Billy West: Greatest of All Chaplin Impersonators


Today is the birthday of the great silent film comedian Billy West (Roy B. Weissburg, 1892-1975). In the unlikely event that you were wondering, that’s West in the photo above which I used on the cover of my book Chain of Fools, not Charlie Chaplin. Also, a new confusion in modern times: this is obviously another Billy West from the very funny voice-over comedian (Ren and Stimpyetc)

Born in Russia, West immigrated to America in childhood with his family. The Weissburgs settled in Chicago; the father was a peddler. West developed his Chaplin impression while working on the Chicago vaudeville stage. Through a series of business deals, the King Bee Film Company was formed to release his films in 1917.

Many would put West’s King Bee comedies in the category of plagiarism. West literally stole Chaplin’s cane, derby, costume and mannerisms, so that audiences often assumed that they were watching an actual Chaplin comedy. But it must be said that West had all the moves down. His King Bee Comedies are roughly as enjoyable (though maybe not as inspired) as Chaplin’s for Keystone or Essanay. In fact, it’s very easy to pretend that’s what you’re watching. (Which worked out well, because at the very same time Chaplin himself was moving beyond straight slapstick in many of his comedies).

The West picture His Day Out (1918) begins with the Chaplinesque tramp hitting on a girl who looks and dresses just like Edna Purviance. Chased by two cops, he tips his derby then waddles away at a run, taking several evasive maneuvers reminiscent of Chaplin’s in The Adventurer. He harasses some people in the park, then ends up masquerading as a barber (as Chaplin had once pretended to be a dentist in Laughing Gas), eventually creating mayhem at a fancy ball just as Charlie had done on too many occasions to count. But there are some side benefits to watching these counterfeit pictures.

West’s heavy in a number of the comedies is Oliver Hardy. Hardy never worked with Chaplin, so these pictures give us a vicarious peek into what the combination might have been like. In the 20s, West would abandon his imitative project and go on to create his own comedy characters. It was less lucrative, but he was probably able to hold his head up a little higher. He also directed a number of comedy shorts (many starring Oliver Hardy) from 1922 through 1928.

In the early sound era was reduced to being a mostly an uncredited walk-on. He hung up his hat in 1935.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including comedians like Billy West, please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

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