Actor / director John Cromwell was born December 23, 1887, in Toledo, Ohio. He made his Broadway debut on October 14, 1912, in Marian De Forest's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" at the Playhouse Theatre. The show was a hit, running for a total of 184 performances. Cromwell appeared in another 38 plays on Broadway between February 24, 1914, when he appeared in Frank Craven's "Too Many Cooks" at the 39th Street Theatre (a hit show he co-directed with Craven that ran for a total of 223 performances) and Oct 31, 1971, when he closed with "Solitaire/Double Solitaire" at the John Golden Theatre after 36 performances. In addition to "Cooks", Cromwell directed or staged 11 plays and produced 7 plays on Broadway. Among the highlights of his Broadway acting career were his multiple appearances as a Shavian actor. He was "Charles Lomax" in the original Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" in 1915 (Guthrie McClintic, who married Katharine Cornell in 1921 and became a notable Broadway director, played a butler), and as "Capt. Kearney" in the revival of "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" the following year (McClintic played "Marzo"). He also appeared as "Brother Martin Ladvenu" in Katharine Cornell's 1936 "Saint Joan", directed by McClintic, and played "Freddy Eynsford Hill" in Cedric Hardwicke's 1945 revival of "Pygmalion", starring Gertrude Lawrence as "Eliza Doolittle" and Raymond Massey as "Henry Higgins".
As for William Shakespeare, he played "Paris" to Katharine Cornell's "Juliet" and Maurice Evans' "Romeo" in McClntic's "Rome and Juliet" in 1935, and appeared as "Rosenkrantz" in McClintic's 1936 Broadway staging of "Hamlet", with John Gielgud in the title role, Lillian Gish as "Ophelia" and Judith Anderson as "Gertrude". He also appeared as "Lennox" in the 1948 revival of Shakespeare's "Scottish Play", with Michael Redgrave as "Macbeth" and Flora Robson as "Lady Macbeth" (young actors also featured in the play who went on to renown were Julie Harris, Martin Balsam and Beatrice Straight). Cromwell won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Play in 1952 for "Point of No Return", in which he supported Henry Fonda, and appeared as the father "Linus Larabee Sr." in "Sabrina Fair" the next year.
With the advent of sound pictures, Cromwell went "Hollywood" in 1929, appearing in The Dummy (1929) in support of Ruth Chatterton and Fredric March. He also co-directed two talkies with A. Edward Sutherland that year, Close Harmony (1929) and The Dance of Life (1929) (he had a bit part as a doorman in the latter). After learning the craft of directing, he directed The Mighty (1929) with George Bancroft, in which he made innovative use of sound. He also directed Jackie Coogan in Tom Sawyer (1930) the next year. He made his name with "Ann Vickers" in 1933 and "Of Human Bondage" in 1934, two films he shot for RKO based on novels by the preeminent writers Sinclair Lewis and W. Somerset Maugham. Both movies ran into censorship trouble. Lewis' Ann Vickers (1933) featured Irene Dunne as a reformer and birth control advocate who has a torrid extramarital affair. The novel had been condemned by the Catholic Church, and the proposed movie adaptation proved controversial. The Studio Relations Committee, headed by James Wingate (whose deputy was future Production Code Administration head Joseph Breen, a Roman Catholic intellectual) condemned the script as "vulgarly offensive" before production began. The SRC, which oversaw the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association's Production Code, refused to approve the script without major modifications, but RKO production chief Merian C. Cooper balked over its excessive demands. Though studio head B.B. Kahane protested the SRC's actions to MPPDA President Will Hays, the studio agreed to make Vickers an unmarried woman at the time of her affair, thus eliminating adultery as an issue, and the film received a Seal of Approval. The battle over "Ann Vickers" was one of the reasons the more powerful PCA was created in 1934 to take the place of the SRC.
Joseph Breen, now head of the PCA, warned that the script for W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1934) was "highly offensive" because the prostitute "Mildred", whom the protagonist, medical student "Philop Carey", falls in love with, comes down with syphilis. Breen demanded that "Mildred" be turned into less of a tramp, that she be afflicted with T.B. rather than syphilis, and that she be married to Carey's friend whom she cheats on him with. RKO gave in on every point, as the PCA, unlike the SRC, had the ability to levy a $25,000 fine for violations of the Production Code. Despite the changes, chapters of the Catholic Church's Legion Of Deceny condemned the film in Chicago, Detroit, Omaha, and Pittsburgh. Despite a picket line manned by local priests in Chicago, Cromwell's film Of Human Bondage (1934) broke all records at the Hippodrome Theater when it played there in August 1934. Five hundred people had to be turned away opening night. It seemed that wherever the LOD had condemned the film, it played to capacity crowds. In 1935, Breen ruled that Of Human Bondage (1934) would have to be changed if RKO wished to re-release it.
Other major films Cromwell directed include Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Algiers (1938), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Since You Went Away (1944) and Anna and the King of Siam (1946). In 1951, he directed The Racket (1951) starring Robert Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott, and Robert Ryan; he had appeared in the original staging of the Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack on which the movie was based on back in 1927.
Busy on Broadway in the 1950s, it was seven years before he directed another film, The Goddess (1958), with a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky and starring Kim Stanley. He directed two more minor films before calling it quits as a movie director in 1961. As a director, Cromwell eschewed flashy camera work as he felt it detracted from both the story and from the actors' performances. Late in his life, director Robert Altman cast Cromwell as an actor in two of his films, 3 Women (1977) and A Wedding (1978). He died on September 26, 1979 in Santa Barbara, California.
- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood