Ford Sterling: Chaplin’s Predecessor at Keystone

Ford Sterling (1880-1939) 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. In 1914 he married fellow screen actor Teddy Sampson.

Sterling’s specialty was “Dutch” or mock German characters (see above), although not exclusively (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.

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)

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01
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 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 etc etc etc.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.