Photo: Ernest Torrence and Greta Nissen in “The Wanderer,” listed on EBay at $34.95.
Note: This is an encore post from 2011.
Long remembered for playing both villainous and comic supporting roles in silent films, Ernest Torrence achieved big success on the New York theatrical stage before becoming involved with movies. Torrence was ambitious from the time he was a child in Scotland, and employed his talent as a calling card for America.
The actor grew up in Scotland only a mile from Edinburgh, later studying at the Edinburgh Academy. He studied piano and singing several years at the Royal Academy of Music in London, winning medals and appearances in concerts, before spending three years taking singing lessons in Stuttgart, Germany. Torrence first appeared on the stage in London “in a romantic role at the Savoy Theatre, but soon afterward I jumped into musical comedy work and sang at the Gaiety Theatre.” His deep baritone was appropriate for appearing in Gilbert and Sullivan. He also wrote some compositions, including music for a Greek play which was produced in Edinburgh when he was 19.
As Torrence told “The New York Times” in December 1914, “I haven’t been in the United States so very long. I came here in 1911 to appear with Walter Damrosch and then I went with Kitty Gordon in “The Enchantress.” When the Captain Scott pictures of the South Pole expedition were shown, I traveled with those films and lectured on them…I again lectured in the movies, this time with the Paul Rainey hunt films.” The New York Times called the Herbert Ponting film about Capt. Robert Falcon Scott “remarkable and inspiring,” and stated that Torrence explained the images as they appeared on screen. The actor also claimed that it was his baritone voice singing the role of Valentine in “Faust” in the first sound film recorded at the Edison laboratory.
By 1914, he was appearing in shows for Joe Weber and Victor Herbert among others, particularly in “droll Scotch comedy roles.” Torrence watched films, and soon realized that he wanted to appear in them, but his friends at the Lambs’ Club laughed when he spoke of his plans, telling him “You lack those indefinable shades of facial expression so necessary to proper film registry, ” according the a Aug. 22, 1923, Los Angeles Times” story.
Photo: Ernest Torrence “Gets the Drop” on His Man, listed on EBay at $16.99.
May 16, 1933: Ernest Torrence dies in New York.
Out of the blue about a year later, director Henry King approached him about appearing in TOL’ABLE DAVID as a heavy, drawn by his acting as well as his 6-foot-4 height. Torrence gasped when he heard of King’s intentions and asked, “Have you ever seen my work?” After King’s explanation, however, Torrence decided to give it a try. As he told the Los Angeles Times though, “I didn’t want to be a heavy; I wanted to be an actor.” He first appeared in a comedic role in the film THE COVERED WAGON in 1923, followed closely by RUGGLES OF RED GAP.
By the mid-1920s, Torrence had achieved such great screen success that he could switch back and forth from comedic to villainous roles, and appear in films with Buster Keaton. He shaved his head to play John Gilbert’s father in THE COSSACKS and played a policeman in the RKO film OFFICER O’BRIEN. Torrence achieved great fame with the coming of sound, but the number of roles declined as the studios cast newer and cheaper actors.
On April 25, 1933, he received surgery for gallstones, but failed to respond to treatment and died on May 15 at the age of 54.