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Happy Birthday, Charles Farrell!

Unless you’re like me and have turned all of your extracurricular activity hours over to watching endless episodes of TV reruns, the name of actor Charles Farrell might not be an immediately familiar one.  Fellow couch potatoes know him as father to wacky Gale Storm on the situation comedy My Little Margie, while movie audiences from the Jazz Age/Depression Era remember him as a romantic partner for Janet Gaynor in a dozen motion pictures produced between 1927 and 1934 (Street AngelSunnyside Up, etc.).  New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall once described a performance of Farrell’s in this fashion: “Sometimes he may seem to be a little too swaggering, but what of it?  The actions suit the young man’s agreeable bombast.  You find that you like him.”  And audiences did. Charlie—born Charles David Farrell in Walpole, Massachusetts on this date in 1900—was such a durable performer that comedian Bob Hope once joked that Farrell was a star at “19th-Century Fox.”

Charles Farrell’s parents were working-class Irish immigrants who envisioned a stellar career path for their son…but Farrell’s dream always seemed focused on show business.  The family owned a movie theatre, and as young Charlie set up the films to be shown and swept out the theatre, he told himself that one day it would be him on that silver screen.  The senior wanted his son to attend Boston University and become a dentist; Charlie offered a compromise and worked toward getting a degree in business.  Farrell abandoned this just before his senior year in college by getting a job as a valet to vaudeville performer/little person Billy Curtis, which provided the means for the ambitious Charlie to get to Hollywood.

After getting some stage experience, Charles Farrell found work in Tinsel Town doing small bits in films like The Ten Commandments (1923) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923); he’s also in Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) and in the Charlie Chaplin-directed A Woman of Paris (1923).  Farrell’s film career really didn’t get underway until he signed with Fox Films in 1925 and appeared in such features as Wings of Youth (1925), Sandy (1926), and A Trip to Chinatown (1926).  Charlie was loaned out to Paramount to appear as “The Commodore” in Old Ironsides (1926); directed by James Cruze and a huge success at the box office.  But it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience before the cameras: an explosion on the set injured several bystanders and resulted in the death of a technician.  Charles’ eardrums were injured in the blast, and it left him partially deaf for the remainder of his life.

Charles Farrell’s next movie assignment was his first with Janet Gaynor and the film that would make him a matinee idol: Seventh Heaven (1927).  It would win Farrell’s co-star an Academy Award for Best Actress, and writer Benjamin Glazer a trophy for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Seventh Heaven was also responsible for garnering Frank Borzage a statuette for Best Director (for a Dramatic Picture). Borzage and Farrell would go on to make Street Angel and Lucky Star (1929) with Gaynor as leading lady, as well as The River (1929), Liliom (1930), and After Tomorrow (1932).

Charles Farrell was also the leading man in City Girl (1930), considered by classic film fans to be one of F.W. Murnau’s finest films. Throughout the 1930s, Farrell continued to be a familiar movie face in features like Wild Girl (1932) and Change of Heart (1934; his last film with Janet Gaynor).  World War II was responsible for Farrell’s abandonment of his picture career (his cinematic swan song was 1941’s The Deadly Game). He retired and joined the Navy, serving as a Personnel and Administrative Officer aboard the USS Hornet.

At the height of his motion picture fame in the 1930s, Charles Farrell moved to Palm Springs, California—which at that time was a dusty little desert town and not the “playground for the stars” it later became.  Charlie and his partner, actor Ralph Bellamy, opened the Palm Springs Racquet Club in 1934.  More than anyone, Farrell was responsible for Palm Springs developing prosperity. He was known to his friends as “Mr. Palm Springs” and, after serving on the city council in 1946, he was elected mayor from 1947 to 1955.  Radio’s The Jack Benny Show welcomed him as a guest whenever the program would visit Palm Springs. The show’s writers soon developed one of their hilarious running gags by having Farrell constantly introduce himself as “I’m Charlie Farrell—star of Seventh Heaven.”

Charles Farrell wasn’t quite done with show business yet, however.  “I took the part because I’m a ham,” he remarked in a 1954 interview.  ”The work is not exactly the same as making pictures, but it’s pretty close.”  Farrell was referencing his role as Vern Albright, the put-upon father to Margie Albright (Gale Storm) on TV’s My Little Margie. The show premiered on June 16, 1952 as a summer replacement for I Love Lucy and soon developed a large enough audience to appear on the schedule as a weekly series on its own.  What’s more, Charlie and Gale were coaxed into doing a radio version of the sitcom, which ran concurrently with its TV cousin from December 7, 1952 to June 26, 1955. (The TV Margie exited a bit later, in August of 1955.)

The success of My Little Margie would result in a second television sitcom success for star Gale Storm (The Gale Storm Show: Oh, Susanna! from 1956 to 1960). Charles Farrell tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice with The Charlie Farrell Show, which premiered on July 2, 1956…also as a summer replacement for I Love Lucy.  Farrell wasn’t quite as lucky with his series as Storm was with hers, however. It wasn’t renewed after it finished its run in September, though reruns later aired in the summers of 1957 and 1960.  (Not to be snarky…but the TV series was pretty much a commercial for Palm Springs and Farrell’s Racquet Club, which he would sell in 1959.)  Farrell died in 1990, still residing in his beloved Palm Springs.

Two of Charles Farrell’s classic guest appearances on The Jack Benny Show are available on our Benny collection Silly Skits—consecutive broadcasts dated April 11 and April 18, 1948.  You can also hear our birthday boy in his signature television role…only it’s on radio, with a broadcast of My Little Margie on Great Radio Sitcoms.  Happy birthday to Charlie Farrell!

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