While Doug McPhail’s name may not be well remembered today, his brief time in the film industry is to be appreciated. Typically appearing in lighthearted musical fare with his booming, melodious voice, McPhail is best remembered for his appearances in early MGM musicals alongside the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Sadly, his life was tragically cut short by suicide.
Douglas Saunders McPhail was born on April 16, 1914, in Los Angeles, California, to Norman and Caroline Kemp McPhail. His father was of Scotch-Irish descent, born in Massachusetts, and worked as a salesman in the oil industry, while his mother was born in South Dakota. Douglas also had a brother named Norman or “Kemp,” who was one year older.
Douglas and his brother attended Beverly Hills High School in the 1930s. Though Douglas would complete one year of college, he would soon transition to working in the film industry, capitalizing on his baritone voice. He appeared with various nightclub bands in South America before eventually being hired on to carry out bit parts in films, usual as an uncredited singer.
When McPhail performed in the chorus of San Francisco (1936), actress and singer Jeanette MacDonald took a personal interest in him, advocating for him to sing in more of her films. For example, he can be seen in Maytime (1937) and Sweethearts (1938) in very minor roles. He can also be spotted performing a short solo in the “Entrance of Lucy James” scene in Born to Dance (1936). At age 19, he was signed on by the studio to perform in the chorus of The Girl of the Golden West (1938), though he actually did not appear on-screen.
The best years of his career were in 1939 and in 1940, in which he worked in several different musical films. He worked with Rooney and Garland in Babes in Arms (1939), Eleanor Powell in Honolulu (1939) and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), and as Garland’s love interest in Little Nellie Kelly (1940). He would actually perform with Betty Jaynes, whom he secretly married in 1938, in Babes in Arms. According to census records, they supposedly lived together at some point in Dayton, Ohio, in 1935, though I could not locate an address for them.
McPhail and Jaynes would go on to have a daughter named Joan Lorraine McPhail on January 5, 1940. Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived, with the couple divorcing after about three years of marriage. With his career in the rise, McPhail was being groomed as the next Nelson Eddy, though this reality would not come to pass. The studio recognized that moviegoers were tiring of Eddy’s singing style, leading them to take less interest in McPhail. Jaynes was given sole custody of their daughter.
McPhail enlisted in the Army in 1942 within the Quartermaster Corps. His service time was cut short due to a fall in basic training, which left him bedridden for eight months He was given a medical discharge at the rank of private.
Though he tried to restore his film career, MGM did not renew his contract in 1943. He worked four hours a day as a gardener and took music lessons in hopes of securing a concert. McPhail turned to alcoholism, and attempted suicide in the same year.
In the following year, McPhail attempted suicide again. He suffered from acute nervous exhaustion and swallowed poison at his Hollywood home, passing away at the General Hospital on December 6, 1944. He is buried at Los Angeles National Cemetery.
Today, some locations of relevance to McPhail remain.
In 1920, he and his family lived at 3909 Halldale Avenue in Los Angeles, California. The original home has since been razed. This is the property today:
His alma mater, Beverly Hills High School, does still remain. In fact, it happens to house the still functional “swim gym” that appeared in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946).
By 1940, he and Jaynes were living at 11150 Cashmere St. in Los Angeles with their daughter, Joan; housekeeper Anne Hardin; and nurse Marie Marsel. Both he and Jaynes are listed as actors and singers. The original home remains.
In 1942, he relocated to 10355 Cheviot Dr. in Los Angeles. This is the home today:
McPhail’s suicide occurred at 1818 N Vine St. in Hollywood, which is now the location of the Vine Lodge Hotel.
Though McPhail’s time in films was short, viewers can continue to enjoy his vocal talents in his films available today.