Born February 9, 1901 - Died July 11, 1936
James T. Murray was born in New York City, on February 9, 1901, the second of nine brothers and sisters (including a pair of twins who died in infancy) born to Christopher Murray and Mary Casserly Murray. Christopher ("Christy") emigrated to the USA in 1894 from a little town called Raharney, Killucan, County Westmeath in central Ireland, west of Dublin. One of several men (some of whom were family) from that town dubbing themselves “The Raharney Rovers”, Christy came to make his fortune in America at the age of 23. Here, he met Mary Casserly, another Irish immigrant. Although several of the Raharney Rovers eventually went back to Ireland after earning the money they sought working in the construction trade here in America, Christy and Mary stayed to raise their family. When James was nine, the Murray family moved to the Bronx and settled there for two more generations. That’s where I was born, in 1952.|
Christy and Mary’s firstborn was J. Christopher Murray, my grandfather. His younger brother James, whose short life is the subject of this page, made a mark in the world of motion pictures. Considered in his day to be one of the great natural acting talents of all time by such motion picture giants as Irving Thalberg and King Vidor, his career spanned only nine years and was finally cut short by his untimely and tragic death at the age of 35.
James Murray was bitten by the acting bug while working as a doorman at the Capitol Theater on Broadway. In 1923, he went on to appear in the role of John Alden in a three reel short produced by Yale University, called The Pilgrims. He decided to head west and together, he and his younger brother Harry set out for the setting sun. Walking, hitch-hiking, and hopping freight rails, sometimes riding the rods under boxcars, they made their way west. They only got as far as Chicago before Harry decided to go back home, although Harry did eventually make it to Hollywood by working on a freighter headed for Los Angeles via the 10-year-old Panama Canal. Harry also found work in films.
James made it to Hollywood working odd jobs along the way shoveling coal or washing dishes. He quickly found work as an "extra" until he was plucked from obscurity by King Vidor to star in Vidor's cinematic masterpiece, The Crowd. James didn't make it easy, though. King Vidor, fresh from the triumph of his last film "The Big Parade" and in favor with the studio, was looking for someone to portray the lead in his next film, originally titled, "One Of The Mob",later titled "The Crowd". One day, on the lot at MGM, someone brushed past him and he caught a glimpse of someone with just the right look, the exact look he needed for the lead role of "Johnny Sims". It was James.
According to Vidor, he started to approach James, but James was leaving the lot adn was moving quickly. Vidor flagged him down and asked him his name. "Murray" was the reply. Vidor asked what he did at the studio. "Extra", another terse reply. This guy was clearly in a hurry. Vidor offered him his card and said "My name is Vidor. I'm a director here. Please come out tomorrow and see me. I may have some work for you." But, James never showed.
In his autobiography, "A Tree Is A Tree", Vidor wrote:
"I waited for three days but, my man failed to show up. By then, I had forgotten his name, so in desperation, I went to the casting office and looked at the long lists of extras who had worked on that day. When I finally came upon the name 'James Murray', I recognized the name I had been given so briefly on the street. I asked the studio to call Mr. Murray, but word came back that he was too busy!"
"Well, it was certainly unusual for an actor to ignore a director. I asked the studio to call him and pay him a day's pay for the interview. This tactical move got results. Next day when Mr. Murray arrived at my office, I was curious as to why he hadn't shown up before"
'I didn't believe you'
'Didn't believe what?'
'Didn't believe you were a director or, if you were, that you were going to give me a job'
'Wasn't it worth a chance?'
'But bus fare to Culver City costs money' was the laconic reply.
'Can you act?', I asked.
'I don't know'
'Will you take a test?'
'If they pay me', he said."
"I was now quite sure of my intincts about him so we paid Mr. Murray to take a test, an un-heard of procedure. When I showed the test to Irving Thalberg, we both agreed that James Murray, Hollywood extra, was one of the best natural actors we had ever had the good luck to encounter."
His performance as "Johnny Sims" in The Crowd remains one of the single finest performances of the silent era.
Nominated for two Academy Awards (the first year of the Academy Awards), The Crowd is generally acknowledged by film critics and historians to be one of the top one hundred films in the history of motion pictures. The Crowd was unusual and somewhat daring for its time in that it was not a “happy” or uplifting picture. Projecting a message of the futility of ambition, and undermining the “American Dream”, it was downright depressing at a time when the American public flocked to the movies for much needed weekly shot of sunshine. The critics loved it and the film was a moderate success but certainly not the smash hit it might have been. It was a masterpiece before its time.
James appeared in thirty-four films including a leading role in “Rose-Marie” in 1927, opposite a very young Joan Crawford. Ironically, his last movie role was an uncredited bit part in the 1936 musical remake of Rose-Marie with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. As you will note below, James appeared with quite an impressive roster of talented and famous actors throughout his career including the great Lon Chaney, Clara Bow, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Wayne, James Stewart, Loretta young, Shirley Temple, and even Rin Tin Tin.
But, talent alone isn't enough and James continued to sabotage his career with alcohol. Considering his self destructive patterns, it's a wonder he enjoyed the success he did despite his best efforts to thwart it. He couldn't, or wouldn't, hold down a job, although after The Crowd, he was offered many fine roles including the leading role opposite Marian Davies in Vidor's next picture, Show People. In fact, he accepted the role but never bothered to show up for the shoot and Vidor had to replace him. Years later, he was offered the lead role in the Our Daily Bread, the sequel to The Crowd, on the condition that he get back in shape and stop drinking. He refused, rather rudely. One version of the episode suggested that he thought he was being given a handout and wouldn't accept charity, while another suggested that he simply had no intention of changing his lifestyle. No matter, really; both versions have him heading in the same direction.
James' death was shrouded in mystery with a hint of scandal. Many people thought he committed suicide brought on by depression caused by his portrayal of Sims. Others, thought his addiction to alchohol brought about the depression. Still others speculated that he was simply a drunk who fell off a pier. Hollywood loves a mystery and a scandal. No matter which theory you subscribe to, here was both. The truth, while tragic, is less melodramatic and is revealed further below.
One thing that cannot be argued is that James was an advanced alcoholic with a classic pattern of self-destructive behavior. If we knew in the nineteen twenties and thirties what we know now about alcoholism and depression, James might have lived a long and fruitful life. In fact, his brother Harry, who originally started out with James for Hollywood, and who found work in films as an extra and some small speaking parts, found steady work as a stand-in for John Gilbert. An alchoholic himself, Harry Murray managed to escape his brother's fate by embracing the principles of Alchoholics Anonymous. He went on to entertain in Vaudeville and then on Broadway as a member of a dancing troupe known as "The Debonaires". Until he retired in 1968, he was a producer for CBS Television City in New York, producing such shows as "To Tell The Truth" and "Password". Harry lived to the ripe age of 98, spending his last 27 tears as a volunteer at a local hospital in Carmel New York, beloved by all who knew him... all in all, a very fulfilled life.
However, like a former day John Belushi, James Murray was a bundle of talent out of control and unable to overcome the demons of depression and substance abuse. Unlike Belushi, he did not self-destruct suddenly at the height of his fame and talent. Quite the opposite, in fact. He arrived on the scene with a flash at the top of the game and descended tortuously in a tragic downward spiral. Like a nova, he shone brightly and burned up quickly. We remember my Great Uncle James through his films, pictures, memorabilia, and stories told and retold by aunts and uncles who knew him. He was an interesting character. I wish I could have known him, but I was just born a little too late.
---- Lawrence Murray Jr.
Mr. And Mrs. Christopher Murray Of The Bronx
Watch With Interest As James Murray's Sister Agnes
Helps Him Apply Make-Up For A Scene From THE CROWD.
Filming Took Place On A Boat In New York Harbor.
James Murray Snaps A Picture Of His Sister Agnes
During The Filming Of MGM's THE CROWD
(MGM Publicity Stills, 1927)
NOMINATED FOR TWO ACADEMY AWARDS
At The First Academy Awards Ceremony 1928/29!
BEST PICTURE (Most Unique And Artistic Picture)
BEST DIRECTOR (Best Direction Of A Dramatic Picture - King Vidor)
To The National Film Registry Of The Library Of Congress.
Click on the NFR logo above to see a list of all 350 films in the Registry.
THE CROWD and other films in which James appeared
are currently available on VHS. Click on the Video Cover For Details At
The crowd swells up like a tidal wave and washes over John (James Murray);