"IT WAS OUR NORTH LAND THAT WE SAW": WILLARD MACK AND THE GREAT NORTHWEST
Willard Mack (a.k.a. Charles W. McLaughlin) was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1887 and at an early age moved to the United States where he spent most of his adult life involved in the theatre and film as a playwright, actor, and director. At the time of his death in Hollywood in 1934, Mr. Mack had written over forty plays, mostly adaptions of popular stories and novels or extensions of vaudeville pieces; none of them stands up to criticism and certainly none is to be found among the canon of great works, yet most of them were produced on Broadway and toured both the U.S.A. and Canada and placed the author in the company of the leading popular writers and performers of that time. Even though Willard Mack was an American, he maintained contact with Canada and chose to set a number of his plays, such as Tiger Rose and The Scarlet Fox in northern Alberta. This paper deals with Mack's image of the North in terms of his claimed connection to the region and the people he wrote about and portrayed.
Willard Mack, aussi connu sous le nom de Charles W. McLaughlin, est né en Ontario, Canada, en 1887. Quand it était très jeune, il a déménagé aux États-Unis où il a passé la majorité de sa vie travaillant dans le théâtre et dans les films comme écrivain, comédien, et directeur. Avant sa mort en 1934, M. Mack avait écrit plus de quarante pièces de théâtre, la plupart étant des adaptations d'histoires et de romans populaires ou des extensions de pièces vaudevilles. Aucun n'ont été acclamé critiquement et ne se trouvent certainement pas parmis la collection des grandes oeuvres, mais la plupart ont été produite à «Broadway» et ont faite des tournées aux États-Unis et au Canada; ces pièces ont placées l'auteur dans la compagnie d'écrivains et de comédiens les plus reconnus de son temps. Malgré que Willard Mack était un Américain, il a maintenu ses contactes au Canada et il a choisi d'établir le décors de plusieurs de ses pièces au nord de l'Alberta, par exemple, Tiger Rose et The Scarlet Fox. Cet article est à propos des images du nord que Mack utilise en termes de ses «connections» à cette région et à des personnes dont il a écrites et représentées.
Audiences in Calgary and Edmonton were well prepared for the arrival of David Belasco's 1920/21 production of Willard Mack's Tiger Rose. (1) They were told by the press that Canada's most distinguished and successful playwright had written a play that took place in Alberta and dealt with the "elemental people of that northern region" (CH 31 Dec. 1920 7). Advertisements in the newspapers promised a melodrama of the great Canadian outdoors in which the North West Mounted Police figured prominently with Mr. Belasco's "original superlative scenic production--its terrific Alberta thunder and electrical storm and wondrously gorgeous sunrise effects" (CH 31 Dec. 1920 7). In the popular culture of Mack's day, Canada was represented in images of the NWMP and the RCMP, explorers, missionaries, little but ice and snow, and, of course, the Klondike Gold Rush. Many of these stereotypic images, like those in Tiger Rose, correspond with what Louis-Edmond Hamelin later called a "romanticized vision" of the North, where the "wilderness must not be touched," and these images were promoted in the movies, songs, and popular literature (Hamelin 6). In the theatre this vision was further enhanced by creating characters from the south who supposedly chose to live amid the pristine beauty of the region, either to escape from, or to defend, the North against the developers who wanted to exploit the people and the land.
Thus, the first scene of Tiger Rose opens with people like this who are committed to life in the unspoiled North. Stories of southern exploiters must have been widespread in print and film during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because the Edmonton reviewer of Tiger Rose reminded readers that "Canada has suffered greatly at the hands of the American story writers and to a certain extent of those who have written for the stage . . . We seldom recognize our own land and our own people as depicted by them" (Marmaduke 16). Nevertheless, the same reviewer was of the opinion that in Tiger Rose it was "our northland that we saw" and, in a later review, he lamented about the way the NWMP had been served by the popular culture of the day: "In view of the way the mounted police have been travestied in the past, playgoers of discrimination resolve at once to stay away from plays in which a Mountie is advertised as being the leading man" (Marmaduke 17). The Calgary Herald was similarly concerned and warned that the play was by no means guaranteed a favourable reception since Albertans knew the people Mack had written about and the acting had to be faithful to the original "in characterization . . . if the performance was to pass muster" (CH 4 Jan 1921 8). Yet, in both cities the production satisfied expectations and presented images of people and place consistent with the audience's opinion of the North.
The Hudson's Bay Factor's house on the Loon River, where the first scene of the play is set, was created in detailed David Belasco tradition, with furniture and ornamentation designed in New York, based on Willard Mack's instructions and description of the place and people he claimed he had encountered. One stage instruction tells us that "Over the mantle is a caribou head, and the Canadian and English flags are draped over the antlers, while smaller French and American flags on staffs are leaning against them" (Tiger Rose I stage directions). In addition, Mack further enhanced the realism by prefacing Tiger Rose with what was supposed to be an excerpt from an actual letter written by a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in which he regretted having to return to London and leave behind "men and women . . . unfettered by the hypocritical veneer of social environment" (Tiger Rose Preface). What was it about the Belasco production of Tiger Rose that convinced audiences that what they saw was indeed the North? Some of the answers can be found in an examination of the playwright and his claim to authenticity, through a connection with the people he wrote about, and by his insistence that he was Canadian. Who, then, was Willard Mack?
Willard Mack was a self-created persona perpetuated by the press and aggressively cultivated by the man himself. He was Charles Willard McLaughlin; however, Georgetown University records list him as Michael Charles, a name family members were unaware of and which he and the press never used (McLaughlin 4 Mar 1993). Charles Willard McLaughlin consistently listed his birthplace as Morrisburg in southeastern Ontario, from which place his family moved shortly after he was born in 1887 to settle in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The rest of the picture of Willard Mack was a creation of the press and of the entertainment industry of that time. As with today's stars of stage, screen, and television, Mr. Mack made a concerted effort to develop his persona and actively promoted that image to the American public. In one such interview with the Morning Telegram in April 1915, it was reported that Willard Mack was born somewhere in Canada, but the exact date and place were either not provided nor deemed to be necessary facts. The playwright/actor went on to further enhance his life story by stating that "Although he was born in Canada, his father smuggled him across the border at an early age in order to make him an American citizen" (MT 2 Apr 1915).
Such melodramatic embellishments of his past were commonplace; his obituaries in the various newspapers drew on such information with the result that the date of death was the one fact common to them. For example, Variety managed to gather together most of Mack's popular persona for its final tribute to the man:
Mack was born in Canada but was a naturalized citizen of the U.S. One of his exploits was joining the Northwest Mounted although no longer a Canadian. He was court marshalled and technically could have been shot. However, he was merely told to cross the border and never return. (27 Nov 1934)
The New York Tribune stated that Willard Mack had been born in Ohio and that his father had been a street commissioner in New York during the civil war. But afterwards, the family had moved westward, thus making it possible for the late, great playwright and actor to grow up "amid the high coloured realities of the Canadian prairies" (NYHT 20 Nov 1934). Actually, the playwright's father, Mr. Joseph McLaughlin, was involved in railroad construction, which took the family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The family moved westward to Ohio and then to Montana for a similar kind of work. And it was from there that the McLaughlin family returned to Canada in 1911, where Mr. McLaughlin was employed in the construction of the Bassano Dam in central Alberta. In 1914, Willard's brother, Angus, bought a ranch in Rosebud, Alberta to which the playwright made a number of visits; thus, there was an Alberta connection, but certainly not with northern Alberta, where Mack often claimed to have lived (Akokiniskway 233).
By the time the McLaughlin family took up residence in Alberta, Willard Mack was attending Georgetown University and had enrolled in general studies where his involvement in amateur theatre led him eventually to stock companies and vaudeville. Willard Mack did not graduate with a BA, did not enroll in medicine, and was not a newspaper reporter, nor did he work in Alaska or the far east! During the two years he spent at Georgetown University, Willard Mack was a student at the Preparatory School, indicating that he may have needed remedial work in order to qualify for the College. He did, however, play a small role in an 1896 production of New Brooms for the Georgetown College Dramatic Club. John Barrymore was not a member of the cast as was claimed (Matano 8 Nov 1988).
In 1914, Willard Mack arrived in New York and, with the successful production of his play Kick-In, he was established both as a member of the New York theatre community and as a playwright who could turn out the much-liked melodramatic fare of the day. Prior to 1914, Mack's involvement in Stock companies took him to major cities in the USA with extended runs in Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, and San Francisco. During this period, he also performed in Canada and, at one time, spent a season in Edmonton. This might explain, in part, why he chose to set four of his plays in northern Alberta.
From 1914 to 1934, Willard Mack wrote over forty plays with approximately 30 of them produced either on Broadway or in regional theatres, and many were made into movies. Among his works, perhaps the most noteworthy are Kick-In, Tiger Rose, Canary Dutch, and Dove, all very much representative of the kind of action-packed formula melodrama popular during that time. Although Willard Mack was heralded as the "newly arisen prophet of stage, the versatile maker of crook plays and rustic comedies," he was not seen as a writer of plays which possessed even the smallest degree of literary merit (most of them were never published and those that exist today are in typescript only) (CCT 20 Feb 1916). The majority of his work was adaptations of novels or extensions of short vaudevillian pieces he had written while in the touring stock companies.
In discussing his plays and his writing style, Willard Mack stressed that he wanted to present life on the stage, and in order to do so he researched his subject as thoroughly as possible. With regard to Tiger Rose, he pointed out that he had lived with the Northwest Mounted Police and based his character on officers he became acquainted with. But like everything else he reportedly told the press, this was not true. The National Archives of Canada has no record of Willard Mack ever having been connected with the NWMP or the RCMP (Frodsham 28 Dec 1988). Nevertheless, the Mountie connection contributed significantly to the creation of the playwright's public persona and lent authority and authenticity to a play that reinforced popular images of Canada, the NWMP, and the North.
Willard Mack further enhanced his public image by repeatedly stating that he had lived with drifters in the Far East, sought gold in the Klondike, bunked with the Mounties, and had spent enough time in Alaska to know the North better than anyone else in the world. Exaggeration and hyperbole were characteristic of Willard Mack, and it is not surprising that he would, as a result of his varied experiences, make the statement that he dreamed of putting all phases of the melodramatic life of the American frontier on the stage (NYT 21 Nov 1926). He pursued that objective by writing plays about Texas, Montana, Wyoming, and California, about crooks in Chicago and the Great Northwest, and, when he had exhausted the possibilities and opportunities in the theatre, he pursued his goals in Hollywood as actor, director, and producer.
Sharing the bill with Mack's extravagant professional life were his personal affairs. He was married four times to four actresses who had starred in his plays: Marjorie Rambeau, Pauline Frederick, Maude Leone, and Beatrice Banyard. In 1921, the hectic pace at which he worked to complete his plays and the bankruptcy caused by alimony and his squandering of money on alcohol and drugs led to a nervous breakdown which, in keeping with the persona of Willard Mack, happened on stage (Herald 27 Aug 1921). It was during a performance of Smooth as Silk in February 1921, just a month or so after the tour of Tiger Rose to Alberta, that Mack collapsed on stage and, after a period of confinement in New York, was sent to the home of his parents in Rosebud, Alberta. The newspapers reported that Willard Mack was placed on board a train, along with a doctor, nurse, and $2500 in advance royalties, bound for Calgary. It is interesting to note that no mention was made of the incident, nor of the visit, in the Calgary papers, especially when just a month before the author of Tiger Rose had been billed "as Canada's most distinguished playwright whose genius has given to the stage this glorious romance of life, love, youth" (CH 31 Dec 1920 7).
According to the local historical society, Mack made a number of visits to Rosebud, with the last in 1923 to attend the funeral of his father. After 1928, the McLaughlin family began to drift apart; the parents were dead, Mack's sister-in-law died, and his brother Angus went to live in California; the farm went into receivership, and by 1935 the only reminder of the family was an area of the town known as McLaughlin's Hill. Willard Mack's visits to Rosebud between 1911 and 1923, as well as his visits to Edmonton as a performer in vaudeville and stock companies, may have given him some of the information necessary to set his plays in the Northwest. It is also worth noting that, by using the NWMP and the northern wilderness, Mack was following a trend started by Hollywood film makers, which is not surprising for a playwright who based his career on giving the audiences what he thought they wanted; for example, The Breed of the North was billed as a "film about the Canadian Northwest in which the Royal North West Mounted Police figured prominently" (EJ 13 Jan. 1921). The film was released in 1914; Tiger Rose was written in 1917.
The NWMP was formed in 1873 to enforce the law in the western territories, and almost from the beginning it became a popular subject for prose, poetry, and later for film. The clichéd policeman in his scarlet tunic found a place in the adventure stories of British, Canadian, and American writers. The image of a man devoted to law and order, featured against the romantic background of the North with its pristine lakes, forests, and hard working pioneers who must fend off the unscrupulous crooks was extremely widespread before Mack created Sergeant Devlin. In fact, the reviewer of The Scarlet Fox commented on the return of "the red-coated semi-soldiers who always get their man, according to the moving pictures" (Variety 4 Apr 1928).
[Photograph currently unavailable]
Willard Mack used Northern Alberta for four pieces: Tiger Rose (1917), The Scarlet Fox (1928), and two other pieces written for Vaudeville: Be Game, a tale of the Canadian woods written with actress Isabelle Fletcher, and The Wolf Cub, a story of theft in the Lac La Biche region of Alberta. Of the four, Tiger Rose was by far the most successful, running for 384 performances in New York, with subsequent productions in England and Australia. In 1920/21, it toured the major centres across Canada.
Tiger Rose, set in the Hudson's Bay Post on Loon River, is peopled by Sergeant Devlin, an Irish North West Mounted Policeman; Rose Bocion, a French-Canadian girl who repels the Sergeant's advances; the Scottish Hudson's Bay factor, who adopted Rose; and an American entrepreneur, who is scouting the area with the intention of setting up a fishing industry capable of supplying the whole of the United States. Completing the cast of characters is Mak-a-Low, an Indian, and his wife Wa-Wa, Pierre La Bay from Montreal, who plays his fiddle constantly, a doctor trying to escape his past, and the young engineer who falls in love with Tiger Rose and then murders the man who had ruined his sister's life. The action revolves around the murder and the Sergeant's attempts to get his man, with Rose being the obstacle as she protects the man she loves. The play ends with the criminal in custody and Rose marrying him so she can follow him to Edmonton and await his release. Apart from the references to northern Alberta and a few attempts to explain local customs to the Americans, there is very little to distinguish Tiger Rose as Canadian--it is simply set in the North, where, as a stage instruction in Act II insists, "the sun does not set until about eight-thirty."
[Photograph currently unavailable]
The Edmonton and Calgary newspapers gave the 1921 production enthusiastic reviews, commenting on the realistic portrayal of the North and the characters who lived there: "In Alberta we know the characters Mack deals with, we have met them in the flesh, fraternized with them and are familiar with their walk and talk" (CH 3 Jan 1921 4). The Calgary Herald reviewer, however, had two caveats: one was that "Our Mounties don't talk about what they are going to do; they go out and do it and let the people do the talking afterwards," and the other had to do with the character of Wa-Wa as performed by Emile Lessing. He suggested that she was too fussed up for the real thing and that maybe she wasn't familiar with native Alberta women (3 Jan 1921 4).
The Edmonton Journal was equally enthusiastic about the production, acknowledging that it was a new experience to hear the name of Edmonton on the stage, and like The Calgary Herald, it questioned why such a realistic play should be classified as a melodrama since life in the North was represented as it actually is (a man sitting next to the reviewer had said so!). However, the play was sufficiently distanced from both Edmonton and Calgary that the local attitudes towards the North most likely resulted from some of the same sources which circulated about the NWMP and the menagerie of people who supposedly lived in that part of the country. The urban Albertans had come to believe the stereotype. It should be noted that the touring production of Tiger Rose was superior to the usual fare which made its way to Alberta at the time. The cast had been chosen by David Belasco and the scenery and machinery from the New York production were used along with a crew of thirty stage hands to manage the technical side of the show. Much was made of the actress, Helen Lewis, who played Rose and of the fact that she was from Ontario and was a relative of Julia Arthur.
Prior to his successful debut on the New York stage, Willard Mack wrote vaudeville sketches, many of which were later expanded into full-length plays. One such piece, entitled Be Game, is a story of the Canadian woods that takes place in a "log shack with an A roof" north of Edmonton, Alberta (Be Game stage directions). It was written in 1914 with Isabelle Fletcher, an actress of some renown who worked in Vancouver, New York, and San Francisco. Be Game opened as part of a vaudeville show in San Francisco on July 26, 1914, and it was a big hit with Miss Fletcher in the leading role (SFP 27 Jul 1914). The simple plot deals with a happily married couple whose lives are disrupted by a traveller from Seattle who recognizes the wife as having once belonged to him because he had purchased her from her drunken father. His attempt to take her back across the line is thwarted when her husband comes in from the stable, and "with a growl and a rage" attacks the villain and orders him out of the house. Apart from the subtitle, there is little to suggest why the sketch takes place in the North except that the North may have been regarded as a haven for those wanting to forget their past and start over again.
The Scarlet Fox and The Wolf Cub were written later in Mack's career and both failed in New York. (2) The Scarlet Fox, with Mack playing the title role, continues with the exploits of Sergeant Devlin. The play was supposedly based on an actual account taken from the files of the NWMP which, when viewed along with Mack's story of having been a member of the NWMP, gave the play a degree of credibility. All the reviews made much of the fact that the story of a murder in Drumheller, Alberta was taken from the files of the police with not even the names being changed (NYT 4 Apr 1928). As with Be Game and Tiger Rose, the Northwest is used as a refuge in which the playwright could place characters from various ethnic and racial groups, as well as people living outside the law, and with the ever-dutiful Mountie on the lookout for such people. There is a lot of potential for fast and exciting action.
The images of the Great Northwest, as represented by Willard Mack, were part and parcel of the melodrama; they were not meant to convey a message, but they functioned to enhance the performance by providing exciting and magical pictures for the audiences of the day. The characters did not make social, political, or philosophical statements; they were recognizable stereotypes who moved the action along to a conclusion wherein all conflicts were resolved. The stage directions, which detail David Belasco's vision of the place Mack imagined, suggest an idealized, southern, colonial view of Canada, where the British and American flags share a place over the mantle. In such a colonial world there are no aboriginal conflicts; instead, the Métis benefit from the advice and patronage of the southerners, and the displaced settlers work hard to harvest the resources and live harmoniously under the guidance of the Hudson's Bay Company.
Willard Mack was, in fact, a character not unlike those he created for his plays. Although he shows the promise of development, in spite of attempts to create exciting and colourful background and challenging motives, the predictability inherent in the genre quickly reduces character to one-dimensional stereotype. His Canada was consistent with the image painted at the time in the press and popular media. He tried to enhance it by using his connection with the country and by claiming personal involvement in the development of the West. His NWMP character is remarkably like Philip Steele of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police in the works of James Oliver Curwood, as well as a score of similar creations by his contemporaries. He contributed to the myth of the Canadian pioneer simply because it was a part of the fare demanded by audiences at that time. The Northland, the Mounties, and the characters in Tiger Rose and The Scarlet Fox were based on images born in Hollywood and nurtured by films and popular fiction; the Alberta audiences who saw the show in 1920/21 were more familiar with the myth than the reality and, therefore, decreed that the production had met their expectations. Therein lies the reason for Mack's appeal; he gave audiences what they wanted--plays about crooks, gangsters, horse-racing, the Wild West, the Northwest, and the Mounties.
"I would that it were possible I might wait here amongst the [people of the north] for my end, loving as they love, fighting as they fight, hating as they hate, dying as they die with their last look upon life in the rosy glow of an Alberta morning." (Tiger Rose 1.1)
1. I am indebted to the staff of New Public Library at Lincoln Centre for their assistance in locating the
materials relating to Willard Mack.
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2. The Wolf Cub was written after Tiger Rose but failed in production. Reviews indicate that this piece was
set in the Lac la Biche area in northern Alberta; no typescript or published version exists; see New York
Times 30 Aug. 1927. The Scarlet Fox, ts, is in The Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public
Library at Lincoln Centre, RM 5345.
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CH Calgary Herald
CCT Cincinnati Commercial Tribune
EJ Edmonton Journal
MT Morning Telegraph
NYHT New York Herald Tribune
NYT New York Telegraph
NYT New York Times
SFP San Francisco Post
Akokiniskwaw. Rosebud, AB.: Rosebud Historical Society, 1983.
Anon. "Belasco's Company Makes a Hit." Calgary Herald 3 Jan 1921.
--. "Far Northern Alberta Play." Calgary Herald 31 Dec 1920.
--. "Obituaries." Variety 27 Nov 1934.
--. "People of the Stage." Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 20 Feb 1916.--. "Playwright of the Year." Morning Telegraph [New York] 2 Apr 1915.
--. "Real Alberta Melodrama." Calgary Herald 4 Jan 1921.
--. "Society Cannot Mask its Raw Cravings, Mack Finds." New York Times 21 Nov 1926.
--. "Sylvan Playlet Hit of Varied Pantages Bill." San Francisco Post 27 Jul 1914. Robinson Locke Scrapbook, p.143, New York Public Library.
--. "The Scarlet Fox." Variety 4 Apr 1928.
--. "They Never Miss Their Man." New York Telegraph 4 Apr 1928.
--. "Willard Mack Has Breakdown." The Herald [New York] 27 Aug 1921.
--. "Willard Mack, Playwright and Actor is Dead." New York Herald Tribune 20 Nov 1934.
Breed of the North. Advertisement. Edmonton Journal 13 Jan 1914.
Frodsham, Joanne. National Archive of Canada. Letter to Ches Skinner. 28 Dec 1988
Hamelin, Louis-Edmond. Canadian Nordicity: It's Your North Too. Trans. William Barr.
Montreal: Harvest House, 1979.
Mack, Willard. Tiger Rose. Promptbook, reproduced from typescript, NCOF+. Billy
Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library at Lincoln Centre.
Mack, Willard and Isabelle Fletcher. Be Game, ts. Microfilm 87/7040 MicRR. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
McLaughlin, Betty. Letter to Ches Skinner. 4 Mar 1993.
Marmaduke. Edmonton Journal 4 Jan 1921.
--. Edmonton Journal 7 Jan 1921.
Matano, Lisette. Archivist, Georgetown University. Letter to Ches Skinner. 8 Nov 1988.
Tiger Rose. Advertisement. Calgary Herald 31 Dec 1920.
Credit line for both photographs: Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
The Scarlet Fox (1928) Theatre Masque, New York. Willard Mack as Constable Michael Devlin and Jack Dempsey.
Tiger Rose (1917) Lyceum Theatre, New York. Lenore Ulric (Rose Bocion), Willard Mack (Constable Michael Devlin), Calvin Thomas (Bruce Norton), and Thomas Findlay (Dan Cusick, M.D.)