Wilbur Higby, Actor and Director: The Full Story, 1867-1934

Fort Wayne News, Fort Wayne, Indiana, April 30, 1904

Wilbur Higby

Wilbur Higby

 

Wilbur Higby Jones was born on Wednesday, August 21, 1867 to Charles B. Jones and Jenny (Jennie) E. Dickinson; Wilbur was their second child, the eldest being Charles Homer (born in 1863); after Wilbur, in 1775, their daughter Kate was born. The Jones family worked together to maintain income, Jennie owned a hotel in Battle Creek (east of Kalamazoo), Michigan and Charles B. acted as hotel manager, while son Charles Homer worked as a clerk in the hotel; later, Charles B. and Jennie would become farmers in Nelson (less than twenty-miles north of Grand Rapids), Michigan.

Family Higby:

Wilbur Higby married Nellie, the daughter of William and Margaret Davis of Massachusetts on April 13, 1896, just of few months shy of his twenty-ninth birthday. Nellie Davis was a singer, ice skater and actress[1] and this was her second marriage; Davis appeared under the stage name of Nellie Diamond and was quite well-known on the east coast.[2] Ms. Davis, although mainly a New York area performer, was not limited to New England, but was often seen in locations throughout the country.[3] These two young folks met at least a year before playing with the resident stock company of the Grand Opera House in Boston, Massachusetts.[4]

Higby seemed always to use his middle name for his last, in all of his professional acting endeavors; there are no records to the contrary. Occasionally, Higby inserted a “J” between Wilbur and Higby, albeit, a fictitious middle initial. An odd assortment of articles spelled Mr. Higby’s first name, Wilber. Higby stood 5, 10 ½ tall, a slightly weighty 180 pounds with brown hair and gray eyes.[5]

Wilbur wed Caroline (Carolyn) Cotton Morriss in June of 1908 and the couple had their daughter, Mary Jane on June 29, 1909. Carolyn had a son and daughter, Willard and Rita Houston, from a previous marriage; Willard was the eldest, seven years beyond Rita, and Rita was nine years older than Mary Jane. Mary Jane and Rita would remain close throughout their lives, with their mother Carolyn the center of their world; Carolyn (after the death of Wilbur) would continue to close to Rita, moving to be near her, she living in Flagstaff, Arizona, with her husband Harold Quackenbush, while Mary Jane wed Guy Sorel and took up residence in New York City.[6]

Radio TV Mirror, March, 1958

Radio TV Mirror, March, 1958

 

Carolyn Morriss Higby, took the professional name of, C. M. Higby and sometimes, while husband Wilbur Higby would take the position of stage director of a stock-theater-company, she would manage the group; these duties included leasing the facility, contracting for the latest script releases and engaging the members of the troupe.[7] These years, from the birth of Mary Jane in ’09 through the infancy of Wilbur’s film career, were truly a family affair. With Carolyn as manager of the stock company (1913-1914) Wilbur the director and performer, and little Baby Higby making appearances on stage through her toddler years.[8]

Mary Jane Higby had a few appearances on the silver-screen, Where the Trail Divides, and, The Master Key, in 1914; A Martyr of the Present, As in the Days of Old, The Reform Candidate, these last three released in 1915; in 1917 she appeared in, Jack and the Beanstalk. Radio was to be the medium which called her name, and she found a home on the airwaves. Her first work on the wireless was on the Warner Brothers station on the Studio lot, on a weekly historical series. She avowed “a great deal” of her early success was to do to the help of Gale Gordon, who worked with her. Mary Jane, appeared on many network shows in Hollywood through 1937; she was a regular on Camel Caravan, Lux Radio Theatre and the Marx Brothers’ show. For two years she produced and wrote a children’s program that aired weekly; this while still in the Los Angeles area. Once she moved to New York in 1938, she was heard on numerous programs and played, Joan Davis, on, When a Girl Marries; Higby saw the part of Joan through till the end when the program ended in 1957. In 1958 she would play an assistant to an eminent psychiatrist in, This Is Nora Drake, on CBS radio.[9]

Radio TV Mirror, March, 1958

Radio TV Mirror, March, 1958

Moving Picture World, October 2, 1915

Mary Jane (Baby) Higby, Moving Picture World, October 2, 1915

Julie Stevens (left), Mary Jane Higby, and David Gothard

Julie Stevens (left), Mary Jane Higby, and David Gothard, 1954

 

Highlights of Higby Staged:

Wilbur Higby was on stage (stock and touring companies, not making an appearance on Broadway) long before his lengthy foray into filmdom. He was part of the Moore & Livingstone Dramatic Company, which in 1897 found itself in Michigan, collecting rave reviews.[10] Mr. Higby was associated with the Harry Glazier Company, in 1901,[11] a well-traveled acting troupe. Our man Higby worked with the Spooner Stock Company, in 1903[12] and then in 1904, Higby established his own group: the Wilbur Higby Dramatic Company.[13] By May of that same year Higby Dramatic had to reorganize and hire a new manager.[14] His next stop was the J. J. Flynn Stock Company during 1906.[15] Higby, yet again authored another touring-band of thespians, his Wilbur Higby Stock Company had to end their engagement in St. Louis, Missouri, early because of him being taken ill.[16] While on stage Wilbur Higby played alongside the likes of, Otis Skinner, Wilton Lackaye and Marguerite Clark.[17]

New York Dramatic Mirror, September 12, 1903

New York Dramatic Mirror, September 12, 1903

Fort Wayne News, Fort Wayne, Indiana, April 30, 1904

Fort Wayne News, Fort Wayne, Indiana, April 30, 1904

 

Higby on Celluloid:

Wilbur Higby had close to one-hundred film-credits to his name, working into the talkie era; his most notable celluloid work came early, playing alongside Douglas Fairbanks in The Matrimaniac and Reggie Mixes In, both films made in 1916. He also had some measure of success with the D. W. Griffith movie-making-machine; he appeared in, Intolerance (unlisted, uncredited), and Hoodoo Ann, in 1916; other prominent roles for Wilbur Higby were: At the Stroke of the Angelus, and, The Housemaid, each produced in 1915. Higby also worked as an assistant director with Griffith, on Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie, and I’ll Get Him Yet, all from 1919; each directing position for Higby have went unlisted and uncredited.[18]

Motion Picture News, April 15, 1916

Motion Picture News, April 15, 1916

Wilbur Higby in, At the Stroke of the Angelus, Reel Life, May 18, 1915

Wilbur Higby in, At the Stroke of the Angelus, Reel Life, May 18, 1915

Wilbur Higby, in another scene from, The Housemaid, Reel Life, June 12, 1915

Wilbur Higby, in a scene from, The Housemaid, Reel Life, June 12, 1915

 

Missing Higby:

Performances in which Higby is no longer remembered for, are many, and the list begins with a film that was released in 1914, ‘38 Calibre Friendship, a western, that opened in August; the film starred, Grace Cunard.[19] As a matter of fact, 1914, includes more absent titles from Mr. Higby’s work-history, The Storm Bird, Starring Edna Maison and Burt Law; The Creeping Flame, with Jane Bernoudy, a Nestor western drama and it seems likely that he also appeared in the Francis Ford (who directed the film), Grace Cunard, vehicle, The Ghost of Smiling Jim;[20] at the least this appearance is a strong inference. An Outlaw’s Honor, a Powers Picture Plays production, distributed by Universal, starred Louise Granville and featured much of the gorgeous California scenery, which had not been used to that point on film.[21]

Indeed, the majority of the titles for which Higby receives no modern attribution are mostly confined to his early years: 1914-1915. In February of 1915, Higby was seen in a Universal project helmed by Sidney Ayres; Ayres starred in this short as well: A Martyr of the Present, starring Doris Pawn, Baby (Mary Jane) Higby, and Jack Francis;[22] with the exception of Ayres and Pawn, the rest of the cast of, Martyr, are newly discovered additions. The Failure, by Mutual, directed by Christy Cabanne, starring John Emerson and Juanita Hansen, was an additional 1915 release that is lost to the credit of Higby.[23] Her Fairy Prince, saw a late July ’15 opening, and Higby was there in the role of Judge Nash, Violet’s father.[24] Another 1915, title that is lacking to the credit of Mr. Higby is the, Reliance-Majestic, production, An Image from the Past (AKA: An Image of the Past); Higby plays a father whose daughter who marries against his wishes. Only later are parent and child reunited, when Higby’s character meets his grandchildren, who are destitute, and begging on the streets. The film starred Signue “Signe” Auen (better known as, Seena Owen) as the daughter, with J. H. Allen and Charles Cosgrave in support. An Image of the Past, was directed by Tod Browning.[25] George Seigmann directed a three-reel drama for Reliance-Majestic, based on Ouida’s, Tricotrin, starring, Jack Conway, Vera Lewis, Jennie Lee, Marguerite Marsh and Wilbur Higby; this was thought to be a story stronger than the adaptation of, Strathmore, by the same authoress.[26] Tricotrin, 1915, is confirmed by three editions of the, Motion Picture News-Studio Directory to have been produced and released: both 1916 printings and 1918; with that said I have been unable to find any newspaper listings promoting the movie.

Later Missing Higby:

Captain of His Soul (1918), directed by Gilbert P. Hamilton, a Triangle Film Corporation production, starring Claire McDowell, Charles Gunn and William Desmond, also sported, Wilbur Higby, along with Lillian West and Darrell Foss; West and Foss are not mentioned in the IMDB summery of, Captain of His Soul.[27] The 1920 Thomas H. Ince Corporation release, Homer Comes Home, is another missing film from the Higby résumé; Higby appeared in the Fox Film Corporation production of, The Queen of Sheba, 1921.[28] In the latter part of August, 1923, Mine to Keep, a Bryant Washburn production, opened, starring, Bryant Washburn and Mabel Forrest, directed by Ben F. Wilson; At the end of 1923, the Emory Johnson epic film, The Mailman, was released, and Higby has been left out of the cast-list in modern film-encyclopedias and online sources, but clearly he was part of that movie that starred Ralph Lewis, Johnnie Walker and Martha Sleeper.[29]  In June of 1929, Wilbur Higby was added to cast of, The Virginian, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Victor Fleming;[30] I have not personally verified if Higby actually makes an appearance in, The Virginian.

Wakefield Advocate, Wakefield, Michigan, April 12, 1924

Wakefield Advocate, Wakefield, Michigan, April 12, 1924

Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio, February 10, 1924

Mansfield News, Mansfield, Ohio, February 10, 1924

Final Missing Higby:

The final year of work for Higby produced four movies, not two as is recorded on IMDB; St. Louis Woman, a spring of 1934 release, Hat, Coat, and Glove, a late July debut, Young and Beautiful, which opened at the very end of summer and, The Mighty Barnum, premiering a couple of days prior to Christmas of ’34. It is the second and third releases of 1934 that are of interest, being that they are not included in Mr. Higby’s modern work-portfolio.

Young and Beautiful, was a film, put together for the purpose of introducing the 1934 Wampus Baby Stars[31] and an excuse to present these latest Wampus beauties, and some silly humor. Higby was asked to portray actor George Arliss. The catch to the story is that each Wampus Baby Star was escorted by a well-known performer; this during the procession of the Baby Stars in the film’s central stage-production. But, the actual stars did not appear as themselves, instead, Bill Parsons, the make-up expert with Max Factor studios crafted masks, modeled to each famous personage. Adolph Menjou, was played by Jay Belasco, Vance Carol impersonated, Wallace Beery, while Charlie Chaplin appeared as Billie West the greatest of the Charlie Chaplin impersonators. Other celebrity faces that graced, Young and Beautiful, were John Barrymore (John Albin, Barrymore’s own double), Jimmy Durante (Sam Simone), Joe E. Brown (Bill McGarry, who was one of Brown’s doubles) Laurel and Hardy (Athur Teller and Teddy Mangean, a pair of acrobatic comedians), Eddie Cantor (Charles Dorety), Clark Gable (Man Mason), Will Rogers (Chris Allen), Maurice Chevalier (Bruce Wyndham), and Buster Keaton (Lew Sergent). Each actor wore the mask prepared by make-up artist Bill Parsons, and dressed in the familiar clothing of their respective star, while enacting their particular traits.[32] Young and Beautiful, can be seen on YouTube, free of charge.

Hat, Coat, and Glove, directed by Worthington Miner, starring, Ricardo Cortez, Barbara Robbins and John Beal; in support, besides Higby (portraying the Glove Salesman), were Margaret Hamilton and Dorothy Burgess. This Triangle production was a murder mystery and received a good review from Film Daily; the thriller gained points for smooth direction and its A-1 photography by J. Roy Hunt.[33]

The Wrong Higby:

In, Her Fairy Prince, (1915), and, Homer Comes Home (1920), Wilbur Higby is miss-identified as Walter Higby on the, Internet Movie Data Base, but each contemporary source has Wilbur in the films; with Her Fairy Prince, stills from the film, supplement the evidence and prove beyond doubt that it was Wilbur Higby.

Scenes from Her Fairy Prince with Wilbur Higby, Reel Life, July 24, 1915

Scenes from Her Fairy Prince with Wilbur Higby, Reel Life, July 24, 1915

 

Also in 1915 the Western (Canadian-woods story), The Heart of Sampson, starring and directed by Sidney Ayres, co-starring Val Paul, Scott Beal and Doris Pawn, featured Higby. An un-named character in, The Heart of Sampson is miss-credited to Paul Higby on the Internet Movie Data Base; again the contemporaneous documentary evidence attributes the role to Wilbur Higby.[34]

Higby Staged Again:

It was not uncommon, especially after the middle of the 1920’s, when Higby’s film appearances per year were slowing considerably, for him to take a role on stage; this particularly was the case in the 1930’s.[35] Wilbur Higby was in the cast of, The Shannons of Broadway, which played at the El Capitan Theatre, in Hollywood in 1928; this was a very successful run, with three months to its credit. Higby acted in support of, comedienne, Charlotte Greenwood, in, She Couldn’t Say No, in Oakland, CA, in February of 1930; April of ’30 found Higby in Chicago for the farce, Mebbe, again with Ms. Greenwood. In Los Angeles in early 1932, Lucille Laverne starred in, Shining Blackness, Mr. Higby played, Father; the summer of ’32 brought Wilbur to San Francisco for the Bay area premiere of, Berkeley Square, starring Arthur Greville Collins, Miriam Seegar and George Baxter in the leads. The production rehearsed at the Hollywood Playhouse and Opened on June 20 at the Columbia Theatre.[36]

Variety, October, 17, 1928

Variety, October, 17, 1928

The End of Higby:

Wilbur Higby died on December 1, 1934, he was survived by his wife Carolyn, his step-children and his daughter Mary Jane; his body was interred in section one at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, his grave unmarked. No obituary marked the passing of this man whose name and face had been known to millions; only those closest to him mourned his death.

 

Other notable films featuring the talents of Wilbur Higby:

A Girl of the Timber Claims, 1917

The Love Trap (John Ince directed), 1923

Confessions of a Queen (directed by famed actor-director-writer, Victor Sjöström), 1925

 

By C. S. Williams

 

[1] Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) February 12, 1896

[2] Evening World (New York, New York) December 13, 1890; August 30, 1892

[3] Saint Paul Globe (Saint Paul, Minnesota) February 8, 1891

Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois) May 8, 1892

Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) February 2, 1893

Davenport Democrat (Davenport, Iowa) August 20, 1899

[4] Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (Bangor, Maine) December 20, 1895

Boston Post (Boston, Massachusetts) September, 15; October 6; 27, 1896

[5] Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual, 1921

[6] Shiner Gazette (Shiner, Texas) June 5, 1947

Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff, Arizona) June 29, 1959; April 2, 1962

[7] New York Dramatic Mirror (New York, New York) August 20; September 24; October 1, 1913

[8] Variety, October 3, 1913

Radio Television Mirror, May, 1940; December, 1951; March, 1958

Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff, Arizona) June 29, 1959

[9] Evening News (Tonawanda, New York) March 10, 1915

Moving Picture World, October 9, 1915

Radio Television Mirror, May, 1940; December, 1951; March, 1958

Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff, Arizona) June 29, 1959

[10] The Morning Record (Traverse City, Michigan) Sunday, August 22, 1897

[11] Sandusky Daily Star (Sandusky, Ohio) Monday, October 28, 1901

[12] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) Tuesday, November 10, 1903

[13] The Fort Wayne Evening Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) Monday, April 18, 1904

[14] The Fort Wayne Daily News (Fort Wayne, Indiana) Thursday, May 12, 1904

[15] The New York Clipper (New York, New York) Saturday, April 7, 1906

[16] Variety, Saturday, May 6, 1911

[17] Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual, 1921

[18] Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual, 1921

[19] Evening Herald (Ottawa, Kansas) September 12, 1914

[20] Wellington Daily News (Wellington, Kansas) October 5, 1914

Motion Picture News, October 24, 1914

Concordia Daily Blade (Concordia, Kansas) October 30, 1914

[21] Moving Picture World, January 16, 1915

[22] Motion Picture News, January 2, 1915

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) February 15, 1915

[23] Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina) June 20, 1915

[24] Reel Life, July 24, 1915

[25] Motion Picture News, April 10, 1915

[26] Motion Picture News, May 15, 1915

Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pennsylvania) June 14, 1915

Motography, June 19, 1915

[27] Ogden Standard (Ogden, Utah) February 9, 1918

[28] Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual, 1921

[29] Mansfield News  (Mansfield, Ohio) February 10, 1924

[30] Variety, June 12, 1929

[31] The Wampus or Wampas Baby Stars list of approximately 13 young ladies, was gathered each year from

1922-1934 by the Western Motion Picture Advertisers.

[32] Brownsville Herald (Brownsville, Texas) March 10, 1935

[33] Film Daily, July 27, 1934

October, 1934

[34] Motion Picture News, January 2, 1915

[35] Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) February 11, 1930

Variety, September 28; December 12, 1928; April 23, 1930; February 23; June 14, 1932

[36] Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) December 19, 1928; February 11; 15, 1930; June 21, 1932;

Variety, September 28, 1928; April 23, 1930; February 23; June 14, 1932

 

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