Beloved character actor Edward Everett Horton (1886-1970), best remembered now as a foil of Fred and Ginger, narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, and even on F Troop and Batman, spent his formative years (1906-1919) on the vaudeville stage and in stock theatre.
To many fans it may comes as a shock to learn that Horton started out in Hollywood in the early 1920s and began acting in the silent days. He made 17 silent comedy features and numerous shorts from 1922 through 1929. Furthermore, he STARRED in these pictures, he wasnt just a funny supporting player. His character was markedly similar to the one we know from the talkies: usually wealthy, impeccably attired, a little skittish, a little prissy. Often a bookworm. I caught a couple of these at Slapsticon a couple of years ago. I remember finding Horse Shy (1928) surprisingly amusing, with a strong slapstick comedy concept worthy of a Lloyd, Langdon or Keaton — a young man is terrified of horses, so naturally circumstances compel him to constantly be on one. These silents have since been largely forgotten (mostly due to the fact that only 4 of the features have survived). He also briefly starred in his own sound comedy shorts in the early days, which also deserve renewed attention.
All those early movies were overshadowed by Horton’s better remembered career as a reliable character actor during the talking era. With that unique voice of his his, he was just made to play countless hand-wringing butlers, officious milquetoasts and the like in films like The Front Page (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Alice in Wonderland (1932), The Merry Widow (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Lost Horizon (1937), Shall We Dance (1937), The Great Garrick (1937), Bluebeard’s Eight Wife (1938), College Swing (1938), Holiday (1938), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Cinderella Jones (1946) and The Ghost Goes Wild (1947). In later years, his film parts were mostly cameos or walk-ons: The Story of Mankind (1947), Pocketful of Miracles (1941), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Sex and the Single Girl (1963), The Perils of Pauline (1964), and Cold Turkey (1971), his last.
By the way, his name has historical significance that more folks probably recognized in his own time (certainly nearly no one does now). Edward Everett was Millard Fillmore’s Secretary of State, Minister to Great Britain, President of Harvard, Governor of Massachusetts, as well as US Senator and Congressman from Massachusetts. He was also a Unitarian minister, a classical scholar and professor, assistant to Daniel Webster, and of the most relevance here: one of the greatest orators of his time. Pretty important guy. Additionally he was the uncle of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country, These associations would have had resonance back in Horton idea — would reinforced his image as an effete Northeasterner. News you can use? I don’t know about that, but it’s definitely news I use all the time!
For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on the history of silent and classic comedy film please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube