Anita Garvin: Slapstick Comedy Siren

Actress Anita Garvin Wearing Beaded Outfit

Today is the birthday of the lovely Anita Garvin (1907-1994). A New York City native, she started out as a teenager in vaudeville and as a chorus girl for Earl Carroll and Ziegfeld before abandoning the touring company of Marilyn Miller’s Sally in L.A. in 1924, to break into films. She claimed to have been a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty in her adolescence, but no evidence has emerged to support this.

Her first verifiable film jobs were for the minor comedy studios Christie and Educational. By 1926, she was working for Hal Roach, where she worked with Charley Chase, Jimmy Finlayson, Mabel Normand, Thelma Todd, Zasu Pitts, Max Davidson, and above all Laurel and Hardy.

To this day she has a small cult of fans, due to a combination of devastatingly good looks, and her tremendous skills as a slapstick comedienne (those long legs seemed to be made equally for ogling and for laughing at as she twists them into pretzels). She specialized in willful, intimidating wives, and snooty society dames.  She was the perfect person to have played Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (she would have far better than Mary Pickford).

For a brief while Roach tried her as a team with Marion “Peanuts” Byron, a kind of apparent dry run for the more sustained one he would later launch with Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. Garvin’s heyday straddled the latter days of silence and the early days of talkies. She has terrific turns in the Laurel and Hardy shorts Why Girls Love Sailors (1927), From Soup to Nuts (1928), Their Purple Moment (1928), Blotto (1930), Be Big (1931), and many others. The over-the-top climaxes of more than one of these has her so exasperated with Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy that she shoots at them with a shotgun.

with Andy Clyde

In 1930 she married big band leader “Red” Stanley (her second husband) and began to slow her output towards the middle of the decade, although she continued to appear in comedy shorts for Vitaphone, RKO and Columbia. (She often played Mrs. Leon Errol, just as she had played Mrs. Laurel, Mrs. Hardy, Mrs.  Chase and Mrs. Finlayson). In the late 30s, Stan Laurel coaxed her out of semi-retirement to plays small roles in Swiss Miss and A Chump at OxfordHer last role was a bit part in the Three Stooges short Cookoo Cavaliers in 1940, in which she plays a woman ordering fish.

After this, she retired to raise her family. By then, the market for comedy shorts was rapidly evaporating , and Laurel and Hardy left Roach for MGM and Fox, where they didn’t have the power to hire their own people, anyway.

Now, here’s something very touching. In 1979, after almost 40 years of retirement, she made an appearance of the annual meeting of the Sons of the Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy fan club. While she still looks lovely, she is almost unrecognizable. Thin and angular in her 20s and 30s, at age 72 there was now more of her to love. But she was as charming and funny as ever:

For more on slapstick comedy stars like Anita Garvin, don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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