Frank McHugh, Everybody’s Pal

Frank McHugh (1898–1981)

Frank McHugh was never destined to be the top banana in a film. He lacked any traditional leading man looks. His voice was never skilled to ever become a songbird. And other than portraying a dancing cat with simple steps while chewing a cigar, he was certainly no Fred Astaire. But he had all the right stuff to be a very popular second banana in over 170 roles from 1929 to 1969, across Broadway, film, and television.

Francis Curray McHugh was born May 23, 1898 in Homestead, Pennsylvania into the entertainment industry to his vaudevillian parents, as he and his siblings joined the family business before Frank turned double digits. As a youngster in his parents’ McHugh Stock Company (Edward and Catherine McHugh based in Braddock, PA), he was schooled in Pittsburgh then joined the Marguerite Bryant Players at the age of 17, alongside Guy Kibbee. He went on to tour stages across the country, including a stint on Broadway in 1925. He married fellow actress Dorothy Spencer in 1928. He moved to Hollywood in 1929 and a year later, he was signed on as a contract player for Warner Brothers.

While he cranked out films in Hollywood like a racehorse, he claimed he never felt like one. If anything, he said that he found acting in Hollywood to be a pretty easy gig. He suggested that he never acted, instead his approach was natural and essentially himself. “Mostly I wound up as the friend- dumb but loyal. I guess my dumb look was convincing.”*

McHugh had the knack for the easy-going sidekick. Frequently as a drunken working guy. In those early talkies, when he wasn’t playing a drunk reporter, he was the prize-fighter’s second. Frank laughed, “… for the next three or four years I did nothing else but play drunken reporters. I finally had to call a halt to it. I didn’t mind being a drunken reporter, but it was getting to that the only time they called for me was for that role.”* 

By 1950, he was in his early fifties and moved his family from Hollywood to Connecticut, just outside NYC. Like many others of his experience and age, McHugh made the transition to television at this time, mostly of the ‘live drama’ productions. But he also found work on westerns, comedy, and variety shows like “F Troop” (1966), “The Red Skelton Hour” (1959), “The Lucy Show” (1967), and as “Willie” for 27 episodes on “The Bing Crosby Show” (1964-65). On September 11, 1981, at the age of 83, he died of natural causes.

Hollywood's Irish Mafia_All Irish Americans the original members of the group were Cagney, McHugh, O'Brien & Tracy_ Ralph Bellamy and Frank Morgan joined later

In the 1930s, decades before the ‘rat pack’ of Sinatra, Dino, Sammy and the rest of the swinging Vegas cool set, Hollywood originated the concept with an Irish-American version known as the ‘Irish Mafia,’ a term coined jokingly by columnist Sidney Skolsky, although they simply called themselves ‘the boys club.’ In addition to Frank McHugh, there was James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy. Later came Allen Jenkins, Lynne Overton, George Brent, Louis Calhern, William Gargan, Regis Toomey, Ralph Bellamy, Lloyd Nolan, Frank Morgan, with James Gleason and Bert Lahr tagging along.

In those early years, when he wasn’t paling around with his fellow Irish blokes off-set, he worked nearly every film Warner Brothers made….many with Cagney (11 films), O’Brien, and Jenkins. Because he often served as comic relief- with his unique laugh like a funny, wheezing squeezebox, “ha ha ha…”- he brought a good-natured ease next to some of the biggest names of classic Hollywood. Here are some stand-outs for me…

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In William A Wellman’s LILLY TURNER (1933), McHugh gives a compelling performance as a more complex alcoholic than his typical lighter fare of jovial drunk. It’s a meatier role for Frank. Co-starring Ruth Chatteron and George Brent, it’s a Pre-Code I recommend.

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During this same era of Pre-Code splendor, Busby Berkley musicals reigned supreme. Co-starring his friend James Cagney, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, and Ruby Keeler, the same year turned out Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE. McHugh gives a memorably funny spin on the exasperated dance instructor, who goes toe-to-toe with the great hoofer Cagney in a big musical production- of feline focus. Take a look as cigar-chewing Frank McHugh practices with crooning Dick Powell: CLICK HERE

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In Tay Garnett’s ONE WAY PASSAGE (1932), escaped murderer William Powell finds true love on the high seas with a terminally ill Kay Francis. McHugh is a mischievous petty thief who has some great albeit small scenes, including one where he fools a bartender. It’s a true Pre-Code so don’t expect a sunny or miraculous surprise. But you get hilarious McHugh (yes, he plays a drunk again but look for an especially funny gag with a mirror), plus Powell and Francis as the leads in a beautifully doomed romance, so who cares?

Frank McHugh (R) in Going My Way (1944)

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Leo McCary’s GOING MY WAY (1944). Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, and Frank McHugh all as Irish-American priests… be still my shamrock heart. McHugh worked on many Academy Award nominated films, and this one, which won the Best Picture Oscar, along with many awards, is certainly a prime example. It’s a beautiful film saturated in Irish culture and McHugh does his smaller role justice aplenty.

Despite being such a reliable inclusion for decades in Hollywood, he earned few awards. He did earn accolades from both the US military and servicemen for his great contributions to WW2 war efforts. McHugh supported the war efforts through star-studded USO tours including the multi-city Hollywood Victory Canteen train tour. For more information, I encourage you to read this piece from the NY Public Library, based on his archived documents, the Frank McHugh Papers.

I don’t believe Frank McHugh gets the attention he deserves for such a prolific career. Hard-working folks like Frank rarely do because they are humble regarding their contributions and their talents make it look easy (when it’s not). What are some of your favorite FM films?


This article was my contribution to the WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, Nov. 15 -17th, 2019. Hosted by Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. We have enjoyed hosting this blogathon for eight years. I encourage you to read all entries and leave glowing comments on their sites. 

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*(“No Retirement For Frank McHugh,” The Blade, Toledo, Ohio, Nov. 19, 1967)

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