Today is the birthday of Montague “Monty” Banks (Mario Bianchi, 1897-1950). A native of Cesena, Italy, the short, barrel chested performer first came to the U.S. in 1914, dancing in musical comedies and nightclubs. He began acting in comedy films in 1916 under his given name, supporting other comedians variously for L-KO, Fox, Triangle, Universal, Comique, Vitagraph and Al Christie. He often played suave, oily con men (not unlike Chaplin’s character in Tillie’s Punctured Romance) sparking his eventual stage name, an obvious play on “Mountebank”.
In 1920 he began starring in his own shorts, first directed by the likes of Charley Chase — but Banks eventually he was directing and producing them himself as well, and even graduated up to features. His early efforts for Warner Bros, Fox and Grand Asher, but then he started his own production company, releasing his pictures through Pathe. The most famous of his silent features today is Play Safe (1927) — it and all his work deserve to be better known.
The sound era played havoc with his acting career — his thick accent limited him to bit roles. But he continued on as a director and producer. For a time he lived in England, where he met, worked with and married Gracie Fields. England’s entry into World War Two forced him (an Italian citizen) back to the United States, where he directed his last movie, Laurel and Hardy’s dismal Great Guns (1941). After this, the U.S., too was in the war, and his movie credits cease except for a small role in A Bell for Adano released in June 1945 when the war in Europe was already over. He died in 1950 while on a visit to his mother country.
To learn more about silent and slapstick film, including past stars like Monty Banks, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc