Ford Sterling: Chaplin’s Predecessor at Keystone

Ford Sterling (born this day in 1880) is best known today as the Chief of the Keystone Kops. A Wisconsin native, he ran away from home when still a boy to join John Robinson’s circus, where he eventually became “Keno, the Boy Clown”. By the turn of the century he was playing burlesque, small time vaudeville and legit theatre, eventually landing small roles in several Broadway shows. He was one half of the vaudeville team of McEvoy and Sterling when Mack Sennett discovered him and hired him to act in films he was directing at Biograph in 1911. A few months later when Sennett formed Keystone, Sterling became a founding member of the company. Sterling’s specialty was “Dutch” or mock German characters (see above), although not exclusively (as you’ll see in the clip below; stock Hebrews were also a specialty).

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You can always spot Sterling, whether he’s in make-up or not, because of his penchant for mugging — Sterling makes more faces than anyone I’ve ever seen in films with the obvious exceptions of Jerry Lewis and Jim Carey. This served him well through the hundreds of slapstick shorts he starred in through the nineteen teens. Less well in the twenties and thereafter, when comedy features became the norm and he was expected to sort of, well…act.

Upstaging Bobby Vernon and Juanita Hansen

Upstaging Bobby Vernon and Juanita Hansen

Still, even then he’s in some notable pictures. Among them: The Show Off (1926), the original version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928), and the early talkie musical Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), which I was lucky enough to catch at Film Forum just a few months ago.

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In Edna Ferber’s “So Big” with Colleen Moore.

In 1933, he was still enough of a star to be cast in Paramount’s all-star Alice in Wonderland, which also featured the likes of Cary Grant and W.C. Fields. Sterling passed away in 1939.

As the White King

As the White King

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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. 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.

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