He was a big star… An Academy Award Nominee… and yet today totally forgotten.
From silents to stardom, to B movies… what a ride.
Virtually forgotten, but yet because of classic films, still remembered.
Dix was a leading man at one of classic Hollywood’s most interesting and prolific studios — RKO Radio Pictures — from 1929 through 1943. He was a 6-foot, 180-pound college athlete in Minnesota (he was born in St. Paul in 1893) who followed a circuitous path to the theater stage and then to movies — silent movies.
His first movie was made in 1917; his last, rounding out a three-decade career, was in 1947, two years before Dix died at the age of 56. His deep voice and solid presence along with his natural athleticism buoyed him through roughly a decade of westerns and sports pictures for Paramount Pictures.
That studio’s last silent feature, in Technicolor no less, was 1929’s Redskin, with Dix ably playing Wingfoot, a Navajo Indian beset by prejudice and other transgressions. The movie is not only notable as a movie history timepiece, but is, thanks to Dix, pleasant to watch.
By 1931, Dix, was a substantial marquee name thanks largely to his macho, man of all-seasons (he is a newspaper editor and a lawyer to boot) portrayal of a Kansas settler in the territory of Oklahoma. The movie was part expensive action outing and part literarily ambitious — it was based on a sprawling Edna Ferber novel.
In any case, Cimarron and Dix drew Academy Award attention. He was nominated in the best actor category while the movie won the best picture Oscar.
But if you have to see just one Richard Dix star turn, make it 1943’s The Ghost Ship. The movie is the product of a small team at RKO headed by producer Val Lewton, who is easily one of the most accomplished producer-artists in movie history.
Ghost Ship tells of Captain Will Stone, master of a merchant marine ship where crew members unnervingly turn up from time to time — dead. Directed by Lewton protege, Mark Robson, the film is a moody, atmospheric masterpiece.
The film drew lukewarm notices when it first came out, and then was plunged (with producer Lewton) into a lengthy and messy copyright infringement suit. This kept The Ghost Ship effectively out of the market. Eventually, contretemps were settled and the picture is now regarded as it should be — a superb psychological thriller.
At the heart of The Ghost Ship, as the captain going murderously mad, was Dix’s fine performance. It is truly memorable.