This blog post was originally published on Curtains on June 20, 2013. View the original post here.
Richard Travers was once described by Motion Picture Classic as a doctor, soldier of fortune, warrior, and a man about town. A man known for his daring, his willingness to take all kinds of risks and enjoy them, and one of the best all-around athletes in all of filmdom. So...who was he?
Richard Campbell Tibb was born April 15, 1885 at the Hudson Bay Trading Post in Canada. He was the son of Scottish immigrants, and his father was among the first protestant missionaries in the Northern Territories. When he was just 15, he made his way into a company of British soldiers sent to South Africa during the Boer War (he had given his age as 21). Upon his return, he went to the U.S. (specifically Cornell University) to study medicine. He began practicing, quit, and then decided to pursue a career on the stage. He played in stock companies in the U.S. and Montreal, but shortly thereafter, Travers started making his way into film.
In 1912, he joined the Lubin Company in Philadelphia. One of his first roles was that of a race car driver, and this theme of rugged, daredevil roles would follow Travers throughout most of his silent career. With his soulful eyes, engaging personality and rugged good looks, it wouldn't take long for Travers to find work as a leading man.
In May 1913, Travers was signed to Chicago's own Essanay. He was tapped to play romantic leads, and very quickly became a favorite in the studio and among fans. His first big hit for Essanay was "The Pay-As-You-Enter Man" and he quickly became an Essanay mainstay. He worked consistently, stationed at the Chicago branch, appearing in 3-reel comedies and other shorts. He played romantic leads, but continued to to perform daring, rugged and athletic roles, sometimes to his detriment.
While filming "The Undertow" in November 1915, Travers was seriously injured when a stunt went awry. In an attempt to leap from one train car to another, Travers was temporarily blinded when the engineer's cap flew into his face. He missed grabbing the handle, fell onto the tracks, and narrowly missed getting run over by the car. Although he survived, he suffered an 8-inch gash on his arm, a badly injured kneecap, and several broken bones in his hand.
As he was recovering, he was stricken with Typhoid fever and rheumatism, but by early December, the magazines were reporting his return. He began composing a collection of his experiences as a film actor and then turned that collection into a 20-week vaudeville engagement. Travers traveled around the country, delivering monologues about film, accompanied by cartoons drawn by Wallace A. Carlson which depicted life at Essanay.
Even when he wasn't shooting, Travers kept himself busy. He formed baseball and hockey teams made up of Essanay players, and had a diamond and rink built on the studio grounds. He joined film clubs in Kansas, Chicago and New York in an effort to protect the industry from license and censorship legislation. And, like fellow Canadian Mary Pickford, he showed true American patriotism by appearing in films like "My Country, Tis of Thee" and giving inspirational speeches about the war.
This flurry of activity came to a standstill in early 1917, though, when he left Essanay, got married and went to New York in just a matter of weeks. His bride Lillian Cattell (formerly known as May Franklin) was actually his second wife. Months earlier, the papers reported he was seeking a divorce from the former Mrs. Travers who had refused to go with him to Philadelphia in the early days of his film career.
He soon signed with American Standard and Sunshine Film Co. for a special production that would list him as a co-director, but plans with any studio soon fell through as Travers got more and more involved in the war effort. In July, he was assigned a commission in the reserve army and began touring the country, encouraging enlistment. By September he had reported to Officers Camp in Fort Sheridan, and by December he was awarded a captaincy. It was revealed that his brothers had been deployed to France with the Canadian contingency and by the time he joined, at least one of them had been killed in action (reports vary as to when both brothers died). He spent two months in France and continued touring the country, drumming up support for the army, the Red Cross, and encouraging Liberty Bond sales. He received an honorable discharge in December 1918, but his film career did not pick up where it had left off.
He worked sporadically for the next few years, jumping from film company to film company, and running into legal trouble along the way. In 1920, he sued U.S. Photoplay to the tune of $7,500. He claimed he was owed back salary, but the company filed a countersuit saying he had failed to live up to his contract and had already been advanced $550. Although he settled into supporting roles through the '20s and made a handful of talkies, he ultimately retired from the screen in 1930, never achieving the level of fame or the legacy he probably deserved.
By 1930, his marriage appears to have dissolved, and on April 20, 1935, Travers died of pneumonia just five days after his 50th birthday.
Unfortunately, time hasn't been too kind Travers' body of work. With few exceptions, his films are either lost or largely unavailable. One of the films that has survived, and has actually made the jump to DVD, is "The Woman Racket" from 1930. It's one of Travers' final films, and it stars another silent veteran -- Blanche Sweet. Although it's difficult to confirm without viewing the films themselves, his silent onscreen personality sounds a lot like that of Douglas Fairbanks, making it even more unfortunate that such an engaging star has been buried by time. Why didn't his career continue to thrive? The rise of the studio system, his legal issues, the after-effects of war, the loss of his brothers, and his money issues all, undoubtedly, played roles in his ultimate downfall, but it's a shame that we can't better judge and appreciate his work today.