Hollywood had Fred Astaire, Britain had Jack Buchanan
Walter John Buchanan or Jack as he was called was born in Helensburgh on 2nd April 1890. The family home being Garthland in West Argyle Street, just along the road from his childhood, and later lifelong friend John Logie Baird.
The son of an auctioneer, Jack’s father died when he was 12 and the family moved to Glasgow where Jack was sent to Glasgow Academy, having spent his early years at Helensburgh’s Larchfield School.
The class joker, Jack was destined for a career on the stage but his mother wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an auctioneer. Money was very scarce in the Buchanan household and Jack’s mother even wrote to relatives in the Buchanan Whisky Family asking for support. None was forthcoming and this episode played heavily on Jack’s shoulders, with him vowing to be successful in whatever career he chose to pursue. Jack duly obeyed, leaving school to join the auctioneers his father had worked for. However, he also joined the Glasgow Amateur Operatic Society and after office hours continued to pursue his love of performing. In 1911 he made his first appearance on the professional stage when he was engaged for a week at the Panopticon.
After several false starts, Jack moved to Edinburgh where his career took off, and then to London where he became the epitome of the matinee idol and an international star.
After branching out into management with the musical farce Battling Butler at the New Oxford Theatre, Buchanan went to New York to appear in Charlot’s Revue Of 1924 at the Times Square Theatre. Buchanan was a substantial success on Broadway, and returned in 1926 with another Charlot revue. Back in London in 1926 he was at his peak in Jerome Kern’s Sunny.
Jack continued to travel between London & New York, with the new Cunard ‘Queen’ liners being his choice of transportation. He would often use the journey time to write plays with fellow entertainers and writers, such as Noel Coward.
The thirties really were Jack’s ‘time’ – it was rumoured that for a while he was the highest paid entertainer in either Europe or the States – commanding £1000 per week. In December 1930 he opened , with partner Walter Gibbons, the Leicester Square Theatre with a capacity of 3000. Jack had a flat built above the theatre which he lived in until it was bombed out during the war. Unfortunately the loss of the theatre during the war also cost Jack his very sizeable fortune, He later went on to manage the Garrick in 1946.
In 1936, having spurned the advances of Hollywood (Jack insisted that he could create an equivalent movie studio system in Britain using local talent) it was reported that Jack was going to start his own film company ‘Jack Buchanan Productions’, and work was going to start on his first film, at Pinewood studios, later in the year.
Buchanan’s own film career proper started in 1917 with the silent Auld Lang Syne. His first movie musical was Paris, with Corsican actress/singer Irene Bordoni, and he made several more including Monte Carlo, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and co-starring Jeanette MacDonald.
With Elsie Randolph as his regular leading lady, he appeared in dancing musicals such as That’s A Good Girl, Mr Whittington, This’ll Make You Whistle, and their last show together in 1943, It’s Time To Dance. He even taught Laurence Olivier how to tap dance – for a routine that they performed together for the ‘Night of 100 stars’ extravaganza.
Jack married his second wife Suzie Bussett in 1949, 34 years after his first marriage to Saffro Arnau, and ending many years of speculation that he was going to remain a lifelong bachelor.
In 1953, the top UK and US song-and-dance men met in The Band Wagon. Buchanan and Fred Astaire’s duet, “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan”, and their clever version, with Nanette Fabray, of “Triplets” fame, made this one of MGM’s most acclaimed musical films, and the pinnacle of Buchanan’s career.
1956, he returned to Glasgow to open the studios for Scottish Television at the Theatre Royal. It was to be his last public performance.
He died from cancer in London in October 1957. His ashes were scattered from the decks of a Cunard Liner in recognition of his 50+ transatlantic sailings.
Jack Buchanan displays a keen sense of musical comedy in the clip below as he sings with famous English Glee Quartet.