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.
For more on solient and slapstick comedy history don’t miss my new book Chainof 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.