admitted to Photoplay magazine in 1927, “There is noting I won’t do before the camera to attract attention.”
While some reviews continued to praise his work, others began denigrating his performances. Motion Picture magazine trashed the Mae Murray film “Valencia” in 1927, describing him portraying a stilted caricature of himself, “the man who is always laughing like a hyena.” Others snickered that his toothy grin spoiled films like “Frisco Sally Levy” or called his acting florid in others. In 1928, Picture Play magazine remarked that his teeth were “perhaps better known than those of any other player.”
Like von Stroheim, D’Arcy admired his over-inflated ego, living in a grand style and sometimes acting arrogant off-camera. In 1926, D’Arcy lived at 6668 Whitley Terrace, which I believe is the house pictured, but by 1927, claimed to occupy a large Beverly Hills mansion, where he stored his collection of six luxury cars, two Russian wolfhounds, and extravagant wardrobe. By this point, he also claimed to have graduated from the University of Paris.
D’Arcy also met and quickly married his wife, widow Mrs. Laura Rhinock Duffy, on December 31, 1925. The daughter of a Shubert organization and MGM executive, Duffy saw him onscreen in “The Merry Widow,” and felt so intrigued she traveled to Hollywood to meet him.The chemistry must have been overwhelming, as their romance quickly blossomed into marriage. Unfortunately, D’Arcy’s offscreen character seemed to ape that of his film characters, as Duffy filed for divorce in 1928, claiming verbal and emotional abuse and stating he displayed an overwhelming ego. Her African-American maid, Saffron Walker, testified on February 23 that D’Arcy “was a ‘heavy’ at home as well as on the screen.” He constantly used vile language around the women. His wife testified that he cursed and abused her to the point where she suffered a nervous breakdown. D’Arcy departed the house in a rage on their second anniversary, never to return.
On June 11, 1928, D’Arcy filed for bankruptcy, claiming liabilities of over $34,000 and only $325 assets. He owed the government $740 in back taxes, and admitted he spent most of his money at flower shops, jewelers, tailor shops, and cafes, trying to impress the ladies. To save money, he moved to 1404 N. Havenhurst.
In March 1928, MGM released him from their exclusive contract, and D’Arcy began the slow descending ride into “B,” Poverty Row, and serial films like many other silent film stars, who saw their careers decline with the introduction of sound and the studios’ attempts to replace them with cheaper talents. D’Arcy appeared in “Beware of Blondes,” a 1928 Columbia film starring Dorothy Revier and Matt Moore, lacking the style, sophistication, or budget of MGM films. Educational Screen wrote that if he reframed and reduced his killer watt smile, he could become a better actor, yet the actor really didn’t appear to listen. He bounced between studios like Columbia, Tiffany-Stahl, and other companies, appearing in a Christie comedy short and playing a jungle heavy in “The Black Watch.” He did land a good part in Universal’s “The Last Warning” in 1929.
D’Arcy claimed he was training for the stage again in late 1928, hoping to once again land starring roles. He performed as emcee at a Fanchon and Marco stage show at the Egyptian in November, with Variety claiming he might head a unit on a 14 week tour, but failed to carry enough stage charisma. He moved over to the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles, giving the audience “gala hokum villainy” in “The Princess Passes,” a 14 minute tearjerker he wrote with Garrett Fort. The Variety review noted that, “D’Arcy, whose screen leer and sneer have stamped him a film villain, holds true to character as a Prince in command of a retreating army,” one who brings him an innocent peasant girl to ravage. Mistakenly drinking spiked wine intended for her, he dies in melodramatic fashion, with his former lady loves laughing at him. They noted his voice and presence were superb, but felt the story unhip, except possibly to flyover audiences.
By July 1929, D’Arcy shared the bill with many performers at the RKO Palace Theatre in New York, demonstrating a fine baritone voice with such lame material and old fashioned songs as “I’ve a Bit of Savoir Faire,” I Kiss Your Hand, Madame,” “Im Ready to Go,” and “I’m Not Such a Bad Chap.” Variety thought people would attend just for the curiosity value of seeing a film star singing, while Hollywood Filmograph thought he displayed too many effeminate mannerisms. The show toured for a while, featuring such performers as Molly Picon and Glenn Hunter on the bill.
In August, D’Arcy appeared at the 81st St. Theatre in New York, with Variety panning his appearance. They claimed he sold himself all over in film and print, which in effect, what he was doing here. “He may have been the baddest of bad boys in his screen assignments, but in doing the personal appearance gag, he never loses a moment to sell Roy D’Arcy.” His act, perhaps a trifle icky, consisted of saying he was searching for a girl to star opposite him in his next picture, and asking a couple of female participants to appear in a scene with him as villain, ending with him giving them a hug and kiss. They claimed he conned the women into believing he wanted to meet them in the lobby afterwards, get photos, and perhaps schedule a test with them.
During late 1928-early 1929, D’Arcy and Lita Grey Chaplin, former wife of comedian Charlie Chaplin, engaged in a verbal love fest for magazines and newspapers, with some hinting the two would soon tie the knot. Instead, D’Arcy quickly remarried his former wife three months after their divorce, before quickly untying the marital knot once again a year later, with his wife claiming D’Arcy exhibited “supreme superiority, excessive egotism, and overbearing manner.” He claimed, “Matrimony is the bunk,” according to Talking Screen magazine, and by March 1930, stated he would spill the dirt on their marriage. Thankfully, they both moved on.
As his personal life ebbed and flowed, so did his career. By November 1929, D’Arcy hung around the Shubert offices looking for work, and announced intentions to open a fancy nightclub in New York, one requiring tuxedoes for entrance, presenting dramatic sketches to guests.
For the next couple of years, D’Arcy split his time between appearing with stock companies, touring in a variety of vaudeville shorts, some two-reel film shorts, including the Vitaphone short, “Masquerade,” and occasional small roles in poverty row features. In 1930, D’Arcy “supervised” salesgirls Claudia Dell and Lucille Boone in making salads for a May Company display in Los Angeles.
Modern Screen magazine noted in their gossip column in July 1931 that D’Arcy was spending his time playing miniature golf with a redhead, as his screen career was destroyed because of problems with co-workers. He did appear at the Hollywood Bowl in 1932, playing Cabrillo in a pageant for guests attending the 1932 Olympics called “California Welcomes the World.” He landed roles in features again, mostly in “B” pictures in such films as “The Gay Buckaroo,” “Lovebound,” and “Revolt of the Zombies.”
Along with other former silent film greats, D’Arcy landed a cameo in Robert Florey’s fun little 1936 film, “Hollywood Boulevard” about a former screen star out to write his tell-all memoirs. The film, which Variety remarked displayed “a Cook’s tour of famous Hollywood locations,” included appearances by Herbert Rawlinson, Betty Compson, Jack Mulhall, Creighton Hale, Esther Ralston, Charles Ray, Mae Marsh, Francis X. Bushman, and Bryant Washburn. He also landed a nice role in “Flying Down to Rio.”
Unfortunately, D’Arcy’s screen career was virtually over. By the late 1940s, he moved to the Redlands area of southern California, and began selling real estate. He died November 15, 1969, with his obituary claiming he was educated at Teichman’s Gymnasium, Leipzig, and the University of Jena, Germany.
D’Arcy still electrifies in films like “The Merry Widow” and “Bardelys the Magnificent” for his wonderful overacting, playing the role of despicable villains to the hilt. While perhaps forgotten by many today, these classic films keep his name and charisma alive.