Today is the birthday of the great silent comedian Chester Conklin (1886-1971).
Inspired by Weber and Fields, Conklin started out in vaudeville, minstrelsy, stock companies and with circuses like that of Al G. Barnes. He was hired by Mack Sennett at Keystone in 1913 first as an extra. He was coached by his cohorts to develop a character, which would hinge on his distinctive walrus mustache, a touch he copied from a local burgher in his Iowa hometown. Hence his sometime nickname during the early silent days: Walrus. Another of his character names was “Droppington”. Throughout the teens, Conklin co-starred in dozens of shorts with the likes of Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain for Sennett. (Dough and Dynamite, 1914, with Chaplin is a fave of mine).
In 1920 Conklin went over to Fox (the next stop for many of Sennett’s disgruntled former comedians). Then came Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount, which is where he co-starred with W.C. Fields in Two Faming Youths (1927), Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1928), and Fools for Luck (1928).
He co-starred with Charlie Murray in McFadden’s Flats (1927), and can also be seen in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928), the 1929 version of The Virginian, Show of Shows (1929), Her Majesty Love (1931, again with Fields), Hallelujah I’m a Bum (1933), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940), Hotel Haywire (1937), Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) with Mae West, Zenobia (1939), and Li’l Abner (1940).
By the ’40s, Conklin was strictly a bit player, though as such you can see him in scores of films, including most of Preston Sturges’s comedies, Brewster’s Millions (1945), Hope and Crosby’s Road to Utopia (1945) and several other Bob Hope comedies, Abbott and Costello’s Little Giant (1946), The Perils of Pauline (1947), Merton of the Movies (1947), and My Friend Irma (1949) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
By the mid ’50s Conklin had returned to bigger roles, but in fringier films, such as AIP’s The Beast with a Million Eyes and Apache Woman (both 1855) and Hugo Haas’s Paradise Alley (1962). His last part was a walk-on in A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966).
For more on Chester Conklin and silent comedy film don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, and for more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,