Today is the birthday of the great silent comedian Mack Swain (1876-1935). Of Mormon stock (his real name was Moroni) Swain had been in vaudeville since age 15, where he was partnered in a team with Knute Erickson. He also performed with minstrel companies** and stock companies before coming to Keystone in 1913.
Swain’s physical contradictions gave him enormous range as a character comedian. As big as an ox (6’2”, 280 lbs), he was also sort of egg-shaped, middle-aged and sad-sacked. He sported a big comedy mustache, and an incongruous spit curl on the front of his balding head, which was often topped by a boater. His usual comedy character was named “Ambrose”; he was to co-star in many films with Chester Conklin (“Walrus”).
Swain left Keystone in 1917 and bounced around among various studios for several year. His flagging career got a boost in 1921 when Charlie Chaplin (who had co-starred with him in many films during his Keystone days) cast him in The Idle Class. This was followed up by The Pilgrim (1923) and The Gold Rush (1925), which remains Swain’s best known movie appearance to this day. The following year he had another excellent turn in Raymond Griffith’s Civil War comedy Hands Up. Other notable pictures during the silent era included the original Gentleman Prefer Blondes and the remake of Tillie’s Punctured Romance (both 1928). In the sound era he had his own series of shorts with the Christie company. He also appeared in some talking features, such as the Ted Healy/ Three Stooges comedy Soup to Nuts (1930).
Now here he as Ambrose in the 1915 Ambrose’s Sour Grapes:
For more on silent and slapstick comedy and great stars like Mack Swain, don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, and for more on vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.