Jameson Thomas was born in London in 1888 as Thomas Jameson – he swapped his name around for his professional career, presumably to either give him more recognisability or to hold his career at one remove from his family. As the BFI Screenonline entry on Thomas has noted, he is a ‘curiously overlooked star of 1920s British cinema.’ His film career started in 1923 in the Hebert Wilcox vehicle Chu Chin Chow.
At the turn of the next decade Thomas moved to Hollywood, where he appeared in approximately 50 films during the 1930s. The high-watermark of his Hollywood career was in 1934, when he played Claudette Colbert’s playboy lover King Westley in It Happened One Night. Thomas’ career came to an early end with his death of tuberculosis in 1939 – as a final testament to his ability to mould his public persona, his New York Times obituary shaves a whole five years of his age.
Thomas was a prolific actor on both stage and screen, and his singular appearance makes him an instantly recognisable actor of the interwar period.
His best-known appearance in British film is as the male lead in E.A. Dupot’s Piccadilly (1929), in which he plays nightclub owner Valentine Wilmot. Thomas worked across genres and also appeared in Adrian Brunel’s historical drama Blighty (1927), the 1929 sci-fi High Treason (directed by Maurice Elvey), the crime thriller Night Birds (directed by Richard Eichberg, 1930). He even appeared as himself in the variety sketch compendium Elstree Calling (1930).
Piccadilly remains popular with modern audiences for its beautiful cinematography and the star turn of Anna May Wong as Shosho, the Chinese scullery-maid turned nightclub dancer. Thomas plays Wilmot as debonair and detached, coolly surveying the activity inside his Piccadilly club. Yet beneath the surface smoulders an intensity which comes to the fore once he sets eyes on Shosho, dancing on the table in the club’s kitchens. Wilmot’s point of view serves as the literal male gaze that allows the camera its slow pan down Shosho’s body, lingering on her hips and legs. The construction is repeated in a later scene when Shosho, now opulently dressed in furs, descends from a spiral staircase at which Wilmot stands at the bottom.
Throughout Piccadilly, Thomas continues to restrain Wilmot’s passion for Shosho behind the trappings of an English gentleman’s conduct. One of the film’s more passionate moments occurs when he dares to grab and hold her hand in the middle of a rowdy Limehouse pub. Yet through his intense gazes at Shosho, which he does not bestow on the (white) dancer Mabel, Thomas makes clear where Wilmot’s passions lie.
Thomas used a similar restraint in his role in Brunel’s Blighty. This 1927 films follows the experiences of one upper-class family during the Great War. Thomas plays David Marshall, the family’s driver who secretly loves the family’s daughter. Marshall is quiet, steady and responsible, and is presented in juxtaposition to the family’s young and idealistic son Robin. Whereas Robin dies at the front, Marshall survives the war and ends up supporting the mother and daughter of the family. Blighty presents Marshall’s maturity as more desirable and useful to the family than Robin’s naivety, even though he is a servant. In line with the prevailing notion that the common experience of war allowed class boundaries to be broken down, Marshall is ultimately able to marry Ann, the family’s daughter.
Thomas put yet another spin on the type of the responsible and restrained man in Maurice Elvey’s 1929 science-fiction film High Treason, of which both a silent and a sound version exist. The events of this film take place in 1940, when a war threatens to break out between the ‘United States of Europe’ and the ‘Empire of the Atlantic States’. Benita Hume plays the lead as Evelyn, the daughter of the leader of the Peace League who is trying to prevent war. Thomas takes the role of Michael Deane, Evelyn’s boyfriend and the commander of the European Air Force. Evelyn tries to persuade Deane that he should not instruct his troops to take off towards America, as that would surely start hostilities. Deane, however, is adamant he must do his duty to protect Europe.
In the film’s visually striking climax, Evelyn leads hundreds of female Peace League members, all dressed in white, into confrontation with Deane’s air force troops, all dressed in black. Evelyn instructs the women to go onto the airfield to stop the planes from being able to take off; Deane instructs his men in turn to ready their firearms. Evelyn calls his bluff (‘They’ll never fire on women!’) before they are interrupted by a national broadcast which asks all activities to cease pending a government announcement. High Treason reflects the real-world anti-war sentiment which was promoted by the League of Nations. Whereas in Blighty Thomas’ character is praised for his sense of duty and responsibility, in High Treason he showcases what happens if that sense of duty becomes blind to reason.
In his British productions, Thomas proved himself a versatile actor who was not afraid to work across genres. He avoided getting typecast and tended to inject a sense of gravitas and responsibility in his roles. Along the way, he worked with some of the most famous directors and actors. However, he also had time to advertise the benefits of growing cacti, in this surviving clip which shows him from a different side:
 ‘JAMESON THOMAS, HOLLYWOOD ACTOR; Londoner, Who Entered Films After Career on Stage, Is Dead at 45’, New York Times, 11 January 1939, p. 25