Academic journal article Manitoba History

Winnipeg's "Quiet" Man: The Early Public Life of Film Star Victor McLaglen

Academic journal article Manitoba History

Winnipeg's "Quiet" Man: The Early Public Life of Film Star Victor McLaglen

Article excerpt

Victor McLaglen was one of Hollywood's great leading men and character performers, winning the 1935 Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Gypo Nolan in The Informer, and receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his depiction of Squire "Red" Will Danaher in John Ford's 1952 classic, The Quiet Man. With a career spanning four decades, McLaglen was able to transition successfully from the silent to the "talkie" film eras, a feat that was not readily duplicated by all screen actors of his generation. McLaglen often portrayed bombastic, rough-and-tumble characters that bawled and brawled their way through some of the most memorable scenes in celluloid history. Unquestionably, his unforgettable performances were inspired by his own exploits during his tenure as a policeman, wrestler, and boxer in pre-First World War Winnipeg. McLaglen achieved local fame--and a measure of notoriety--for his exploits in and out of the ring in Manitoba's capital.

Victor McLaglen was born in London, England in 1886, the son of Londoner Lily Marion Adcock and native South African Andrew Charles McLaglen, a clergyman with the Free Protestant Episcopal Church of England. The third of nine children (eight boys and one girl), he grew up in London's East End, a traditionally working-class region of the city. (1) During his adolescent and early adult years, wrestling, which already had a long and storied history in the British Isles, experienced a remarkable surge in popularity. Increased free time, brought about by a reduction in the work day, allowed a larger proportion of the population access to leisure pursuits. Once associated primarily with rural life in various regions in the country, wrestling became one of many commercial sporting enterprises offered to paying customers in growing urban centres. Although spectators appreciated wrestling for many reasons, part of its appeal derived from its perceived merit as a spectacle that exemplified specific virtues such as strength, physical endurance, and heightened muscular development. Wrestlers and those who promoted the sport were able to capitalize on widespread concerns, particularly among the middle class, that modern comforts and a sedentary work life were producing a weak, physically feeble male population. (2) Through their well-developed musculature and demonstrable physical prowess, wrestlers represented a celebration of a more robust model of masculinity than what was feared to be the growing norm. The very social and economic conditions producing the modern malaise were, therefore, the same ones that allowed wrestling to emerge as a viable commercial enterprise by the beginning of the twentieth century.

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The foremost exemplar of this physical ideal in Great Britain was Estonian-born "Russian Lion" George Hackenschmidt, a Graeco-Roman champion who performed exhibitions in some of the country's most prestigious public venues, including London's Royal Albert Hall. Hackenschmidt's considerable grappling expertise (under the tutelage of Manchester's Jack Smith he adapted readily to the English catch-as-catch-can style) was complemented by remarkable strength and a heavily-muscled physique which made him reminiscent of a reincarnated Heracles. Thanks to a growing market for sports journalism, he was already well-known by the time he first arrived in England in 1902, and his matches attracted thousands of spectators. (3) In the context of heightened public interest in male muscularity, Victor McLaglen could not have helped but to be buoyed by his own physical development. Standing well over six feet tall and weighing in excess of 200 pounds by adulthood, he epitomized the muscular ideal then coming into vogue. Although it is unknown if he engaged actively in competitive wrestling while in England, it was later claimed that he had lasted 45 minutes in a match against the redoubtable Russian Lion. (4) It is certain, however, that, like so many of his contemporary Britons, the young McLaglen developed a keen affinity for the sport. …

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