John Dall: Film History Series

Photographer Unknown, “John Dall”, 1948, Publicity Shot for Universal International, Gelatin Silver Print

Born in New York City in May of 1920, John Dall Thompson was an American stage and film actor. The younger of two sons born to Charles Thompson and Henny Worthington, he moved with his family in the 1920s to Panama, where his father was employed as a civil engineer for airport construction. After performing at a local theater, Dall first gave thought to the possibility of acting as a career. Due to the death of Charles Thompson by suicide in 1929, the family chose to return to New York City.

John Dall attended the Horace Mann School, a private college-preparatory school in the Bronx, and enrolled at Columbia University with the intention of studying engineering. He soon left the university and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and the Theodore Irvine School of Theater. Dall also took theater courses in New Orleans at the Petit Theatre, a historic French Quarter playhouse founded in 1916. 

Dall performed for six years in various stock companies, primarily the Children’s Theater founded in New York City in 1924 by British actress and playwright Clare Tree Major. He also worked in several theater companies headed by such performers as Academy Award winner Aline MacMahon, actor Arthur William Byron, and stage and screen actress Edith Atwater. During the 1941-1942 season, Dall had small roles on Broadway which included the 1920 science-fiction play “R.U.R.” by Czech writer Karel Čapek. In 1942-1943, Dall had the lead role of Quizz Martin in the touring production of Maxwell Anderson’s “The Eve of St Mark” which later moved to Broadway. 

John Dall’s performance in the Broadway version of “The Eve of St Mark” caught the attention of the wife of Jack Warner, founder of Warner Brothers Pictures. This resulted in a film contract with the studio; a proviso was added to the contract that allowed Dall personal time for stage performances. Dall’s first film with Warner Brothers was director Irving Rapper’s 1945 “The Corn is Green”, a drama starring Bette Davis as a schoolteacher bringing education to a Welsh coal mining town.  Dall played the lead role of miner Morgan Evans and was nominated for the 1946 Academy Award / Best Supporting Actor. 

Impressed with the film rushes for “The Corn is Green”, Warner Brothers signed Dall to a new contract. He became one of the studio’s six contract players that were to be built into stars; the others included Lauren Bacall, Dane Clark, Faye Emerson, Robert Hutton and William Prince. In 1944, Dall returned to the stage with the lead role in playwright Norman Krasna’s highly successful “Dear Ruth”, which eventually ran for six-hundred and eighty performances. The film rights to the play, however, were purchased by Paramount Studio which cast William Holden in Dall’s original role. 

Warner Brothers purchased the film rights to John Patrick’s play “Hasty Heart” with the intention of giving the lead film role to John Dall. In 1945, Dall performed “Hasty Heart” on a three-month stage tour. However as it took several more years before the film was started, casting changes gave the lead role to Irish-British actor Richard Todd. In May of 1946, Warners released Dall from his contract after filming only one role for the studio.

Although Paramount Studio cited interest in signing Dall for an adaption of ”The Wayfarers” based on Becky Chambers’s series of books, Dall signed a seven-year contract with David Selznick’s Vanguard Films in May of 1946. He performed “Hasty Heart” during the summer theater season but was never given any roles by Selznick. Signing with Universal International, he played Canadian actress Deanna Durbin’s love interest in Irving Pichel’s 1947 musical comedy “Something in the Wind”. Dall next appeared in a supporting role in Michael Gordon’s 1948 post-Civil War drama “Another Part of the Forest”. 

Founded by Alfred Hitchcock and his longtime associate Sidney Bernstein at the end of World War II, Transatlantic Pictures chose John Dall for one of the lead roles in its first production. Dall and actor Farley Granger played the two killers who matched wits with James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Technicolor 1948 crime thriller “Rope”. On its theatrical release, the film performed poorly at the box office; screenwriter Arthur Laurents attributed the poor performance to audience uneasiness with the homosexual undertones between the characters played by Dall and Granger.

Dall did an hour episode for the ABC anthology radio series “Theater Guild on the Air” and then appeared on Broadway in an adaption of Jean-Paul Satre’s “Red Gloves” with Charles Boyer. In 1949, he made his television debut in The Chevolet Tele-Theatre’s production “Miracle in the Rain”. Dall appeared as one of the leads in Joseph H. Lewis’s 1950 crime film-noir “Gun Crazy” playing opposite femme-fatale actress Peggy Cummins. He later had supporting roles in the 1950 crime film-noir “The Man Who Cheated Himself”, playing opposite Lee J. Cobb and Jane Wyatt, and in a revival on Broadway of the romantic drama “The Heiress”, playing alongside Basil Rathbone.

Throughout the 1950s, John Dall appeared in stock productions of such plays as “Gramercy Ghost”, “The Hasty Heart”, “Born Yesterday” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner”. He worked extensively in television and appeared in guest roles on such shows as Studio One in Hollywood, General Electric Theater, Schlitz Playhouse, The Clock, Broadway Television Theater, and Lights Out. In 1955, Dall returned to Broadway for writer and director Leslie Stevens’s “Champagne Complex”. 

Dall’s first film role after a span of eight years was that of the Roman soldier Marcus Glabus, based on the life of Roman military commander Gaius Claudius Glaber, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 epic historical drama “Spartacus”.  This film won four Academy Awards and had the highest ranking box office in Universal Studio’s history until “Airport” in 1970. Dall’s final film performance was as the villain Zaren in George Pal’s 1961 science-fiction film “Atlantis, the Lost Continent”. 

As to John Dall’s personal life, there is very little verifiable written record. According to music journalist Phil Milstein, at the time of his death Dall had lapsed into alcoholism and was living with his partner, actor Clement Brace. While visiting London in October of 1970, John Dall sustained a serious fall. He died three months later of cardiac arrest, a complication of myocarditis, at his Beverly Hills home in January of 1971 at the age of fifty. His body was donated to medical science. Dall’s papers and correspondence are housed at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California. 

Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “John Dall”,  Date Unknown, Studio Publicity Shot, Gelatin Silver Print

Second Insert Image: Joseph A. Valentine, “John Dall, James Stewart and Farley Granger”, 1948, Film Shot from “Rope”, Director Alfred Hitchcock

Third Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Donald O’Connor, Deanna Durbin and John Dall”, 1947, Pulicity Shot for “Something in the Wind”, Director Irving Pichel, Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner

Fourth Insert Image: Sol Polito, “John Dall and Bette Davis”, 1945, Film Shot from “The Corn is Green”, Director Irving Rapper

Fifth Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “John Dall”, Date Unknown, Publicity Shot, Gelatin Silver Print

Bottom Insert Image: Russell Harlan, “John Dall”, 1950, Film Shot from “Gun Crazy”, Director Joseph H. Lewis

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