SOUTH AFRICAN CLASSIC FILM STAR IAN HUNTER by Deborah Painter

If an American casting director sought an English type to play a nobleman or a detective he or she looked for Ian Hunter. Hunter was born on June 13, 1900 in the Kenilworth area of Cape Town.  When he was not yet grown his family moved to Great Britain where Ian began to perform in school drama class.  In 1917, as soon as he turned seventeen Ian enlisted in the British Army and served out the remainder of World War I in France.  When the War ended Ian worked steadily for several years on the stage.Hunter married Catherine Pringle in 1917 and in 1929 fathered their first child, Robin Ian Hunter.  Robin would be an actor in his own right, mainly for Hammer Films in Great Britain and for Columbia Pictures.

Ian was finally persuaded to try the cinema in the mid-1920s. His first film was Not for Sale (1924).  Not long afterward he set his sights for the United States, but not for the film industry, as one might imagine. He was headed for Broadway.  The School for Scandal was being produced at the famed Knickerbocker Theatre by noted producer Basil Dean.  Dean’s fame and Hunter’s performance could not save The School for Scandal from closing after one performance.   It was back to the United Kingdom for Ian and a second try at film.  Joining forces with the “new” young director Alfred Hitchcock, Hunter turned in notable performances in the silent boxing drama The Ringfor British International Pictures and in When Boys Leave Homefor Gainsborough Pictures, both in 1927.  In 1928 Ian returned to the United States and the Broadway stage for the comedy Olympia, then headed for Hollywood and a contract with RKO.  Talking pictures came along in 1929 and Hunter’s slightly British accent and well-modulated voice were perfect.  The musical Syncopation was RKO’s first picture and one of Ian Hunter’s few roles as a show business manager and vaudevillian.

Ian Hunter seemed unable to decide whether to set down roots in the United States or return to England to stay.  Basil Dean was by now directing films at Ealing Studios in Britain and Hunter appeared in his thriller Escape! In 1930. This film is available on DVD.  One of his few lost films is The Thoroughbred (London Screenplays, 1929).

Ian Hunter was Doctor Watson in the British-produced Sherlock Holmes mystery The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes’ Greatest Case (Associated Talking Pictures, 1931).  Ian showed that he could portray a man in his forties.  I Found Stella Parish (Warner Brothers, 1935) had Ian portraying a newspaper reporter who chases after a famous stage actress who has gone into hiding from the public (Kay Francis). Hunter appears opposite a fellow South African, little Sybil Jason, here portraying Stella Parish’s daughter.  Signing on with Warner Brothers, Hunter portrayed a real cad and villain (but a polite and discreet cad and villain) who uses his position as Bette Davis’ employer to compel her to have an affair with him in That Certain Woman (1937).

20th Century Fox cast Hunter in a much more heroic role as Sir Richard the Lion-Heart in a classic of not only its own time but for all time,The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Ian Hunter was Captain Crewe in The Little Princess (20th Century Fox, 1939. Credits: 20th Century Fox

Ian Hunter and Sybil Jason worked together again a year later in the 20th Century Fox drama The Little Princess.  Hunter portrayed Captain Crewe, who has to leave his little daughter Sarah (Shirley Temple) at an exclusive boarding school in London while he fights in the Boer War.  He is reported dead and  penniless, the Boers having seized his personal wealth.  Sarah Crewe nowhas to work off her father’s debts.  Jason is her friend Becky, a fellow scullery maid.

Hunter was a villain again in MGM’s Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939).   A baby boy survives a plane crash in the Congo near the treetop home of Tarzan and Jane.  They raise “Boy” and all is well until Sir Thomas Lancing (Henry Stephenson), August Lancing (Hunter), and his wife (Frieda Inescourt) come in search of the plane to confirm that the parents are dead and they inherit their fortune.  When the elder Sir Thomas learns of the others’ plot to kidnap Boy, the real heir, and take him by force so they can share his money, he tries to warn Tarzan and is shot in the back.  Jane upsets Tarzan by taking Boy to them because she fears he will miss out on an education.   She has been tricked and it is up to Cheta the chimp and Tarzan to save them.

 

 

The Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone, left) uses a chair to torture one of his brothers, King Edward IV (Ian Hunter), before murdering him in Tower of London (Universal, 1939). Credits: Universal

Universal cast Hunter as the historic figure King Edward IV in Tower of London in 1939.  Richard, Duke of Gloucester(fellow South African star Basil Rathbone) decides that his brother Edward and his other brother, the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price) are depriving him of his right to the throne and he has to get them out of the way.  The  of Gloucester also targets two little princes for murder.

Hunter had a star turn in a Western for MGM in 1941, Billy the Kid.  During the 1950s he starred in many made for television movies in Great Britain such as The Four Just Men (Walton Studios, 1959) and South Sea Bubble (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1956).  One of his last roles was the father of a physician experimenting with bringing the dead to life, in the horror film Doctor Blood’s Coffin (Caralan Films, 1961).Ian Hunter retired in the mid-1960s from acting and passed on September 23, 1975. He left behind his wife of 58 years and their two children, as well as almost a hundred films, most of which we can still enjoy.