Born October 26, 1875 in London, England, Henry Byron Warner was born into a prominent theatrical family. His father was Charles Warner and his grandfather was James Warner, both stars of the London stage.
Warner entered the family business at the age of 21. He made his film debut in 1900 in a filmed scene from the play, English Nell in which he played the Duke of Monmouth. He came to America in the early 1900s, first appearing on Broadway as Harry Warner in 1902’s Audrey in support of James O’Neill, the father of playwright Eugene O’Neill. All subsequent roles were as H.B. Warner.
The actor married Mary Burton Cozzens, a two-time widow in 1907. She died in an auto accident in 1913, the year before Warner made his official screen debut in the 1914 short, Harp of Tara. He married second wife, actress Rita Stanwood in 1915 with whom he had three children prior to their divorce in 1934.
Warner starred in such films as The Vagabond Prince, The White Dove, Zaza and Whispering Smith, achieving his greatest successes on the silent screen in a pair of 1927 films, The King of Kings in which his portrayal of Jesus has long been considered a definitive one, and Sorrell and Son in which he played a man who dedicates his life to his son after the two are abandoned by his wife..
Most of Warner’s subsequent roles were supporting ones in which he nevertheless stood out, beginning with the late silent, The Divine Lady and continuing into such early talkies as The Trial of Mary Dugan, Show of Shows, The Geen Goddess, Liliom, The Reckless Hour, Five Star Final, The Son-Daughter and Viva Villa! .
Following his outstanding supporting role in 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities, he began an association with Frank Capra that saw him cast in most of Capra’s films from 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes Goes to Town through 1951’s Here Comes the Groom with standout roles as the man in charge of Shagri-La in Lost Horizon for which he received his only Oscar nomination; and It’s a Wonderful Life in which he played the pharmacist, Mr. Gower.
Warner’s non-Capra films of the era included Victoria the Great, The Adventures of Marco Polo, Nurse Edith Cavell, The Rains Came, Topper Returns, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Corsican Brothers, Strange Impersonation, High Wall, The Judge Steps Out, Sunset Boulevard (as himself), Savage Drums and The Ten Commandments.
H.B. Warner died December 21, 1958 after complications from a fall. He was either 82 or 83 depending on whether his year of birth was 1875 or 1876 (as some sources indicate).
THE KING OF KINGS (1927), directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Considered by many to be his greatest role as well as the screen’s greatest portrayal of Jesus, Warner got the role after the death of his younger adopted brother, western star J.B. Warner. No one other than DeMille could speak to Warner during the making of the film. Both Warner and Dorothy Cumming, who played the Virgin Mary, were prohibited from being seen doing any “un-Biblical” activities during the film’s shooting such as attending ball games, playing cards, frequenting night clubs, swimming or riding in convertibles. They also had to sign agreements not to appear in any film that might compromise their screen images for five years.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935), directed by Jack Conway
Warner had one of his best character roles as Gabelle, the beloved tutor of Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) the man whose place Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman) takes in the film’s climax. He is tricked by the evil Madame De Farge (Blanche Yurka) into sending for Woods, the nephew of the murdered Marquis St. Evrémonde (Basil Rathbone) in his defense before he is also murdered. Warner more than holds his own against Colman and a cast of superb scene stealers including Yurka, Rathbone, Edna May Oliver, Reginald Owen, Henry B. Walthall, Claude Gillingwater, Isabel Jewell and Lucille La Verne.
LOST HORIZON (1937), directed by Frank Capra
Warner received the only Oscar nomination of his long career as Chang, the man who runs Shangri-La, the hidden paradise where people live in peace and harmony. Although the film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and won two (for Art Direction and Film Editing), Warner was the only actor nominated from a superb cast that included Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, John Howard, Margo, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton, Isabel Jewell and Sam Jaffe as the 200-year-old High Lama. Mitchell was nominated that year as well, but for his performance in The Hurricane.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), directed by Frank Capra
Warner’s portrayal of pharmacist Mr. Gower whose son dies of influenza toward the end of World War I is the one for which he is best remembered by today’s audiences. The scene in which young George Bailey prevents him from mistakenly dispensing poison instead of medication is one of the best-loved scenes of Capra’s holiday classic starring James Stewart as the man who is shown by guardian angel Henry Travers what the world around him would be like if he hadn’t been born. Nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture none of the actors other than Stewart were nominated.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Warner, who would die two years later of complications from a fall, fittingly gave the last of his 136 credited performances as Amminidab, the old man who falls and dies from exhaustion in DeMille’s last film as a director. It was a memorable cameo in a film dominated by powerful performances from the likes of Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, John Derek, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, Nina Foch, Judith Anderson, Cedric Hardwicke, John Carradine, Olive Deering, Douglass Dumbrille, Henry Wilcoxin, Eduard Franz and others who were billed above him.
H.B. WARNER AND OSCAR
- Lost Horizon (1937) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor