Henry “Pathe” Lehrman: Sadist of Silent Slapstick Cinema


Today (according to historian Brent Walker) is the birthday of silent movie comedy actor and director Henry “Pathe” Lehrman (1884-1946). Some other sources give March 30. I really don’t care. And besides I didn’t do one on the 30th, so here it is).

Lehrman was a troublemaker and no mistake. A Viennese native, he got his famous nickname when he walked on to the Biograph lot claiming to have worked for the French studio Pathé Frères. He acted at Biograph from 1909 through 1912, then joined his old Biograph cohort Mack Sennett at his newly formed Keystone studios where he played a key role in helping to develop the house style from 1912 through 1914, first as an actor, then an assistant director, then a full fledged director, then director of his own production unit. Lehrman became famous for his recklessness. If Sennett’s style was wild ‘n’ woolly, Lehrman would outdo him, often risking life and limb of his comedians in order to make the most amazing yuks.

Lehrman’s best known film today is probably Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), which he directed, and co-starred in with Charlie Chaplin. To add a level of “meta” to it, in the film he is playing a movie director — he’s the camera man who keeps getting pissed at Chaplin’s tramp as he tried to get in front of the lens. This was Chaplin’s third film for Keystone, although the second to be released, and the first in which the public got to see his famous costume.

Sennett and Lehrman butted heads constantly, so Lehrman left with Ford Sterling to work at Universal, and then founded Lehrman Knock-Out Comedies (L-KO). In 1917, he went from there to Fox, where he was in charge of the Sunshine Comedies brand until 1919.

In 1920, he produced A Twilight Baby, starring Lloyd Hamilton and Virginia Rappe, with whom he was intimately involved. (Rappe would become famous the following year when her mysterious death caused the downfall of unfortunate scapegoat Roscoe Arbuckle). Lehrman got a brief jolt of publicity as one of the few movie colony people to vocally join the anti-Arbuckle forces.

His producing credits cease in 1921 (he’d tried to start a studio but it went under) but he continued to direct until 1931. In the mid 30s he worked as a screenwriter on such movies as Moulin Rouge and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back. His final credits consisted of gagwriting on Laurel and Hardy’s atrocious late pictures Jitterbugs (1943), The Big Noise (1944) and The Bullfighters (1945). He passed away in ’46.

Just as interesting, if not more so, as his cinematic record, is his criminal record, quite a good measure I imagine, of the kind he guy he must have been. In 1914, he was jailed for speeding (30 days, ouch! Very different times). In 1925, jailed again for speeding. In 1926, arrested for booze (it was Prohibition), and then arrested again for bothering a woman. In 1937, he was arrested for drunk driving; his pretty little passenger, a 24 year old actress, lost an eye. In addition to Rappe (who was no prize herself), the women in Lehrman’s life also included model and actress Jocelyn Leigh, with whom he was legally hitched from 1922 to 1924.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including the pioneering career of Henry “Pathe” Lehrman, please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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