Charles Middleton: From Vaudeville to Villainy

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Today is the birthday of one of my favorite character actors, Charles Middleton (1874-1949).

The son of a Kentucky millionaire, Middleton started out in circus and vaudeville before breaking into films in 1920. He only appeared in a handful of silents over the course of the twenties, but when talkies came in, he worked like a maniac. This has to be owing to his remarkable, singularly castable type: stern, humorless, affectless, in most ways not even actorly. His voice was nearly monotonic, but his appearance, lean, tall, with blazing eyes and scowling brows: he was tailor made for lawyers and judges and preachers, and above all villains. Comedy fans know him above all for being the humorless foil in so many comedies: He’s in Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger (1929); Eddie Cantor’s Palmy Days (1931), several Laurel and Hardy films: Beau Hunks (1931), Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), and Flying Deuces (1939); the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933); Murder at the Vanities (1934); Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch with W.C. Fields et al (1934); Steamboat Round the Bend with Will Rogers (1935), The Three Stooges‘ short Spook Louder (1943),  Hope and Crosby’s The Road to Rio (1947), etc etc. His thoroughly Anglo- American mein also made him ideal for westerns and historical costume dramas set in the 19th century.

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And above all else, he played the scariest villain ever, Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials. I am not joking, I actually find something quite terrifying about his performances in these films. Something about it makes me believe that, true to advertising, he is a creature with no mercy, a thing of infinite, remorseless cruelty. Middleton possessed no emotions (except possibly anger) in the best of times. In the alien looking Ming get-up, he seemed to have reptile blood. This is a being who would tear you up like a cat and play with the pieces. I have no doubt he was the original model for Darth Vader, who may equal but does not surpass him for palpable evil.

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.And don’t miss 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

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