Saturday, December 5, 2020

Ray Massey in Hollywood (and England)

The What a Character Blogathon is an event devoted to the great character actors of classic Hollywood and the often memorable supporting roles they played throughout film history, hosted by Once Upon a ScreenOutspoken & Freckled, & Paula's Cinema Club. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of the host sites. 

Earlier this year, I watched the film A Matter of Life and Death and for the first time, I really noticed actor Raymond Massey. A supernatural drama in which the life of a British WW2 pilot is judged by an afterlife court, Massey plays the prosecutor, an American colonial. His character added a unique perspective to the story, and I found him quite convincing. Like all of the actors in this blogathon, he’s one of those people you saw a lot of in old movies and always liked, even if you never quite knew who they were.

The Toronto native was lured to acting after serving in the family tractor business in his youth and spent almost a decade on the British stage. In 1931 he came to Broadway in a production of Hamlet that didn’t go over well. Fortunately, though, by that time the movies had already came calling.

His film debut was in a British picture called High Treason, and alternated between British and American movies throughout his career, as well as the stage.

In 1938 he starred in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Two years later, he made the film adaptation with director John Cromwell, and from that point on Massey’s career became intertwined with the iconic US president. He played Lincoln four more times, both in film and television. His great height (six foot three) and his chiseled features made him a natural for the part. Abe was his one Oscar-nominated role.

I watched clips of Abe for this post. Massey certainly comes across as theatrical; the camera lingers on him for long stretches without cutting while he delivers a speech, so he really knew the role by this point. It’s been awhile since I saw Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, but from what I remember, I think he tried to humanize Lincoln a little more, whereas Massey’s version perhaps speaks more to the historical Lincoln we as Americans grew up with... but the role suited him well. 

Massey also played the abolitionist John Brown twice—and despite being Canadian, his family’s roots could be traced to before the American Revolution. Eventually he became an American citizen.

with Chamberlain in Dr. Kildare
In 1961, NBC aired a popular medical series called Dr. Kildare, based on the series of MGM movies, starring Richard Chamberlain. Massey played his older partner, Dr. Gillespie (played in the pilot by former Kildare Lew Ayers). The show lasted five seasons.

Massey was married three times; his second wife was stage actress Adrienne Allen, and they were together for ten years. When they divorced, their lawyers were the husband and wife team of William Whitney (representing Allen) and Dorothy Whitney (representing Massey).

After the Masseys split up, the Whitneys did the same, and in an unusual twist, the former Masseys married their lawyers, the former Whitneys. And as if that wasn’t enough, this turn of events went on to inspire yet another married couple, Ruth Gordon & Garson Kanin, to pen the battle-of-the-sexes comedy Adam’s Rib.

There’s even a cocktail named for Massey.


Films with Raymond Massey:

The Old Dark House

The Prisoner of Zenda

A Matter of Life and Death


Una O’Connor

Margaret Hamilton
Alan Hale Sr.
Sig Ruman
Shelley Winters
Joe E. Brown


  1. I can't recall if TCM ever gave Massey the Summer Under the Stars Treatment, but that would be quite a day going from The Scarlet Pimpernel to 49th Parallel to Arsenic and Old Lace to East of Eden, and back again.

    Ray's older brother Vincent Massey was the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada (1950s).

    When you visit Toronto, a tour will include the site of the old Massey-Ferguson factory and the renowned concert venue Massey Hall.

  2. I read his brother was involved in politics but I didn’t know there was a public venue with his name on it. Impressive.

  3. I've seen clips of Raymond Massey in early British films, and he seems quite natural. However, as Lincoln, he does come across as theatrical, as you pointed out.

    So glad you featured Canadian Raymond Massey as part of the blogathon. High-Five!

  4. Just luck. When I watched him in LIFE AND DEATH I had a feeling I would write about him again.

  5. The first time I saw A Matter of Life and Death was on a flight to or from London, I don't remember which (maybe both, I liked it a lot). It was the first time I'd ever heard of the film, but I wasn't so familiar with Powell & Pressburger back then. Massey had many great and varied roles and was especially affecting in East of Eden. James Dean didn't steal any scenes from him.

  6. I’ve only seen EAST OF EDEN once and that was awhile ago. Wish I could remember him in it.

  7. Raymond Massey was a familiar face to me before he became a familiar name - and this should probably be the definition of what a character actor is! I recommend Things to Come (1936) with him.
    And I didn't know his case was the inspiration for Adam's Rib! That's so interesting!

  8. I didn’t know either. That’s some kinda story, isn’t it?


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