A tribute today to early silent comedy star Fred Mace (1878-1917).
Mack Sennett had originally met Mace, a trained dentist and aspiring songwriter from Erie Pennsylvania, while the two were fellow chorus boys on Broadway. (Interesting tidibit: Mace had starred as the title character in L. Frank Baum’s 1905 The Wogglebug in Chicago!) Starting in 1911, Mace was to be Sennett’s first male comedy star, first at Biograph and then at Keystone when the new studio was founded a year later. He was notable at Biograph for portraying a hapless Irish boxer named “One Round O’Brien” in several pictures. He also formed a loose team with Sennett himself in a series of bumbling sleuth comedies. Chinless, paunchy, and possessed of a large forehead, Mace might have been an excellent actor to cast as a live-action Elmer Fudd. Given a moustache and black hair to play Mexicans and Italians as he often was in films like A Spanish Dilemma and A Fickle Spaniard (both 1912), he also bore an unfortunate resemblance to country singer Slim Whitman.
At Keystone, audiences ate up the pudgy Mace in unchallenging fare like the 1913 melodrama parody At Twelve O’Clock (in which he played a villainous Italian) or as the sheriff in The Bangville Police (1913), one of the first films to feature the Keystone Kops. Drag, blackface**, it didn’t matter to Mace, he’d suit up in any outlandish get-up in order to garner guffaws. His efforts paid off. By early 1913 he was getting more mail than Santa Claus, and he would become the first in a long line of Sennett discoveries to reward their sponsor by taking a powder at the first available opportunity.
However, unlike many who inevitably took this tack (e.g. Chaplin, Arbuckle, Normand), Mace did not exactly go off to bigger and better things. In April, 1913, Mace left to start his own comedy production company. It did not fare well. By the time he crawled back to Keystone with his tail between his legs in 1915, a fickle public had moved on. Sennett retained Mace for a few additional months and then the two parted ways for the last time. Whether Mace would have conceivably bounced back from his career slump must remain a matter of conjecture; he died of a stroke in 1917.
Come hear much more about Fred Mace and The Wogglebug in my illustrated talk Vaudeville, Sideshow and The Wizard of Oz at the Coney Island Museum, August 24!
To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy 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. To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.