Tom Kirby Walls (18 February 1883 – 27 November 1949) was an English stage and film actor, producer and director, best known for presenting and co-starring in the Aldwych farces in the 1920s and for starring in and directing the film adaptations of those plays in the 1930s.
Walls spent his early years as an actor, from 1905, mostly in musical comedy, touring the British provinces, North America and Australia and in the West End. He specialised in comic character roles, typically flirtatious middle aged men. In 1922 he went into management in partnership with the comic actor Leslie Henson. They had an early success in the West End with a long-running farce, Tons of Money, after which Walls commissioned and staged a series of farces at the Aldwych Theatre that ran almost continuously over the next decade. He and his co-star Ralph Lynn were among the most popular British actors of their time.
In addition to his work in the theatre, Walls directed and acted in more than forty films between 1930 and 1949. Some of these were screen versions of the successful stage plays, others were specially-written comedies on similar lines, and there were also serious films, particularly later in Walls's career.
Life and career
Walls was born in Kingsthorpe, Northampton, the son of John William Walls, a plumber and builder, and his wife, Ellen, née Brewer. He was educated at Northampton County School, after which he tried a variety of jobs, working in Canada for a year and, on his return, joining the Metropolitan Police.
In 1905 Walls embarked on a stage career. His first engagement was as member of a seafront Pierrot troupe in Brighton. He played in pantomime in Aladdin at Glasgow in the 1905–06 season, under the management of Robert Courtneidge. He performed in a concert party and in musical comedy, touring the British provinces and North America as the Jester in The Scarlet Mysteries. In 1907 he made his West End debut, playing Ensign Ruffler in Sir Roger de Coverley at the Empire, Leicester Square.
Walls appeared in Edwardian musical comedies in the West End and on tour from 1908 to 1921. In February 1910 he married Alice Hilda Edwards, an actress on the musical comedy stage. They had one son, Tom Kenneth Walls. During 1910–11, Walls toured in Australia, playing Peter Doody in The Arcadians, Mr. Hook in Miss Hook of Holland, and the Marquis de St. Gautier in The Belle of Brittany.
Back in London, Walls had substantial roles in The Sunshine Girl (1912); The Marriage Market (1913) and A Country Girl (1915). Later in 1915 he played Coquenard in a revival of Messager's Veronique; between then and 1921 he appeared in nine other musical comedies and a pantomime. His best known show of these years was probably Kissing Time (1919), in which he played Colonel Bolinger opposite Leslie Henson. His biographer, Sean Fielding, writes, "His forte was the portrayal of amiable philanderers or eccentric older gentlemen, usually with a forceful, even hectoring manner."
Walls went into partnership with Henson and became managing director of Tom Walls and Leslie Henson, Ltd, controlling several touring companies. In 1922 the partnership presented the farce Tons of Money at the Shaftesbury Theatre. It was a great popular success, running for nearly two years. Walls played a supporting role in the piece and cast Ralph Lynn in the leading part, propelling Lynn to stardom. Walls took a lease of the Aldwych Theatre, where he and Henson presented another farce, It Pays to Advertise, which ran for nearly 600 performances. To replace the piece, Walls acquired the rights to another farce, A Cuckoo in the Nest by Ben Travers.
Walls and Lynn co-starred in the Aldwych productions, and Travers was careful to maintain the equilibrium of their stage partnership by ensuring that each had as many funny lines as the other. Initially, Travers found Walls difficult as an actor-manager, and also distressingly unprepared as an actor. But even Walls's calls to the stage manager for lines became a popular part of opening nights at the Aldwych.
There were twelve Aldwych farces under Walls's management. The first eight averaged runs of 369 performances. The last four did less well, averaging under 150 performances. Walls gathered a regular troupe of supporting actors, including Robertson Hare, Mary Brough and Winifred Shotter. Travers wrote for these players, drawing on their strengths, his plays populated by:
the horsy, cunning Tom Walls; the silly ass Ralph Lynn, always dropping his monocle; the bald, clerkish, respectable Robertson Hare always liable at some point in the play to have his trousers removed for perfectly logical reasons; the slim, pretty Winifred Shotter, equally liable to dash across the stage in her underclothes; and Mary Brough, the gruff, suspicious landlady.
Walls made an early foray into films in 1924 in a silent screen version of Tons of Money, though he did not reprise his stage role. When the talkies arrived, Walls moved his focus away from the theatre and into cinema. He directed seventeen films between 1930 and 1938, acting in most of them. He directed his last, Old Iron, at the end of the 1930s. In the 1930s, Walls and Lynn regularly appeared in the lists of the top ten British film stars. Walls usually outranked Lynn in the top ratings, because, in the words of the critic Jeffrey Richards, "everyone warmed to the old reprobate whereas the 'silly ass' was not to everyone's taste."
Walls continued to act on screen in both comedies and dramas until his death, often playing character roles in other directors' films. In 1943 he appeared in the serious film Undercover as the father of a guerrilla leader in Yugoslavia. His final film was The Interrupted Journey (1949).
In his private life Walls's great passion was flat racing. In 1927 he established a stable at his home in Ewell, Surrey, with up to twenty-five horses at any one time. Over the next twenty years his horses won about 150 races, including the 1932 Derby won by his April the Fifth. The expense of the stables, together with a generally lavish lifestyle, was a severe drain on Walls's finances.
In 1939 Walls took over the Alexandra Theatre in the London suburb Stoke Newington, which he ran as a repertory theatre. On tour and then at the Shaftesbury Theatre he produced and acted in a farce by Wilfred Eyre, His Majesty's Guest (1939). He toured in Springtime for Henry (1940), of which The Manchester Guardian commented, "Mr. Tom Walls is, of course, outstanding. Deliciously amusing, with a masterly attention to detail, his progress from sin to virtue and back again is a delight to watch". The following year he toured in Frederick Lonsdale's Canaries Sometimes Sing, and in 1942 presented and starred in another farce, Why Not To-Night? on tour and then at the Ambassadors in London. His last stage appearance was in 1948, in a revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, in which his performance as the tyrannical Edward Moulton-Barrett was thought to lack menace.
- Fielding, Sean, rev. Robert Sharp. "Walls, Tom Kirby (1883–1949)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2011 accessed 11 February 2013 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- "Obituary – Mr. Tom Walls", The Times, 29 November 1949, p. 7
- Parker, p. 1127
- "Walls, Tom", Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008; online edition, Oxford University Press, December 2012, accessed 11 February 2013 (subscription required)
- Findon, B. H., "Kissing Time", The Play Pictorial, May 1919, p. 82.
- "Mr. Ralph Lynn", The Times, 10 August 1962, p. 11
- Travers, p. 95
- Smith, Leslie. "Ben Travers and the Aldwych Farces", Modern British Farce: A Selective Study of British Farce from Pinero to the Present Day, Rowman & Littlefield, 1989, pp. 50–69 ISBN 0389208205, accessed 4 June 2012
- Trussler, p. 278
- Richards, pp. 101–02
- Tom Walls filmography, British Film Institute, accessed 17 February 2013
- "WALLS, Thomas Kirby". Epsomandewellhistoryexplorer.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-06-21.
- "Manchester Opera House – Autumn Programme", The Manchester Guardian, 28 July 1939, p. 13, and "Shaftesbury Theatre", The Times, 8 November 1939, p. 6
- "The Prince's", The Manchester Guardian, 26 March 1940, p. 8
- "Opera House", The Manchester Guardian, 1 April 1941, p. 6
- "Drama and Film", The Manchester Guardian, 3 January 1942, p. 5, and "Ambassadors Theatre", The Times, 20 March 1942, p. 6
- "Opera House – The Barretts of Wimpole Street", The Manchester Guardian, 20 April 1948, p. 3, and "Garrick Theatre", The Times, 7 May 1948, p. 6
- "Tom Walls Diest at 66", Gloucestershire Echo, 28 November 1949, p. 1
- Richards, Jeffrey (2001). "Crisis at Christmas". In Mark Connelly (ed). Christmas at the Movies: Images of Christmas in American, British and European Cinema. London: Tauris. ISBN 1860643973.
- Parker, John (ed) (1926). Who's Who in the Theatre (4th ed.). London and New York: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons. OCLC 659887309.
- Travers, Ben (1978). A-sitting on a Gate. London: W H Allen. ISBN 0491022751.
- Trussler, Simon (2000). The Cambridge Illustrated History of British Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521794307.
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