Ben Turpin is most famous today as a humorous show biz footnote: he’s the wall-eyed silent film comedian who once insured his peepers against uncrossing. But he was more than that. By some measures he was the first American silent film comedian. He was appearing in comedies as early as 1907, three years before John Bunny became America’s first bona fide comedy STAR, and five years before Mack Sennett started Keystone. His 1909 comedy Mr. Flip is notable for containing what may be the first Pie in the Face captured on film. By the 1920s, he was one of Mack Sennett’s top stars, in a series of broad slapstick spoofs of contemporary pictures.
Born in New Orleans on this day in 1869, Turpin started out hoboing, drifted into clowning in circuses and small time vaudeville, then became a lead comedian with Sam T. Jack’s Chicago-based burlesque circuit doing a bit based on the comic strip Happy Hooligan. Chicago was also the home base of Essanay Studios and that’s where he jumped into films in aught seven. Probably for financial reasons, in 1909 he jumped back into vaudeville, where he continued to work until 1915. Then it was back to Essanay. You can see him co-star with Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery in several films from that period.
The twenties were his peak as a comedy star. Typical of his output was The Shriek of Araby, his 1923 take-off on Valentino. Turpin’s cartoonish looks and somewhat crude technique pretty much assured that he’d be trapped in short subjects, at least as a star. He appeared in sound shorts throughout the 30s. He passed away in 1940. His last film was Laurel and Hardy’s Saps at Sea.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, and find out more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous — Ben Turpin was a veteran of both!