Filled Under: James Murray
James Murray was an American movie actor best known for starring in the 1928 classic silent “The Crowd” directed by King Vidor. After quickly becoming a rising star in Hollywood after his role in “The Crowd”, Murray unfortunately turned to drink and died an alcoholic derelict a mere eight years later at the age of thirty-five.
Murray was born February 9, 1901 in The Bronx, New York. He appeared in “The Pilgrims” (1924), a three-reeler made at Yale University in 1923 in which Murray played John Alden. After making “The Pilgrims” Murray headed west to Hollywood, living a nomadic life along the way, working menial jobs and riding boxcars. After arriving in Hollywood he worked odd jobs and took bit parts until he was ‘discovered’ by director King Vidor, who saw Murray walking by on the MGM lot. Vidor was about to begin work on a new film and thought Murray might look right for the lead. Murray, however, failed to show up for the meeting he arranged with Vidor, apparently thinking it to be a joke. Vidor subsequently tracked him down and after a screen test offered Murray the starring role in “The Crowd” (1928) opposite Eleanor Boardman. His performance in the film as John Sims, a common everyday kind of family man just trying to survive the game of life, was so frighteningly real and heart-wrenching that the film was initially judged too heavy and raw for audiences to escape in, but the critics were enamored with the film and especially with Murray. Director King Vidor and MGM executive Irving Thalberg considered Murray to be one of the best natural actors they had ever had the good fortune to encounter. Today the “The Crowd” is considered a cinematic masterpiece by many.
After making “The Crowd”, Murray went on to turn in solid work the next few years in such films as “The Big City” (1928) with Lon Chaney, “Thunder” (1929) also with Chaney, “The Shakedown” (1929), “Bachelor Mother” (1932), “The Reckoning” (1932) opposite Sally Blane, and “Heroes for Sale” (1933). Despite his success, maybe it was too much too soon for the mild actor, his life took a tragic turn as he turned to the bottle to quiet whatever inner demons haunted him. By the early 1930’s he was a chronic alcoholic who could barely hold down an acting job. He turned into a derelict, living on the streets and begging for change. In 1934, in an instance of extreme coincidence, he tried panhandling a man who turned out to be King Vidor. Vidor offered Murray a role in his upcoming film, “Our Daily Bread”, but Murray turned it down, deeming it an act of pity. Two years later in 1936, Murray’s body was fished out of the Hudson River in New York City. The medical examiner determined that the cause was asphyxia by submersion, without ruling on whether it was an accident or suicide. He was thirty-five years old. Murray was interred at the Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, New York.
In all, James Murray appeared in thirty-six movies. In most of his post silent era films, particularly those made during the last few years of his career, Murray was cast in unaccredited bit parts or as an extra. At the time of his death Murray was married to actress Marion Sayers.
King Vidor, who had directed Murray in “The Crowd” (1928), later said that he respected Murray as an actor and was dismayed that alcoholism cost the actor his career. Vidor was so haunted by Murray’s tragic death he wrote a screenplay about his life entitled “The Actor”. Vidor hoped to turn the screenplay into a film in 1979, but the project never came to fruition.