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).
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.
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)
For more on silent and slapstick comedy including the comedy of Ford Sterling don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.