Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tales from the Archives, Part 2: James K. Hackett

This post is a follow-up to my first Tales from the Archive post which can be read here.

I am still helping out at the archives, but have completed my task of going through the parish monthly calendars. What this means is that, against all odds, I now have a plethora of primary sources relating to film history! Since I have finished collecting materials, I am now in the process of going through what I have discovered and doing further research. From now on there will be scanned pictures of the articles. This week's installment of Tales from the Archives is about stage and silent film actor James K. Hackett.

This article is entitled "A Generous Non-Catholic" and appeared in a Feb. 1927 monthly parish calendar from the Philadelphia suburbs (St. Joseph Church in Downingtown, PA). The piece praises American actor James K. Hackett for entertaining the troops in WWI. Hackett was ineligible to fight in the war due to a knee injury he sustained while performing in Macbeth (as the title character) on stage. Although Hackett was not a Catholic himself, this Catholic publication was impressed that he helped the Knights of Columbus and supported the troops by entertaining them. The article also serves as an obituary since it informs us that Hackett died in Paris on November 8th, 1926 at the age of 57.

As mentioned in the article, James Kelteltas Hackett (1869 - 1926) was an actor. His father, James Henry Hackett, was also a stage actor who was most known for his portrayal of Falstaff. James K. Hackett was born when his father was 69 years old, and the elder Hackett died two years later.  Although James K. Hackett was an American, he was actually born in Ontario, Canada and would later make his stage acting debut in Philadelphia in 1892. Like his father, Hackett made quite a name for himself as a Shakespearean actor. At the age of 43 Hackett entered the burgeoning film industry. Film mogul Adolph Zukor started the Famous Players Film Company in 1912 which brought stage actors such as Hackett and Sarah Bernhardt from the theater to the silver screen. Zukor's company grew and later merged with Jesse L. Lasky's film company to eventually became known as none other than... Paramount Pictures!

Hackett's debut film was The Prisoner of Zenda (1913) which is considered to be the first five-reel American film. The Prisoner of Zenda was based on the 1894 adventure novel by Anthony Hope and there have been many other films versions of the novel made since Hackett starred in the book's first film adaptation nearly a century ago. The story of The Prisoner of Zenda calls for the lead actor to play two roles, which Hackett did in the film version. I am guessing that this was one of the earliest examples of an actor playing two different characters in a movie. Although Hackett played the role on stage, he was reluctant to move into the new medium of film. According to film critic and historian Neal Gabler: "When Hackett came to visit Zukor, he was the very picture of the faded matinee idol. He wore a fur-collared coat with frayed sleeves and carried a gold-headed cane." Despite being past his prime, Hackett was convinced by Zukor to take the role. The film also featured Hackett's wife at the time, Beatrice Beckley.

According to IMDB Hackett appeared in two more films: Ashes of Love (1918) and The Greater Sinner (1919). He also co-directed one film with Lloyd B. Carleton called The Walls of Jericho (1914). IMDB says that a copy of The Prisoner of Zenda survives at Eastman House in Rochester, New York. I'd love to see a restoration of the film and home video release for historical purposes, but I won't hold my breath waiting. From what I understand it seems that Hackett's other films are lost. According to the Find a Grave website, Hackett has another fascinating connection to film history besides appearing in a  few silents: "He [Hackett] eventually formed his own theatre company in the actor-manager tradition, and at one point produced a play by the legendary film director D.W. Griffith." Although Hackett will remain best known for being a stage actor and the son of James Henry Hackett, his contribution to the early world of cinema is important. Hackett was one of many stage actors who came to film and brought legitimacy to this new form of entertainment. Hackett could also get people to the movie theater as he was a known name from the stage that could sell tickets to the cinema. As you can see in the two The Prisoner of Zenda posters featured in this article his name was used prominently as a selling point. Going back to the article for a moment, it is noteworthy for its praise of a non-Catholic at a time when the KKK was popular and prejudice towards groups such as Catholics was commonplace. Hackett was able to put religious differences aside to work with Catholics and entertain the troops, which the tone of the article seems to imply did not happen too often back then. Hackett is virtually unknown in 2011, but he was certainly a popular actor in his day and still remains an interesting historical figure.

Additional Reading:
My follow-up article about Hackett's surviving films
Find A Grave

Sunday 8/28 is the weekly wrap-up, see you then!


  1. Magnificent work! This is fascinating stuff! If you keep up this kind of material, you'll have one of the best film blogs on the internet!

  2. Thanks! I have enough material for several more Tales from the Archives posts but sadly I'll run out eventually.

    Also I contacted the Eastman House to see if they do indeed have The Prisoner of Zenda (1913). I'll put any updates about this in the next Tales from the Archives post.