dan van neste q&a warner baxter


When did you start writing and have you written other books?

I became interested in writing early in my life. I've always had an intense desire to be creative. It sounds kind of corny, but since I can remember I've wanted to leave something of value behind. By the time I was a teenager I had written short stories, poems, songs, etc. In high school, I studied journalism, and joined my school's newspaper staff. I was in my element writing feature stories and a weekly humor column. Although I kept writing various articles and essays, etc. off and on all my life, I didn’t begin writing about the movies until the 1980’s. In 1987, I was seriously injured in an accident which necessitated multiple hip and knee surgeries. I miraculously recovered, but during the initial recuperation periods after the surgeries, I started doing a lot of writing and began penning essays about classic movies which I had always admired since I was a kid. By the end of the 1980’s decade, my movie-related articles began getting published in various newspapers, journals, and classic film publications. In 1994, one of my articles appeared in Classic Images magazine. Between 1994-2017, I wrote numerous pieces for CI and its sister quarterly, Films of the Golden Age. Many included original interviews with vintage filmmakers.

The Accidental Star is my fourth book and all were published by BearManor. My first, The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows was all about the series of eight influential low budget suspense movies made by Columbia Pictures during a four year period (1944-48). The 421 page reference book is essentially a companion to the films which occasionally turn up on cable television. Number two was a biography, The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez, the story of the life and career of the handsome, charismatic and underrated actor who developed a reputation for playing villainous roles. Number three was They Coulda Been Contenders, the story of twelve actors who achieved a certain level of success in the movies, but never quite made it to the very top.

How do you select a subject, and why did you choose Warner Baxter?

I actually address these questions in the acknowledgement section of The Accidental Star. People are always curious why I choose to write about lesser known classic movie stars, and filmmakers when I could be doing stories or books on Marilyn, Lana, or Humphrey. The truth is I have always wanted to do original work and perhaps preserve a small bit of motion picture history at the same time. Marilyn and Humphrey's stories have been told by many fine writers, but despite making important contributions, Cortez’s and Baxter’s stories had not. I thought they deserved to be. Baxter has always intrigued me. Although he was a major star, and I do not normally write about the more famous stars, I thought his important career had been neglected by film historians and biographers over the years. I saw a need and attempted to fill it. I became especially interested in him in 2002 when I penned an article about the Crime Doctor series of films (in which he was starred) for Films of the Golden Age magazine, and learned of his struggles with mental illness and depression.

How long did it take you to write The Accidental Star and did you find it an easy task?

It took me 3+ years. I can only speak for myself, but I find the process of writing books to be both excruciating and exhilarating. Lots of hard work and many frustrations along the way. It’s how you deal with those barriers and frustrations which determine if you will finish the work. Lots and lots of people start book projects with great ideas and the very best of intentions, but get bogged down relatively early and abandon their projects after their initial excitement and enthusiasm wear off. I personally believe discipline and perseverance are the keys to writing a book and to most worthwhile things. As much trouble and hassle as the process entails, when a writer finally finishes his or her book, and sees the finished product, there’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment that only other writers and creative people can truly appreciate. And to top it off, after the book is published, it’s comforting to know that maybe, just maybe one’s creative work will live on after we’re gone.

What can we expect to find in your books and more specifically in this book.

I think you can expect to be informed and entertained. All my writings are carefully organized, and detailed. My goal is to tell you about something or someone you probably knew little or nothing about, and tell it in a way which will hopefully, keep you interested. Fully annotated, featuring 160 photos, the 500 page Warner Baxter biography, The Accidental Star is really two books in one. Part I is a full biography which features never-before published material about Baxter gleaned from multiple prominent archives and excerpts from interviews I did over the years with a few of Baxter’s costars including Gloria Stuart, Karen Morley, Edward Norris, Jeanne Bates and 97-year-old former child actress Marilyn Knowlden (likely Baxter’s last surviving former costar). Part II is a detailed filmography which features all essential data on each of his 104 feature films as well as interesting facts and trivia on each.

The Accidental Star is an interesting title. Why did you choose it?

That’s an interesting tale in itself. I’ve always felt that a book’s title is a very important element in its success. After careful thought, I initially had a different title in mind for this book. I was quite happy with it, but after I began doing the research on Baxter’s life, and began finding accident after accident after accident, I just thought to myself the story of his life is titling itself. Even his first real experience in show business was due to the accident and injury of another and of course his big break in the movies in the early sound western, in In Old Arizona came as a result of the horrific injury sustained by would be director and star, Raoul Walsh who lost an eye in an auto accident while heading back to Los Angeles from Utah where he was making the movie on location. Some of the accidents in Baxter’s life like those two mentioned above, actually accrued to his benefit, but the vast majority were not beneficial, causing him and those closest to him considerable pain and mental anguish.

Baxter had a long and impressive career. What would you say were the highlights?

Very impressive career: 104 feature films, the highest paid actor in 1937, and the second highest in 1938, and to top it off, an Oscar! While doing the research, I was stunned by the variety of roles he played in films which gave him the opportunity to work with most of the great directors of his era. I would break down the highlights into two categories: silents and sound films. He made over 40 films during the silent era, and among the highlights were DeMille’s The Golden Bed, Maurice Tourneur’s Aloma of the South Seas, Edwin Carewe’s Ramona, and perhaps his most famous film of the silent era, Herbert Brenon’s The Great Gatsby in which he played the title role.

During the sound era, there were many highlights beginning with his Oscar winning role as the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona. Among the others were director Woody Van Dyke’s Penthouse, Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street, Capra’s Broadway Bill, William Wellman’s Robin Hood of El Dorado, Howard Hawks’ The Road to Glory, John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, Tay Garnett’s Slave Ship, etc., etc. Baxter also appeared in many minor gems like director William Dieterle’s Six Hours to Live, Henry King’s One More Spring, Sidney Lanfield’s King of Burlesque and John Cromwell’s To Mary-With Love. And then of course, for those of us who love B movies and B movie series, during the 1940’s, Baxter starred in 10 films as Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor based on Max Marcin’s radio series. There is a great deal of production information in The Accidental Star on all the above.

With all his professional successes and a long and happy marriage, Baxter was apparently not a happy man. Your book details his struggles. Did you discover why?

He had several mental crises during his years in Hollywood, and two major nervous breakdowns one in the latter 1930’s, and one in the early 1940’s. I devoted the last chapter in the biographical section of The Accidental Star to discussing my own opinions regarding Baxter: his career, personality, strengths, weaknesses, apparent obscurity, and overall legacy. In that chapter, I addressed what I believe to be at least some of the origins of his mental problems based on my three years of research. Because he was a very private person and never publicly discussed his struggles in detail, and never left diaries, we will likely never know all the causes. Surely years of poverty and his long arduous struggle to achieve film acting success played a part in his mental instability, as did the ups and downs of the film industry and the rejections and slights he experienced in his Hollywood years. AND most certainly, the incredible and sometimes horrifying series of accidents and calamities and near death experiences he and others around him underwent (spoken of above) must have left lasting psychological scars. Of course they may have been many other causes that he kept bottled up inside him.
One of the interesting aspects of Baxter’s life were his many hobbies and talent as an inventor.
Oh yes, Baxter had more hobbies and interests than a dozen people and possessed some genuine skill in certain ones. He was an avid tennis player and had one of the best tennis courts around Hollywood built near his huge Nimes Road mansion. He was quite good, but never seemed able to beat his best pal, Ronald Colman. He also LOVED to hunt and fish, and spent much of his vacation time over the years traveling around the U.S. in both those activities. He built a cabin as a getaway in the rugged San Jacinto Mountains in California where he hunted and fished, and escaped the rat race of the film industry. There are stories detailing some of his adventures/and misadventures while spending time in his cabin in the book. In addition to the above, he also enjoyed gambling, card tricks, chess cooking, guitar, piano, photography, gardening, collecting, etc. etc. Perhaps the most interesting of his hobbies was his inventions. Baxter was a gifted inventor who was always tinkering and trying to come up with inventions which people could use in their daily lives. Two of his most prominent inventions won wide praise: his automatic night sight, a gadget attached to a revolver or shotgun which allowed the user to see a target in the dark, and a traffic signal control which turned signal lights red blocks ahead of fire engines and ambulances.
While doing the book, were you surprised by any part of Baxter’s story? What do you think impressed you most?
The countless accidents definitely amazed me. I was also quite surprised by Baxter’ versatility and the variety of roles he played. He had the image of playing mostly professional men and business types. While he did play many such characters during his career, he played lots of other kinds of parts as well. In analyzing his career ( in Chapter 12), I listed some of the various characters he played over the years including kings and princes, an Indian shepherd, a Polynesian pearl diver, cowboys, mountaineers, trappers, authors, reporters, pilots, secret agents, jewel thieves, slave traders, horse trainers, auto mechanics, doctors, Broadway directors, fashion designers etc. etc. He played various nationalities too from a British army captain to a French foreign Legoinaire, Scottish rebel leader and Mexican farmer and bandit. He played both heroic characters, as well as crooks and cads, and won praise for most of his performances. The thing that impressed me most about Baxter was his kindness and thoughtfulness. In spite of all his struggles both personal and professional, he consistently conducted himself with honor, and treated people with respect and compassion.

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