Today is the birthday of early movie great Al St. John (1892-1963).
The nephew of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, St. John started out in circuses as an acrobat and trick bicycle rider before joining his portly uncle at Keystone pictures in 1913. His roles were rarely large at Keystone, but his acrobatic skills and comic instincts made him a dependable part of the ensemble, and he is definitely one of the few players who actually earns the credit “one of the original Keystone Kops.” Long about 1916, towards the end of his run at Keystone he began to get some excellent roles in films like The Moonshiners, He Did and He Didn’t, The Waiter’s Ball , and Fatty and Mabel Adrift.
In 1917, he joined Arbuckle at the latter’s own studio Comique, the two of them forming a loose comedy trio with Buster Keaton. St. John usually played the villain or the rival to the hero Fatty in over two dozen of these little gems, which truly gave him a chance to show what he could do. In 1920, Arbuckle left Comique to make features, handing over the reigns to Keaton. St. John went on to his own starring series at several of the major studios (Paramount, 1920; Warner Bros, 1921; and Fox, 1921-1924), before settling in at Educational for the remainder of the silent era. One of his directors at the latter studio was Arbuckle, post-scandal, under a variety of pseudonyms.
In the talkie era, though no longer starring, St. John can truly be said to have flourished in Poverty Row, acting constantly in comedies and westerns (usually as the comical sidekick) throughout the 30s. In 1937, his place in moviedom was formalized when he first took on the role of the grizzled, bearded Fuzzy Q. Jones for westerns starring Bob Steele, Buster Crabbe, George Houston, Bob Livingston and Lash LaRue. He rode this gravy train through 1952 (his last picture was The Frontier Phantom) and then rounded out his performing career working wild west shows, rodeos and circuses.
The coolest news on the Al. St. John front is that a young lady in Norway has voluntarily taken on the role of maintaining his legacy and getting it before the public. She has founded the Al. St. Project (http://www.alstjohn.net/), has posted his films at https://www.youtube.com/AlFuzzyStJohn/; and is hard at work on a book! Thanks for all the work you do, Annichen Skaren!
And if you needed any proof that Al could hold his own, here is a rare extant Fox short starring St. John, Out of Place (1922), with music by Ben Model.
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 learn 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.