Mitchell and Durant: Together and Separately

I hope you watch the clip I inserted above; you won’t regret it. I first read about this amazing scene years ago in a book called What Made Pistachio Nuts by Henry Jenkins. It is one of the craziest, most amazing scenes I have ever seen in a movie, and this is from a period that included kindred pictures like Duck Soup and Million Dollar Legs.

The two guys in the clip are Frank Mitchell (born this day in 1905) and Jack Durant (born April 12, 1905). This crazy knockabout routine in the clips is typical of what their vaudeville act consisted of. In the movie it’s taken from, Stand Up and Cheer (1934), the film-makers merely gave their characters names and lines to speak while they did it.

Durant had broken into show business as a nine year old child as “top man” in an acrobatic troupe. (Ironically, to disguise his youth, the leader of the act forced Jack to dress like a girl both on and off the stage.) Mitchell performed in both vaudeville and circuses; in addition to being a comedy acrobat he was also a trick rider. His horsemanship skills came in handy later in his career.

Durant met Mitchell in the gym where they both worked out and teamed up circa 1924. Their brand of knockabout with verbal byplay made them popular in vaudeville and they worked their way up the ladder over the year. By the end of the decade they made it to Broadway, appearing in George White’s Scandals (1929) and Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1931).

Next came movies. Mitchell already had some experience in the field. He’d been an extra in Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother (1927), and had a small part in the Buster Brown short Magic (1929) with Arthur Trimble. In 1933 Mitchell and Durant starred in their one and only comedy short as a starring team, Girl Trouble. Then came the aforementioned Shirley Temple vehicle Stand Up and Cheer (1934). The came three Alice Faye pictures, She Learned about Sailors (1934), 365 Nights in Hollywood (1934) and Music is Magic (1935). 1935 also saw them in Spring Tonic with Lew Ayres, Claire Trevor, Jack Haley, Zasu Pitts and Sig Ruman. Their last film as a team was The Singing Fool (1936) with Al Jolson.

In 1934, Durant married Molly O’Day, also a film actor, who happened to be Sally O’Neil’s younger sister.

Mitchell appeared solo in in Joe E. Brown’s Sons o’ Guns (1936) but Mitchell and Durant remained a team in live performance through 1938. Breaking up seems to have been the right decision. They’d taken their rather peculiar act about as far as anyone might have expected,probably farther. Separately they each managed to grow and flourish for several more decades.

Durant had fewer but bigger roles than Mitchell, alternating between Broadway and films. He was in the original Broadway production of Pal Joey (1940-41). Then he returned to Hollywood in 1942, to be in Two Jacks and a Jill (1942). It was a very good year for him: he also co-starred with Jackie Gleason in Tramp Tramp Tramp, and had a small role in Orson Welles’ Journey Into Fear. This was kind of his peak. He worked steadily as a night club performer after that. His remaining stage and screen credits were the Broadway show The Girl from Nantucket (1945), the film No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948), the Jerry Lewis movie The Bell Boy (1960), and the 1963 Broadway revival of Pal Joey. Durant divorced O’Day in 1951. (Interestingly, around 1950 another Jack Durant pops up with sort of a similar, but different profile. A former semi-pro baseball player, this Jack Durant started a popular steakhouse in Phoenix. A biopic about him starring Tom Sizemore came out in 2016, but it is a different guy). Our Jack Durant died in Miami in 1984.

Because of his horseback skills, Mitchell wound up in westerns for a time, mostly B movies starting in 1939. He replaced Dub Taylor as “Cannonball” in Tex Ritter westerns in the early ’40s. He worked constantly and steadily in bit roles into the 1980s. You can catch him in such films as Olsen and Johnon’s Ghost Catchers (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), George Whites Scandals (1945), The Luck of the Irish (1948), Neptune’s Daughter (1949), Watch the Birdie (1950), Scaramouche (1952), Bells Are Ringing (1960), Papa’s Delicate Condition (1962),  Which Way to the Front? (1970), and Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)! In 1974, he toured as part of one of the last incarnations of The Three Stooges, joining Curly Joe DeRita and Mousie Garner in the declining and diminishing act. His last credit was a small speaking part in the tv movie Miracle of the Heart: A Boys Town Story (1986) starring Art Carney. He passed away in 1991.

To learn more about vaudevilleand great teams like Mitchell and Durant, 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 my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

3 comments

  1. Hey, Trav. Just one more wee comment about your wonderful list: This act should actually be numbered 327. You seem to have two 205’s on the roster. Don’t mind my niggling observations. I’m an editor by trade. 🙂

    Like

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