For some actors, the key to a role starts with the voice. For others, it’s the walk. For Adolphe Menjou, who made his debonair mark during the waning days of silent cinema in the 1920s, it was all about an impeccably waxed moustache allied to an immaculate dress suit. In an era when character was telegraphed, kabuki-like, through appearance and gesture, the moustache, he wrote, “was the mark of a villain — a rich city slicker or a foreign nobleman”, and the Pittsburgh-born, French/Irish-descended Menjou ran the roguish gamut, playing “Russian aristocrats, Italian Marcheses, and suave but unsavoury blackmailers”. He revelled in his status as the go-to guy for blithe decadence — he even played Lucifer in D.W. Griffith’s 1926 epic The Sorrows of Satan — and he avidly embraced the repeated accolade of best-dressed man in America.
In his introduction to Menjou’s autobiography, It Took Nine Tailors (which gets The Rake’s vote for best book title ever), his friend Clark Gable eulogises his talents as a financial genius (he played the stock market with some success), an intellectual (he could “converse on Balkan politics of the 1910s”, among other recondite topics), a raconteur, and, getting to the nub of the matter, a fashion critic: “He can tear a lapel apart with the most scathing and contemptuous adjectives I have ever heard, and he can pass a critical eye over your pants in a manner that makes you feel you’ve come to dinner wearing baggy overalls.”
"It was all about an impeccably waxed moustache allied to an immaculate dress suit."
Menjou got his dapper sensibility and censorious eye from his father, a French-born hotelier and restaurateur who had a resplendent moustache of his own, and, wrote his son admiringly, “was a stickler when it came to clothes”. Young Adolphe was expected to enter the hospitality business himself, but was hopelessly seduced by the impromptu movie shows his father set up on the top floor of his Cleveland restaurant. He began acting in Cornell University’s dramatic productions, when he was ostensibly there to study engineering; by 1913, his trademark facial hair firmly established, he’d landed a role as a circus ringmaster in a two-reeler called Man of the World, for which he was paid $15. “I found movie acting amazingly simple,” he wrote, in typically breezy style. “There were no lines to learn, and few, if any, rehearsals. When I realised they had me pegged as a foreign-nobleman type, I began to live the part. I bought a pair of white spats, an ascot tie and a walking stick, and I tried to look as decadent as possible. It paid off, too: I did so many of those parts that my nickname in Brooklyn was The Duke.”
After a year’s service in the first world war, during which he taught his company’s cooks “how to make the perfect potau-feu”, Menjou lit out for Hollywood, where he was soon making the acquaintance of the likes of Gable and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (who lent him his Pierce-Arrow for his studio commutes) in high-stakes poker games. He played Louis XIII in Douglas Fairbanks’s The Three Musketeers in 1921, and was cast alongside Valentino in The Sheik that same year. Menjou had the perfect face for a silent movie villain: it tended to veer between a complacent smirk and a malevolent sneer, the points of his moustache flicking mischievously like inverted commas. “I was such a deep-dyed scoundrel that the kids in the audience would start hissing as soon as I appeared on screen,” he wrote. He was invariably killed off in the last reel to sate the punters’ panto bloodlust.