I am a bit of a nut, if you hadn’t already realized that, and one of my quirks is that I am a huge old movie fan. To clarify, not “old movies”, as in the 1980s, but rather 1930s-1950s. Really, this includes the advent of talkies to the break up of the studio system. (See, I really am a nut).
How I fell into this particular rabbit hole is a story for another blog post. The relevancy to this post is about an actor/star named Herbert Marshall. Never heard of him? If you are a Bette Davis fan, you may have seen him in The Letter or The Little Foxes. For Hitchcock fans, you may have seen him in Foreign Correspondent (a fantastic movie). Well, here’s why you should have, which is most remarkably what he was not famous for.
Herbert Marshall, to the best of my research, was the first amputee Hollywood star in history. That’s right, he walked with a wooden leg, and it was never the story or even the subplot of his star profile, let alone any of his roles. He lost his leg as an adult in World War I. His limp was very subtle. In fact, I missed it in the first two movies I saw him in, which is impressive. I have spent time in physical rehabilitation centers and watched people I got to know learn to walk with the splints from the most recent technology. Knowing the work that it requires, you begin to get a sixth sense about it when watching people walk and carry themselves.
I found it unimaginable that someone with a 1930s wooden leg support could learn to do it so well. I mean, today amputees are blessed with so much modern medicine to help with skin breakdown and so many other things we people who don’t have their “fun” never have to think about. Hell, I even saw him pick up a child in one of his movies. (Talk about great thighs, a strong stomach and back, and incredible balance). And yet, he did it. He did not let his disability be a byline in his story, and I both greatly admire it, but am also a bit saddened by it.
I truly admire that he learned to act aside his pain (for the amount of hours he had to be standing on his stump, take after take—that would be raw pain), and learned to adapt and make the most out of life. I am saddened that, as classic movies have made such a resurgence in the last couple of decades and are being introduced to a new audience, that it’s not a bigger story. Yet, all I can think is well done, Herbert Marshall. Even if your courage and additional acting skills weren’t publicly admired at the time, it is inspiring to me now.