|The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawman, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.|
Myrtland Vivien / Vivian LaVarre
1901 - 1959
(Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
Above - John Merton, late 1930s.
(Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
Above - Lane Bradford, 1950s.
Myrtland Vivien / Vivian LaVarre, Jr.
1922 - 1973
There were some big, burly actors who portrayed villains and heavies in the old B westerns and serials - names and faces that immediately come to mind are Roy Barcroft, Harry Woods, Leroy Mason, and Fred Kohler. My list of best bad guys also includes John Merton.
He was born Myrtland Vivien / Vivian La Varre in Washington state (not Washington D. C.) on February 18, 1901 to William Johanne LaVarre (born Georgia) and Leilia Goddin Haynes LaVarre (born Virginia). In the 1900 census, father William was a "draftsman" involved in shipbuilding, and the family lived in Kitsap County, Washington which is near U. S. Navy facilities including the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. In the 1910 census, the family was in Washington, D. C. and William was a "Naval Architect".
Merton had a sister Lucille and three brothers. Youngest brother Claude was a representative of the Singer Sewing Machine Company of New York and lived and traveled all over South and Central America for Singer. Franklin changed his name to "Andre de La Varre" and was a prolific creator of film travelogues and documentaries and for years was associated with noted travel lecturer Burton Holmes. Older brother William became a writer, naturalist, world explorer, cinematographer, and led expeditions for the Smithsonian and other organizations. Sister Lucille was a George Washington University student in the early 1920s and was a member of William's expedition to British Guiana where they collected animal specimens ... and diamonds. There's more on the three brothers on a later webpage.
Merton served in the U. S. Navy during World War I, and his military service was probably influenced by his father's involvement with shipbuilding and the Navy. After his discharge, he (briefly) considered a Merchant Marine job prior to becoming a vaudeville performer and stage and movie actor.
The La Varre family of Washington D. C. is oft mentioned in newspapers from the 1900s through the 1920s. Below are several highlights on Myrtland and the LaVarre family connection to Washington state:
Above - John Merton, under his real name of Myrtland LaVarre, touring on the Orpheum circuit in the playlet (short play) "Blondes", November, 1923 in Nebraska. In January, 1924, he's appearing in "Blondes" in Madison, Wisconsin.
(Courtesy of Randy Laing)
Above - John Merton in a credited role as the bald and fanged "Loki", one of the Dacoits, in the 15 chapter DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (Republic, 1940). Henry Brandon (left) was Fu Manchu.
Some biographies note that Merton was blackballed by his parents or other members of the family for choosing acting as his profession. Maybe so. But I find that hard to believe as his three brothers wound up with unique, unusual careers.
In the 1920s, Myrtland LaVarre became a full time actor, and his home base was initially New York City and later, Yonkers, New York. During that decade, some movie companies were still located in New York City and surrounding areas, and many Broadway performers were employed in films. His movie career began during this period. Following are some highlights and timelines:
Jump ahead to 1930 and he's in the play "Frankie and Johnnie" at the Republic Theater in New York City. Couple years later, Merton, wife Esther and three children were in sunny California.
The name change to "John Merton" occurred circa 1934. During his stage work and early films, he was Myrtland / "Myrt" LaVarre. Tradezine articles from 1934 mention "Mert" LaVarre in a Tim McCoy police yarn and a credited role in the Buck Jones cliffhanger THE RED RIDER (Universal, 1934). Regardless of the name variations, he became typecast as a heavy, and for about twenty five years, he menaced a variety of cowboy and serial heroes and heroines.
In B westerns, he occasionally played the brains heavy but most often was a (vicious, evil) henchman or (vicious, evil) second-in-command. He free lanced everywhere, and you can spot him doing skulduggery vs. the Three Mesquiteers, Hopalong Cassidy, Tim McCoy, Charles Starrett, Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, Buster Crabbe, many others. There's a chart further down this webpage with some statistics.
Les Adams has him in 200+ films, most of which were westerns and a couple dozen chapterplays. He didn't do much at Republic Pictures - scattered over the years 1936-1949, he worked in about 35 Republic films and most were cliffhangers and oaters. One of Merton's best remembered roles is playing a "dacoit" in DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (Republic, 1940; 15 chapters).
He shows up often in uncredited parts in A grade pictures including nine Cecil B. de Mille epics. His first for de Mille was CLEOPATRA (Paramount, 1934) and last was THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount, 1956). Another unbilled role was portraying one of "Rogers Rangers" in the Spencer Tracy NORTHWEST PASSAGE (MGM, 1940). And "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood" gossip column in October, 1946 newspapers mentioned that "George Jessel tells me John Merton, who plays Teddy Roosevelt in 'I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now' is wonderful."
Merton was a member of producer Sam Katzman's stable of players. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he did seven serials and a couple of the Johnny Weissmuller 'Jungle Jim' features for Katzman. He was also a favorite of prolific director Sam Newfield. During the years 1936-1956, Merton worked in over two dozen Newfield oaters with Ken Maynard, Fred Scott, Jack Randall, McCoy, Steele, Crabbe, others. Most of those Newfield films were in the 1940s at Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC).
We can't forget Merton in about a half dozen Three Stooges shorts at Columbia Pictures. And there was the comedy-western GOLD RAIDERS (Jack Schwarz Prod/United Artists, 1951) with the Stooges and muscular George O'Brien as the star.
As the B western and serial faded away, he did a small amount of 1950s television shows including BOSTON BLACKIE, ROY ROGERS, WILD BILL HICKOK, CISCO KID, more. Appears his last acting job was in the TV show THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP which was produced by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's Desilu company. Merton plays a storekeeper in the season 4 episode titled "Little Gray Home in the West" which aired on ABC in May, 1959. His death certificate also notes that Desilu employment. However, his main employment during the last few years of his life was as a lab technician at MGM and that was noted in his death notice in the September 30, 1959 issue of Variety: "... during the past three years, he was an IATSE technician at Metro."
Merton had a husky build and strong jaw and his villain roles oozed malevolence and no remorse. One of the best of the B western and serial bad guys passed away from heart problems at his West Hollywood, California home on September 18, 1959 and was interred at Pierce Bros. Valhalla Memorial Park, North Hollywood. He was 58 years old.
He was married twice - his first was a 1921 Manhattan, New York marriage to Esther Swarts and the second was in May, 1942 in Los Angeles with Ellen Margaret Curtan who was a registered nurse. First wife Esther was actor Lane Bradford's mother.
In Tom and Jim Goldrup's Feature Players book series, Merton's actor and cameraman son Bob LaVarre talked about his father who liked parties, Hollywood night life ... and women. That put stress on the marriage and newspaper reports indicate that wife Esther filed for divorce in late 1940.
A later webpage has various census and other details on Merton. 1940 is an interesting year and there are dual census records for him. In early April, 1940, 39 year old Myrtland LaVarre is one of many prisoners at the Lincoln Heights Jail in Los Angeles. I found nothing in newspapers or trades on the reasons for that jail time. In late April, 1940, the census had the LaVarre family with Myrtland, wife Esther, two sons and four daughters renting in West Hollywood.
Merton's son Lane Bradford was born Myrtland Vivien / Vivian Lavarre, Jr. and family trees on Ancestry.com and other sources have his birth information as August 29, 1922 in Yonkers, Westchester County, New York. He began his film career in the early 1940s, but that was interrupted when he enlisted in the U. S. Army on February 24, 1943. After World War II military duty, he returned to Hollywood and worked frequently at Republic, PRC and Monogram, generally playing a heavy. As B western and serial work declined, he migrated to television and became a prolific TV performer in BONANZA, GUNSMOKE, ANNIE OAKLEY, ZANE GREY THEATER, 26 MEN, WILD BILL HICKOK, BUFFALO BILL JR., lots more. Bradford has 32 film appearances in serials and cowboy yarns at Republic Pictures during the years 1943-1954. He loved boating and Hawaii, and 50 year old Lane Bradford was living in Hawaii when he passed away at Kaiser Memorial Hospital in Honolulu on June 6, 1973 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage aboard his boat.
1920 - applying for a job as a "wiper" on the S. S. West Lashaway.
Myrtland was living in Washington, D. C. with his mother and brothers when the 1920 census was taken on January 10, 1920, and his occupation was "Artist (Dram) - Moving Pictures".
A few months later, he was in New York City. Left is a photo of La Varre which was stapled to his application for a Seaman's Certificate and passport. The photo and several pages of supporting documents are available on Ancestry.com.
In April, 1920, 19 year old Myrtland La Varre applied for a Seaman's Certificate and passport which was required to obtain a job as a "wiper" on the ship "West Lashaway".
The application has his birth information as February 18, 1901 in Sydney [sic], Washington state, and he's 5 feet 10 inches in height. Also included are affidavits from his aunt Adelaide H. Graves and cousin J. M. Goddin confirming that he was born February 18, 1901 in Sydny [sic], Washington state. J. M. Goddin was Chief Engineer on the West Lashaway.
There's no information on whether he was granted that Seaman's Certificate and if he was employed on the "West Lashaway". We do know that he married Esther Swarts on September 26, 1921 in Manhattan, New York, and he was doing plays in New York City in 1922.
Wikipedia has the "S. S. West Lashaway" identified as a World War I U. S. Navy cargo ship which was decommissioned in 1919 and placed in commercial service.
The Sydney/Sydny Washington State birth location has spelling issues. The correct name is "Sidney village" which was a small community included in the 1900 census Enumeration District 120, Kitsap County, Washington and was the location of the LaVarre family in the 1900 census: http://www.us-census.org/states/washington/teams/Kitsap1900.htm
What's a "wiper"? It's basic manual labor, cleaning the engine and engine room. Job definition at: http://www.usmm.org/engine.html
John Merton's Movie stats. A very busy guy.
|Below is a chart of John Merton's movie career from 1927-1957 in westerns, serials, shorts, and other films. His TV work is not included. I've used the RELEASE dates (not filming dates) from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).|
Total films in this chart = 251 and about two-thirds are westerns and serials.
|Merton did villainy vs. these B western heroes:|
|Johnny Mack Brown (most are Monograms)||13|
|PRC's Billy the Kid/Billy Carson series with Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe||11|
|Republic's Three Mesquiteers||9|
|Monogram Trios: Range Busters (5), Rough Riders (2), and Trail Blazers (1)||8|
|William Boyd / Hopalong Cassidy||7|
|Gene Autry at Republic (2) and Columbia (4)||6|
|Republic with Sunset Carson (3) and Rod Cameron (1)||4|
|Don Barry at Republic, and later, at Lippert||5|
|Kermit Maynard's mid 1930s series for Ambassador/Conn||5|
|Charles Starrett at Columbia||5|
|Monogram with Whip Wilson (4) and Kirby Grant mountie adventures (1)||5|
|Tim Holt at RKO||3|
|Bob Steele / A. W. Hackel oaters released by Republic in the mid 1930s||3|
|PRC Trios: Texas Rangers (1) and Frontier Marshals (2)||3|
|Jack Randall at Monogram||2|
|Tom Keene's Crescent 'historical' dramas||2|
|Bob Allen's 'Ranger' series at Columbia||2|
|Buck Jones||2 serials|
|Single film appearances with several cowboy heroes||See notes below.|
|Who didn't he work with?|
Lots of cowboy heroes never faced John Merton's treachery.|
He didn't appear in any of Jimmy Wakely's Monogram series ... nor any of Republic's western series that starred Allan Lane, Wild Bill Elliott, Monte Hale or Rex Allen ... or the Universal series of Bob Baker, Kirby Grant or Rod Cameron ... or Eddie Dean's singing cowboy films for PRC ... or any of PRC's Lone Riders which starred George Houston and Bob Livingston. Nor did he do 1930s oaters with Rex Bell or Tom Tyler.
While Merton did work in a couple Buck Jones serials - and with Jones in Monogram's Rough Riders series - he didn't appear in any of Buck's solo starring westerns.
Merton did a few with John Wayne. However, he wasn't in any of Wayne's mid 1930s Lone Star/Monograms or early Republic entries which were produced by Paul Malvern.
He did one with Dick Foran (at Warners); one with Roy Rogers (at Republic); one with Wild Bill Elliott (at Columbia); and one with Tex Ritter (at Monogram).
Merton also turns up in one Ken Maynard / Hoot Gibson Trail Blazers as well as one of PRC's Texas Rangers trio adventures. However, he never appeared in any of Hoot Gibson's silent or sound series. And he only did one other with Ken Maynard, and in that, Ken was the solo hero.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Left to right are Jack Rockwell, Karl Hackett, John Merton, Tim McCoy, Joe Girard and Lafe McKee in a lobby card from McCoy's LIGHTNIN' BILL CARSON (Puritan, 1936).
(From Old Corral image collection)
Left to right are Mary Hayes, star Kermit Maynard and John Merton in a scene from ROARING SIX GUNS (Ambassador/Conn, 1937).
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Left to right are John Merton, Hank Bell, Harley/Harlene Wood (Jill Martin) and Kermit Maynard in a crop from a lobby card from Kermit's VALLEY OF TERROR (Ambassador/Conn, 1937).
(From Old Corral image collection)
Left to right are Stanley Andrews, George Cleveland, Charlie King (background wearing hat), Lynn Roberts and John Merton in a scene from the cliffhanger, THE LONE RANGER (Republic, 1938). Andrews was the main villain in the serial and Merton was a henchman. George Cleveland is probably best remembered as "Gramps" in the first TV series of LASSIE (with Tommy Rettig). Andrews also did TV work and is recalled as "the Old Ranger" who introduced stories on DEATH VALLEY DAYS.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Left to right are Harry Strang, Lane Chandler, Tim McCoy (in his Mexican disguise), John Merton and Betty Compson in the McCoy oater, TWO GUN JUSTICE (Monogram, 1938).
(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
Above - Hopalong Cassidy has the drop on three nasties. From left to right are John Merton, Roy Barcroft, Bob Kortman and William Boyd in a still from RENEGADE TRAIL (Harry Sherman Prod/Paramount, 1939).