Frank “Fatty” Alexander: The Biggest Man in Comedy

Today is the birthday of Frank “Fatty” Alexander (1879-1937).

Originally from Washington State, Alexander had worked as a cowboy and a stagecoach driver until his enormous size allowed him an entrée to an industry that might not have been otherwise available to him — the movies. Mack Sennett hired him at Keystone in 1915. Though Alexander weighed almost 90 lbs more than Sennett’s reigning fat man Roscoe Arbuckle, there was little danger of the inexperienced Alexander usurping the latter’s position. Arbuckle was a popular star; Alexander was a bit player. But it’s handy in comedy to have a heavy man for smaller roles, and Arbuckle wasn’t about to do those any more with his name on marquees all over the country. While at Keystone, Alexander appeared in the ensembles of several of Syd Chaplin’s “Gussle” pictures, among others.

After leaving Sennett in 1916 he briefly bounced around among various studios before settling in as a vital part of Larry Semon’s stock company at Vitagraph in 1917. This was such a good situation that he remained there for eight years and dozens of films. Alexander got countless opportunities to shine during these years, in a comedy company so extreme that Oliver Hardy was the lesser heavy; when the two appeared on screen together, Hardy seemed positively trim. By 1925, Semon was having serious money worries as a result of his films going so far over budget that they couldn’t turn a profit. The Wizard of Oz (1925), in which Alexander played Uncle Henry, was a downright flop. (See my description of that film here). The feature The Perfect Clown was Alexander’s last Semon comedy.

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Tons o’ Fun

From 1926 to 1928, Alexander was part of one the silent era’s most notorious comedy teams. “Tons o’ Fun” was a project of producer Joe Rock, who cast Alexander with Hilliard “Fat” Karr and Kewpie Ross, two men of comparable size, as a trio of exceedingly large men who just happened to be best friends. Their comedy shorts would usually involve the three of them going places and doing things that three very large men shouldn’t do, thus falling through floors, getting stuck in small room and so forth.

Then sound arrived. In the talkie era, Alexander only has a handful of credits, in very small roles, which to me is an indication that the untrained Alexander couldn’t carry lines. He ended his career working for the man with whom he’d begun it, Mack Sennett, with a walk-on in the W.C. Fields short The Barber Shop in 1933.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including comedy stars like Fatty Alexander, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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