|Saturday April 13, 1940 –Canton Actor Starring at 74!-His name is Harry Davenport and you’ve seen him often of late in pictures. He comes from a family famous for its connection with the stage. He’s been an actor since he was 5 and the story of his remarkable career, well illustrated, is a feature you’ll want to read tomorrow in the Sunday Telegram feature.
[According to an Internet site, he was born Jan. 19, 1866 in New York City and was brought up in Philadelphia. He died August 9, 1949 – DFS]
Harry Davenport of Canton, Pa., the Grand Old Man of the American stage
and screen, died yesterday in Hollywood after a heart attack.
Eighty-three, he had spent 78 years in the land of make believe that lies behind the footlights of the stage and in the bustle and glare of movie sets.
The courtly, handsome old trouper was one of the busiest men in the movie colony. And also one of the most popular. His movie roles ranged from the tired surgeon in “Gone with the Wind” to the sprightly grandfather in “Meet me in St. Louis.” He had been cast in well over 100 pictures, a supporting player of rare skill and a helpful friend of aspiring young actors.
In 1935, after the death of his wife, Phyllis Rankin Davenport, he turned the key on his red brick home in Canton and never returned. The home, next to the Mayo’s famous “Crockett Lodge,” stood idle many years. Lately it was sold. The Davenports also owned a colonial brick tavern south of Canton near Leolyn where for a time they operated a tea room.
Harry Davenport was born in Philadelphia, his parents being Edwin Loomis
Davenport and Fanny Vining Davenport. They were married in London
just a century ago – Jan. 8, 1849 – after a courtship, which found them
together in many stage shows. They continued to appear together until
death separated them.
The Davenport’s connection with Canton had its origin in the old days of Minnequa, the spring-resort which attracted many of the nation’s celebrities. Edwin L. Davenport and his family went to Minnequa in the early 1880s and purchased the beautiful old brick home next to Crockett Lodge.
Harry Davenport grew up in the stage tradition. His parents were of the stage and next door was the Mayo mansion built in considerable part with the earnings of Frank Mayo’s great role – Davy Crockett. It was from this that the place derived its name.
Davenport’s first appearance on the stage was at the age of 5 at the Chestnut St. Theater in Philadelphia. His pay was $1.95 in coins of every denomination then current and all dated 1871. Late a $5 goldpiece was added as a “bonus.” Harry Davenport never parted with his first pay, however hard the times became. He kept the old coins in a safe deposit box and often said a million dollars couldn’t purchase them. The role in which he started was as Damon’s son in the then-popular “Damon and Pythias.”
Up and down the country toured Davenport, sometimes in the money and
sometimes not. His first visit to Hollywood was in 1885 when the
region was a place where people picked holly for the Christmas trade.
He was to return a half-century later to become one of its most respected
Many of his roles brought him to Elmira in the premieres of John Golden’s shows. Unforgettable was his part in “Three Wise Fools,” one of the great plays which opened here in the golden days of Elmira’s theatrical past.
The early 1930’s brought hard sledding to the Davenports. Harry Davenport’s chin didn’t drop although his fortunes did. He ranged the hills, picking wild strawberries, which were made into preserves by his talented wife. These preserves found a ready market in New York and the enterprise grew until Davenport recruited boys to help him with the picking. He offered bicycles as prizes. It was about this time that the tea room was opened in the old tavern south of Canton.
In 1935, Mrs. Davenport died in a Williamsport hospital. The funeral
was held in the tree-shaded home so long associated with the Davenport
name. When the services were over, a broken-hearted, aging man whom
many thought was through, turned the key and never looked again upon the
home. For him it was haunted by the echoes of Mrs. Davenport’s rich
voice and the sound of the loom on which she wove articles of rich beauty.
Harry Davenport started for the coast in a decrepit car. Many thought he’d never make it – but he did. He spent 63 weeks playing in “Three Men on a Horse” in Chicago and then moved coastward to a place among filmdom’s great.
In Hollywood he lived with his children, Edward, Date and Ann Davenport and Mrs. Dorothy Davenport Reid, widow of actor Wallace Reid.
His earnings soared as his free-lancing success brought growing demand
for his services.
The old trouper didn’t change with his greatest success any more than he changed when the going was tough.
At one of his birthday parties, a friend asked why he kept working so hard.
“I’m saving my money for my old age,” quipped the white-haired actor with the smile that millions came to know upon the screen.
His hair was so completely white that it had to be tinted pink for his movie work. Otherwise, it looked metallic and artificial. Only artificial color could make it look real. He liked to joke about it.
Canton friends heard often from the man who picked strawberries in the depression. He promised to come back and planned a couple of times to do so. Screen commitments interfered, at least he said they did. Friends accepted the excuse but some didn’t believe it. They were sure he didn’t want to break his heart again on the memory-haunted red brick house.
Harry Davenport is literally looking over the shoulder of Matt Carl prior to a program about the famed character actor from Canton. Carl, Managing Curator of the Bradford County Historical Society, presided over a fascinating program at Canton’s Rialto Theatre Saturday, which included clips of Davenport in “Gone with the Wind” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Photo by Wes Skillings
Celebrating the Life, Career of Actor Harry Davenport - by Wes Skillings - 3/5/2009
Even 60 years after his death, the people of Canton are still just wild about Harry—as in Harry Davenport, who has been described as the “grand old man of the American Stage and Screen.” He and his wife, Phyllis Rankin Davenport, called Canton home, even as they both continued with their acting careers, and he is known affectionately there as “Canton’s favorite actor.”
The Rialto Theatre on Main Street in Canton, where the Davenports performed and where Harry Davenport debuted a silent film, “A Son of the Hills,” he directed in and around Canton, was filled to capacity for a program presented by Matt Carl, Managing Curator of the Bradford County Historical Society and himself a native of nearby Leroy. The restored and renovated theatre was known in Davenport’s time as the Crawford Theatre, and it was the perfect place for Carl’s informative and entertaining program in which he presented a history of Davenport’s life and career through power-point photos on a big screen and footage of Davenport from two of his most famous films—“Gone with the Wind” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Harry Davenport, born into an acting family in New York City on Jan. 19. 1866, became a son of Canton and Bradford County when his father, E.L. Davenport, bought an impressive brick house on Troy Street (Route 14) and one to which Harry Davenport would bring the love of his life, Phyllis, to live until her death in 1935. He was more than some local guy who happened to have some film and stage credits on which to rest his laurels. He is considered one of the great character actors of his time, possibly all time, in movies, and he complemented that with an even more prolific career on stage.
In fact, no less than the great Bette Davis, who also had Bradford County connections, living for periods of time with her daughter, B.D. Hyman, in the Stevensville area, paid great tribute to Davenport, with whom she worked in several films in the more than 400 in which he appeared.
“Without a doubt, he was the greatest character actor of all time,” Davis stated upon learning of Harry Davenport’s death in August of 1949 at the age of 83.
He was a success virtually from the first time he appeared on the stage as a child at the age of five in the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Davenport’s career is that he achieved his greatest fame when most people bid their careers good-bye and settled into retirement. His story is an inspiration for anyone who has ever questioned whether he or she is too old to embark on a new career, a daunting mission or an ambitious project. Shortly after Phyllis, the little woman with a big presence known as “Pixie,” died in November of 1935, Harry locked up the brick home in Canton, which he and Phyllis had renovated and expanded, and headed west in a jalopy to pursue a career in Hollywood. He was 69 years old at the time and had been working on and off in the theatre and films over the years, apparently maintaining contacts in the film industry. There was a stop in the Midwest to work in a theatre production on the way to the West Coast, possibly to earn some money to continue his trip, before he arrived in Hollywood where family members resided.
He had always intended to return to Canton to visit at least, though he admittedly found it painful to live in the old Davenport mansion without Phyllis, and the fact that he never did come back reflects how busy he was in pursuit of his lifelong love, acting. He landed movie roles within months after arriving in Hollywood, which he was old enough to remember before the movie industry discovered it as a rural place where people went to pick holly. Barely four years after he left Canton, he enjoyed one of his most productive years on the big screen. In 1939, he appeared in 13 films, the most notable being a memorable role as the kindly white-haired Dr. Meade in “Gone with the Wind” and appearing in scenes with the stars, Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable and Olivia De Havilland. But he may have taken the greatest pride in the fact that his son, Ned Davenport, and grandson, Dirk Davenport Summers, appeared in small roles in that same film, with Ned appearing in a scene with Harry as a confederate soldier. During the production, members of the cast and crew gathered on the set to honor him for the anniversary of his 69th year on the stage.
Another of those 13 films of 1939 was “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in which he played King Louis XI. In the several dozen movies in which he appeared in his seventies and into his eighties, Davenport’s snow white hair became his trademark. It was so white, it seems, that it had to be tinted so as not to appear artificial. Davenport enjoyed the irony of that.
A scene in “Meet Me in St. Louis” in which he appears with Judy Garland, and one which Carl showed at the Rialto, captures the essence of the type of character for which he became known—the kindly, grandfatherly figure. He mends the broken heart of his granddaughter, played by Garland, by solving a social crisis.
It is interesting, from a local perspective at least, that one of the first films in which Davenport received a role after leaving Canton for Hollywood was the 1938 production of “Marie Antoinette.” The French queen, of course, has a Bradford County connection with French Azilum, the settlement she never got to see.
Davenport kept working and was in discussions for his next movie role when he died on Aug. 9, 1949. In a sense, he remained active and working right up to his death and, like any good character actor, he made his exit quickly and quietly. He is said to have stated that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt could keep his money from that new-fangled Social Security.
“A man should stand on his feet at any age,” Davenport told one interviewer when asked why he continued to work at his advanced age.
Davenport’s love for Canton is a story in itself, and he and Phyllis were an active part of the community throughout the years. When they were both acting regularly, the family home in Canton was a summer place and a retreat. After Phyllis retired from her own successful career, they were, in many ways, permanent residents, even when Harry was off here and there in a stage or movie role. Son, Ned, graduated with the Canton High School Class of 1932.
Harry loved to walk the town and converse with the residents, and he and Phyllis shared their talents with the community, and others nearby, with stage shows as fundraisers for various causes. When money was tight, the cause may have been their own household budget. They taught acting and the theatre arts on the side, and Phyllis even ran a soup kitchen out of Canton during World War I. Phyllis was also an accomplished weaver and mistress of the room of note, teaching the craft to others and producing impressive results.
“She could weave everything from a band for a wristwatch to a room-size rug,” Carl quoted from an article from the Canton Sentinel.
As for their kindness, industriousness and generosity, an observation from the same source stated: “They shared the little they had with others less fortunate.”
There is one missing treasure from the life of Harry Davenport that would be eagerly received in Canton and would become an immediate historical treasure, Carl reported. One of the silent films that Harry Davenport directed, “A Son of the Hills,” was filmed in Canton, as reported earlier, and debuted in movie theatres across the country in 1917 after premiering in Canton itself. The film starred Antonio Moreno, a Latin lover type of the time, and Belle Bruce. Most importantly is the backdrop—scenes from Canton, including the town square; the old high school, which was brand new then and served as a college in some of the scene and footage from around Lake Nepahwin and other locations—taken more than 90 years ago.
The location of that film remains a mystery, but Carl has learned from Davenport’s grandson, Dirk Davenport Summers, who is still in the movie business, that he has high hopes of tracking down that film his grandfather directed and bringing it back to Canton.
Summers, a producer, writer and director, was unable to make the Saturday presentation about his grandfather, but he forwarded heartfelt appreciation to the people of Canton—a community in which his family has been a part since his great-grandfather, E.L., discovered the area on a visit to nearby Minnequa in the late 1870’s.
“Thank you for your presence here today honoring my grandfather,” Summers wrote in a message reprinted in the program. “I know he would be very pleased, and equally surprised.”
It was a full house at Canton’s refurbished Rialto Theatre for a program on Harry Davenport, “the Grand Old Man of the American Stage and Screen.”