When we think of certain actors or actresses, there are roles that they played in films that instantly conjure memories and images. For some, a specific part defines an entire career, however long it was. For Henry B. Walthall, one role stood out among all the others, yet it came two full decades before his career, and his life, ended.
Henry Brazeale Walthall was born on March 16, 1878, on a plantation at Mallory Station on the Coosa River in Shelby County, Alabama. He had a younger sister, actress Anna Mae Walthall (born October 3, 1894, died April 17, 1950), and a brother, Junius, who died on July 15, 1918, in the Battle of the Marne.
Henry’s first career path was the Law, but he traveled north to New York, and soon gained recognition as an actor on Broadway. In 1909, he joined D. W. Griffith’s troupe at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company – soon to be called, simply, The Biograph. His film debut was in the Biograph film, The Convict’s Sacrifice (1909): from that point, he would co-star with such future luminaries as Mary Pickford, Robert Harron, and Lillian Gish, in such classic films as In Old Kentucky (1909), A Corner in Wheat (1909), Ramona (1910), A Little Child (1911), The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914), and a stellar turn as Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia (1914). These films are some of the finest examples of cinema in its formative years, a time when everyone was experimenting, learning, and teaching … the lessons gleaned from this Biograph troupe would ultimately shape the medium as we know it now.
Walthall’s most famed role – the singular part for which he is best remembered – was as the Little Colonel in The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film, based on the Thomas Dixon novel, The Clansman, tells the story of a horrific time in our country’s history, framed by the Little Colonel, played with tenderness and admirable restraint by Walthall, who gained great fame from the role. Sadly, instead of continuing with a winner (Griffith), Walthall decided to break away and try to make it on his own: this would prove disastrous, as he never again would find film vehicles that would help him develop his true histrionic potential. Instead, he relied on offbeat characterizations, and eventually drifted into character parts. He played Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven (1915), had a terrific role in The Jazz Age (1930), played Norma Shearer’s father in Strange Interlude (1932), had a bit part in 42nd Street (1933; costarring Bebe Daniels), played Dr. Manette in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and closed his career with a role in China Clipper (1936).
Walthall was married twice: first to Isabelle O’Flanigan Fenton, in 1907, and to actress Mary Charleson, from 1917 until his death, from tuberculous peritonitis, on June 17, 1936, in Monrovia, California. Henry B. Walthall was 58 years old at the time of his death. He worked for numerous film companies, among them Pathe, Reliance, Balboa, Paralta, and National. His many accomplishments and contributions to the performing arts were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6207 Hollywood Boulevard.
A really delightful story, “Briefs of Biography,” appeared in the New York Dramatic Mirror, on July 7, 1915, and featured Walthall reminiscing about his histrionic roots. He left his father’s farm in Shelby County, AL, to go on the stage. At the Players’ Club in New York City, in 1906, a producer asked him where Jim Kirkwood was. “I received a horrible shock when Mrs. Kirkwood told me he was playing in moving pictures. I determined to rescue him.” Kirkwood grinned at this reaction, and introduced him to Griffith, who wanted to use him on the spot. Walthall protested. ‘Never mind what you want,’ [Griffith] replied, ‘get out into that ditch and get busy…’ So my advent into this work was in a sewer.” How fortunate for us that he dug his way out of that predicament, and onto the silver screen.