|James C. Morton|
25 August 1884
United States of America
27 October 1942|
United States of America
(achronic myocarditis, age 58)
Loveable, balding American actor, a regular opponent to Laurel and Hardy - often as a policeman.
The following bio notes and research courtesy Robert Winslow:
James’s father was Henry K. Lankton, who usually went by the name Harry, born in New York, NY on 23 June 1857, and his mother Ann Lankton (sometimes given as Annie). Interestingly, for someone who so often played policemen in film comedies, James’s father seems to have been on the New York City police force; a city directory from 1883 lists him as such. The Lanktons were, in the year prior to James’s birth, living at 113 Washington Place.
At some point around 1902, James married. Records don’t indicate the name of his spouse, and the information has to be inferred from later sources that indicate his son Alfred was born in New Jersey on 8 April 1903, and that at some point James and Alfred’s mother divorced.
Exactly when James adopted the last name Morton as his stage pseudonym is unclear, but it occurred no later than 1910. The cast of the Broadway musical “The Merry Whirl,” which debuted in May, 1910, lists “James C. Morton” in its cast. He remained busy on Broadway and on the vaudeville circuit over the next twenty years; his last Broadway credit, from February 1931, places him in the role of “Judge Halsey” in the drama “Hobo,” which unfortunately had a short run.
James’s WWI draft registration, dated September 7, 1918, shows him living on Long Island, and currently employed in the “Theatrical” industry, through “United Booking”. Interestingly, though James still went by the surname Lankton at this time for legal purposes, he listed his nearest relative as his father, Harry K. Morton, who resided in Fletcher Place in the Bronx. This may have been an error on the part of the Selective Service official who made out the card, as other sources show James’s father’s last name as the same as his own, Lankton, and there’s an error in arithmetic too, for though James’s date of birth is recorded correctly, his age is given as 35 when in fact he had turned 34 only two weeks before. James’s physical characteristics were described as “medium” height and build, “gray” eyes, and “brown” hair. A note at the end of the registration card states “Theatrical Name James C. Morton”.
The 1940 census has “James C. Morton” living at 2051 Corning Avenue, Los Angeles, an address only about a half mile northeast of the Hal Roach Studio and even closer (a matter of a few blocks) to the Arnaz Ranch site owned by Roach and used as an ancillary filming location. James rented this home (which has been completely obliterated by new apartment buildings) for a modest $30 a month, so it was likely a small bungalow similar to the few contemporary survivals in the neighborhood. With James lived his 37 year old son, Alfred, though James indicated his age as 54 (which would imply Alfred had been born when James was 17). Both James and Alfred recorded their occupations as “free lance actor” at “Motion picture studio”. Under education, James had completed 6 years of school, and Alfred 8. This suggests James’s education ended somewhere around the year 1896. James’s marital status is “divorced” at this time. But not for long.
Later that year, James remarried, on December 7, to Elizabeth “Betty” Dolmage, in Santa Monica, CA. James’s age on the marriage certificate was given as 55, though in fact he was 56, and Betty’s was 18. (Quite an age difference, especially for that era!) Witnesses for the marriage were his son, Alfred Morton, and Alfred’s wife Joan. (Interestingly, James’s son took his stage name as his legal surname). James was still living at 2051 Corning, and listed his occupation as “Actor” on the marriage certificate.
James C. Morton passed away on October 27, 1942 at his present home, 18138 Erwin St., Reseda, CA. (Reseda is a considerable distance northwest of Morton’s former address on Corning Ave.; the town is situated between Van Nuys and Canoga Park). The death certificate lists cause as “chronic myocarditis” and indicates James had been under treatment by a doctor for three days leading to his death (which is undoubtedly why his date of death is often misrepresented as occurring October 24). The attending physician recorded James had had this condition 11 years, or since about 1931. James was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, CA, (Plot: Section A, Lot 104) on October 30th. James’s son Alfred passed away at the age of 67 on 13 August 1970.
Prior to his death in 1942, he had accompanied Laurel and Hardy on two tours, performing in the Drivers license sketch.
The following bio notes and research courtesy Jesse Brisson:
James' father, born Henry Kennedy Lankton, was professionally known as Harry K. Morton. According to his Variety obituary (14 Nov 1919), Harry had been in show business since he was 12 years old; going by Robert's findings above, he evidently took some time off the show business path for police work, though he would team with Harry L. Leavitt as "Morton and Leavitt." James' mother, Ann/Annie (Carmody) Lankton, was professionally known as Annie Duncan (d. 1902); she and Harry performed together as "Morton and Duncan." Annie died on 3 March 1902 in The Bronx, New York. Harry retired around 1913, and died on 12 November 1919 at Manhattan Sanatorium of throat cancer, at age 62 (death record and obits say age 63). James had at least one brother, Harry K. Morton, Jr. (1889-1956), who also performed in vaudeville and musical comedies, frequently alongside his wife Zella Russell (1883-1952). Harry, Jr. was born in Decatur, Alabama, presumably while their New York-based parents were "on the road" as James reportedly was.
James' Variety obituary (04 Nov 1942) notes, "Born in a theatre in Helena, Mont., in 1884, he had spent practically all his life in show business." James made his stage debut during or around March 1900. The National Police Gazette for 24 March 1900 reports: "Harry K. Morton and James Morton, singing and dancing comedians, made a hit during their recent appearance at the Bon Ton Music Hall. Mr. James Morton was Mr. Pastor's card boy for two years, and this was his first appearance on the stage." It is unclear if the "Harry K. Morton" here is the father or the brother, but I imagine it's the former. Both Harrys would themselves perform together as "Morton and Morton." By 1904, James was performing with Mamie Diamond (r.n. Mamie Huls [or Hulse], c. 1874-1927), who had previously performed with her sister Josie (deceased by 1927) as "The Diamond Sisters." In 1908, James Lankton (Morton) married Mamie Huls (Diamond) in New Jersey. In the late 1900s and 1910s, James played in a vaudeville duo, "Morton and Moore," with Frank F. Moore (d. 1924); among their performances together was in a 1913-14 touring production of the musical "The Tik-Tok Man of Oz," in which James played the title role. During brief periods apart from Moore in the 1910s, James also teamed with Ralph Austin.
Throughout the late 1910s and the 1920s, James toured in a vaudeville act, "James C. Morton and Family," with his wife Mamie and their two (adopted) children, Edna (b. 1902) and Alfred (1903-1970); it appears Edna and Alfred were, in fact, the children of Mamie's aforementioned sister Josie and her husband Charles Van Duyne, and Mamie and James took over in raising them after both parents died during Edna and Alfred's youth (further details about these conclusions, and how they were reached, can be found on Al's page). The 1915 New York State Census identifies Edna (age 13) and Alfred (age 12) as James and Mamie's children, but the 1925 NY State Census identifies Edna and Alfred's respective relationships to James as "A.D." and "A.S." -- James and Mamie's adopted daughter and adopted son. Mamie died on 26 September 1927 at the family home in Freeport, Long Island, New York. Per her obituary in Variety (28 Sep), she passed "after a year's illness from stomach trouble." The obit gave her age as 53, and claimed that she and James wed "about 25 years ago" (ca. 1902) and that, "Of this union two children were born, Alfred and Edna . . ." James continued the act, initially with Alice Bertram assuming Mamie's role, but ultimately teaming with blues and jazz songstress Corinne Arbuckle (1897-1974), to whom he remarried on 16 November 1928.
The truth about the Morton family act came out in July 1929, when niece/adopted daughter Edna sued James, charging that he owed her a whopping $18,925 in back salary (equivalent to over $300,000 nowadays). She argued that she had played in the Morton revue (which she said earned $500 a week) for 12 years and that her initial salary of $50 was once raised to $75 -- yet she never got any of the cash, which James put in a trust though he never actually paid her. Early reports of the suit now said that, rather than being father and daughter, James was actually Edna's uncle, and that he was married to her aunt (unnamed in the reports, but should be Mamie); Edna said her own mother (unnamed, but should be Josephine Van Duyne/Josie Diamond) died when she was a child, after which she lived with James and the aunt and ultimately played in their act for 12 (or 13) years. After the aunt died, James remarried and restarted the act with a new partner, replacing Edna and her brother (also unnamed, but should be Alfred); this timeline of events is a solid match with Mamie's passing in 1927, followed by James and Corinne's new act and marriage starting a year or so later. Edna said she asked James for her money, but he refused and instead bought a home in Freeport; Edna, now 27, said she had "no means of support and no special training except as a dancer . . ." In April 1930, both parties reached an amicable, undisclosed settlement; interestingly, reports of the settlement were now saying James was Edna's stepfather, but still refers to the aunt (still unnamed) and her passing leading to the act's rearrangement.
In May 1931, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Corinne Arbuckle Lankton was suing James for separation, charging that he was "perpetually intoxicated," cruel and abusive, and had failed to support her; James denied the allegations. Later that month, James was ordered to pay Corinne $25 a week in alimony plus $200 in counsel fees "pending trial of her suit of separation" (Corinne originally asked the court for $50 a week in alimony and $300 in counsel fees). Corinne was remarried to lawyer Lester Weil by 1940.
A bit of (unintentional) dark humor sprang from the pages of Variety's 13 April 1938 issue, when the industry trade paper mistakenly ran an obituary for James, stating that he died on the 10th in Islip, Long Island, New York "after a long illness. Until recently he had been a guest at the Percy Williams home [a rest home for actors]." In next week's issue (20 April 1938), Variety was quick to issue a correction at the top of that week's "Obituaries" column. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity: the obit should have been for James J. Morton, referred to as "probably the first of the masters of ceremonies." The correction noted, "The information [with regards to James C.] came from a reliable source and was accepted as such. It develops, however, that the notice should have applied to James J. Morton, also a guest of the Williams Home." The correct obituary for James J. immediately followed. Another week later, the 27 April 1938 issue re-clarified: "James C. Morton, erroneously death-noticed in VARIETY of April 13, is very much alive and currently working in films on the Coast. Recently completed role in 'City Shadows' for Columbia [released as 'City Streets,' starring Edith Fellows and Tommy Bond] and next goes into a Charlie [sic] Chase short [likely 'The Nightshirt Bandit']. He has been residing in Hollywood the past seven years and is not a guest of the Percy Williams home in New York. The obit was intended for James J. Morton and, as printed last week, the error occurred in the annals of the Williams institution." Walter Winchell's column in late April quipped, "Variety reports that James C. Morton, the grand vaude actor, is dead. Mr. Morton wires us that he doesn't think so." Indeed, "our" James still had four-and-a-half years left on his watch...
Real name: James Carmody Lankton
Films listed on this page: complete Hal Roach filmography;
plus all films with Charley Chase.