Stars of Slapstick # 42: Joe Rock
This is one in a series of posts we are producing in connection with our new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, available from Bear Manor Media in February 2013.
Today is the birthday of Joe Rock (Joseph Simburg, 1893-1985). He broke into the film business as a stunt man, then was hired as a comedian by Vitagraph in 1915. By 1917, he was starring in a series of comedies with Earl Montgomery. An entrepreneurial sort, by 1920 he had hung out his shingle as producer, which is where he left his lasting mark.
He is best remembered nowadays as the man who cleverly engineered Stan Laurel’s final separation from his common-law wife and former vaudeville partner Mae Dahlberg, whom was universally considered to be holding Stan’s career back (she insisted in being in all his films and she wasn’t very good). Rock bought her off with a large cash award — payable only when she was several days out at sea on a slow boat to Australia. Laurel went on to star in twelve comedies for Rock between 1925 and 1925 before returning to Hal Roach and the bigger fame that would await him. Rock’s other memorable silent comedy innovation was Tons o’ Fun, a comedy team made up of the film world’s three largest comedians at the time Frank “Fatty” Alexander, “Fat” Karr, and Kewpie Ross. (The Tons ‘o’ Fun series ran from 1925 to 1927, the darkest years of Roscoe Arbuckle’s exile).
Rock was to distinguish himself in the sound era as well. In 1933 he won an Oscar for a documentary short he produced about the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. And in 1937 he produced The Edge of the World, Michael Powell’s breakthrough picture. His last film was a documentary about the Mau-Mau uprising in Africa in 1955.
And now here’s one of the films he produced, Dr. Pickle and Mr. Pryde, starring Stan Laurel (these kinds of parodies were very characteristic of Laurel at the time):
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.