Herbert Mundin: Much Ado About Much

MUNDIN, HERBERT 3All good movie fans are, of course, aware that 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the release of Warner Bros.’ classic swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood. It’s a film that’s always ranked high on my list of all-time favorites, one that I enjoy for its perfect blend of cinematic action, comedy, drama and romance. And no, I don’t mean the love story between Errol Flynn’s Robin and Olivia DeHavilland as Maid Marian. The romantic subplot I’m referring to is the one that blossoms between Marian’s lady-in-waiting Bess (played to fidgety perfection by prior Scene Stealer Una O’Connor) and Much the Miller’s Son, one of Robin’s Merry Men and a key role of the all-too-brief film career of jowly British character actor Herbert Mundin.

Born in 1898 in the northwestern English town of St Helens, Mundin and his family were moved by his father, a laborer-turned-Church of England missionary who counseled workers on the evils of alcohol, to Hertfordshire a few years later. Educated at the prestigious St. Albans School, Herbert joined the Royal Navy during World War I. While he set out to train as a radio engineer, his vocational plans changed during his service when he discovered that he had a knack for making his shipmates laugh (A ’30s film magazine article reported that early on, an officer told Mundin during inspection to “quit making those funny faces, or I’ll see that you get what for!,” to which he replied, “But it’s me own, face, sir!”).

Shortly after the war’s end, Mundin began to pursue work on the stage, and his comedic song routines soon caught the ear of French theater impresario André Charlot, for whom the neophyte performer would tour for seven years throughout Britain, Europe and the United States alongside such notables as Gertrude Lawrence, Beatrice Lillie and Jessie Matthews. One of the revues, The Charlot Show of 1926, was released on gramophone records in a primitive example of “live” concert recordings, and featured Mundin’s monologue “When the Hansom Cabs Were Lined Up on the Ranks,” a nostalgic tribute to the vanishing days of horse-drawn transportation. By the end of the 1920s the rubber-faced funnyman (“My face has always had the habit of running away with me,” he said once in an interview. “I have never known what it is doing, and often my innermost thoughts have been revealed to my companions by some expression I did not know I was assuming.”) had also delighted audiences in Australia and performed on an early BBC radio show. But it was a turn in a lost 1928 “talkie” short, The Bulldog Breed, that would lead him to the next phase of his career.

After The Bulldog Breed, Mundin’s “official” screen debut came as a cricket player in a 1930 British short entitled Ashes, co-starring Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester and depicting a cricket match that takes 60 years to complete (which, all appearances to the contrary, is not the norm). He was featured in several more well-received “quota quickie” short films in England between 1930 and 1931, but then–along with second wife Kathleen Ann and her daughter from a first marriage–joined legions of his fellow countrymen in migrating to the sunny climes of Hollywood. Herbert was signed by Fox (no 20th Century yet) and had minor, mostly uncredited, roles beginning with 1932’s Silent Witness. That same year he was the often-inebriated servant of title mystic Edmund Lowe, who battled would-be world conqueror Bela Lugosi, in the fantasy/adventure Chandu the Magician, and then got to dispense spirits as a London pub-keeper in Sherlock Holmes, based on the William Gillette stage play and starring Clive Brook as the master detective.

MUNDIN, HERBERT 11933 would see Mundin team with fellow immigrant O’Connor for the first of seven appearances together, in Fox’s adaptation of the Noël Coward stage drama Cavalcade. Tracing the multi-generational travails of a well-to-do London family and those around them, the film cast a more serious Mundin as a butler-turned-publican whose fondness for his own product leads to tragedy and O’Connor as his long-suffering wife. It would also go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Herbert and Una would cross paths again three more times–in Pleasure Cruise, Orient Express (no relation to the Agatha Christie whodunit), and All Men Are Enemies–between 1933 and ’34, but Mundin’s most notable post-Cavalcade Fox role was in an early Spencer Tracy vehicle, Bottoms Up (1934), playing a Cockney forger who con man Tracy passes off as an English aristocrat.

A pair of glossy–and highly successful–literary projects from MGM pushed Mundin further into the public eye in 1935. He was a friend of sorts to young David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew)  as Barkis the driver, who told the boy to relay the message that he was “willing” to marry family servant Peggotty (Jessie Ralph). Herbert then took to the high seas in another Best Picture Oscar-winner, the historical naval saga Mutiny on the Bounty. As ship’s cook Smith, Mundin supplied some of his patented comedy bits to lighten the tension before the inevitable rebellion led by first mate Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) against the tyrannical Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). The following year he got to play a butler–who may or may not have done it–in the Warner Oland mystery Charlie Chan’s Secret. To be sure, 1936 was a busy year for the actor: he was caught up in Cuban intrigue during the Spanish-American War in A Message to Garcia, starring Wallace Beery, John Boles and Barbara Stanwyck; was a valet who joins the French Foreign Legion and travels to Algeria alongside employer Ronald Colman in Under Two Flags; and was part of a jungle expedition that gets on the wrong side of ape man Johnny Weissmuller and mate Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan Escapes. Finally, it was back to the desert sands of Africa for Mundin in the Warner Bros. adventure Another Dawn, where he played opposite the studio’s newest action star, Errol Flynn, in a prelude to what would become Herbert’s most memorable role.

MUNDIN, HERBERT 4Two years after Another Dawn, Mundin was reunited with Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Saved from Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and his men by Robin (Flynn) and Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) after poaching a deer in the royal forest, Mundin’s Much the Miller’s Son becomes the first to join Robin’s forest-dwelling band of outlaws. Along with his comedic love scenes with O’Connor’s flittery maidservant, Mundin as Much proves his mettle when he stops a treacherous ex-knight from assassinating King Richard, returned to England from the Crusades incognito, and manages to warn Robin of Prince John’s plan to seize the throne.

Sadly, Herbert only appeared in three more films after The Adventures of Robin Hood, the last being Society Lawyer, a 1939 MGM crime drama with Walter Pidgeon. Shortly before that movie’s premiere in March of 1939, the 40-year-old stage and screen veteran was a passenger in a car that was run into by another vehicle in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles. The impact of the crash opened the car door and sent Mundin into the street. Suffering from a crushed chest and fractured skull, he was rushed to a hospital, but died from his injuries shortly thereafter.