George Chandler: The Musical Nut

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Today is the birthday of George Chandler (1898-1985). Chandler began his show business career in vaudeville in 1915, billing himself as “The Musical Nut”.

Chandler arrived in silent films just as their heyday was waning, starring in a series of comedy shorts for Universal wherein he played a timid back-east “dude” usually named “Cuthbert” or “Bertie”, who was forced to have heroic wild, west adventures whether he wanted to or not. I was delighted to learn in Steve Massa’s fine book Lame Brains and Lunatics that Chandler was considered one of a handful of Keaton copycats in those years, and that that original characterization spilled over into the early years of talkies. (he even wore a porkpie hat).

Chandler continued to appear in comedy shorts well into the talking era, sometimes in starring parts. One of his best known roles from his early talkie phase was his 1933 turn as the son Chester in the W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer.

Most of Chandler’s roles in features were bit parts, walk-ons, and under- fives, although he is always both memorable and recognizable — he had a very distinctive face. Classic comedy fans know him well, for he supported most of the greats. He’s in no fewer than four Joe E. Brown comedies: The Tenderfoot (1932), Elmer the Great (1933), Son of a Sailor (1933), and 6 Day Bike Racer (1934). There’s also Everything’s Rosie (1931) with Robert Wheeler; It’s in the Air (1935) with Jack Benny, Ted Healy, and Una Merkel; Straight Place and Show (1938) with the Ritz Brothers; Hellzapoppin’ (1941) with Olsen and Johnson; Pardon My Sarong (1942) and Little Giant (1946) with Abbott and Costello, It’s in the Bag (1945) with Fred Allen; The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) with Danny Kaye; It’s a Joke Son (1947) with Kenny Delmar; Road to Rio (1947) with Hope and Crosby; The Paleface (1948) with Hope; If You Knew Susie (1948) with Eddie Cantor and Joan Davis; Double Dynamite (1951) with Groucho Marx; as well as Scattergood Baines, Great Gildersleeve, Blondie, and Maisie comedies.

Related musicals Chandler appeared in include The Floradora Girl (1930), Footlight Parade (1933), Pennies from Heaven (1936), Broadway Melody of 1940, Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1943), The Great Morgan (1946), and The Pirate (1948). Chandler’s folksy demeanor also made him a shoe-in for westerns. Some of the better known ones he can be seen in are the 1929 version of The Virginian, Union Depot (1932), Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James (1940), Arizona (1940), Melody Ranch (1940), Western Union (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Buffalo Bill (1944), Across the Wide Missouri (1951), and Westward the Women (1951). Several of those last few were directed by William Wellman, who put Chandler in nearly two dozen films between 1937 and 1952, including one of his best roles, that of Ginger Rogers’ sad sack husband in Roxie Hart (1942). Also among Chandler’s over 450 credits, roles in such pictures as The Power and the Glory (1933), Fury (1936), Libeled Lady (1936), A Star is Born (1937), In Old Chicago (1937), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Beau Gest (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1939), Tobacco Road (1941), Lady of Burlesque (1943), and Nightmare Alley (1947).

Baby Boomers will remember Chandler as “Uncle Petrie” on the television show Lassie (1956-1959). From 1961 to 1962 he actually starred in his own sitcom Ichabod and Me. Other late things included camp horror classic Dead Ringer (1964) with Bette Davis, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) with Don Knotts, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman! (1975), Capone (1975), Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), The Apple Dumpling gang Rides Again (1979) as well as tv appearances on shows like Love American Style, Adam-12, and Here’s Lucy. Chandler’s also notable for having been an officer of SAG-AFTRA: treasurer from 1948 through 1959 and President from 1960 through 1963. His last role was on an episode of Lou Grant in 1979.

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy and performers like George Chandler, please out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, and to learn learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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