Eddie Sutherland: From a Highly Theatrical RING

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Today is the birthday of Albert Edward “Eddie” Sutherland (1895-1973). On his mother’s side Sutherland was a sixth generation member of a theatrical dynasty. His mother Julie Ring was a headlining vaudevillian; his aunt Blanche Ring was an even more popular stage and screen star; his aunt Frances Ring was married to Thomas Meighan, one of the biggest movie stars of the silent era; and his uncle Cyril Ring was also in films and was married to Charlotte Greenwood. Sutherland’s father Al was a theatre manager and producer.

Sometimes billed as “Sutherland Ring”, he began appearing in small roles at Kalem and Mack Sennett’s Keystone starting in 1914 (he would switch up his billing throughout his career, sometimes “Eddie”, sometimes “Edward”, sometimes “A.Edward”). He appeared in close to 50 films, many of them comedies, seldom rising above 5th or 6th in the billing.

It was as a director that he was truly to make his mark. He became Charlie Chaplin’s assistant director on three crucial pictures: The Kid (1921), A Woman of Paris (1923) and The Gold Rus(1925). His first directing credit is Coming Through (1925), starring his uncle Thomas Meighan. That film was a drama, but it is as a director of “classic comedies” in both the silent and sound eras that Sutherland is today best remembered. These include the W.C. Fields vehicles It’s the Old Army Game (1926), Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1928), International House (1933), Mississippi (1935), and Poppy (1936); several Jack Oakie vehicles; Eddie Cantor’s Palmy Days (1931); Mr. Robinson Crusoe with Douglas Fairbanks (1932); Every Day’s a Holiday with Mae West (1937);  The Flying Deuces with Laurel and Hardy (1939); and One Night in the Tropics with Abbott and Costello (1940). He also directed in other genres such as Gothic horror, although when he did, humor became an element, as in Murders in the Zoo (1933) and The Invisible Woman (1940).

A catastrophic public response to his version of Abie’s Irish Rose (1946) is said to have finished his career, but I can think of all sorts of other aspects to blame besides his direction. One, the original material is actually terrible. While audiences loved the original stage play, critics universally panned it. And two, the film contains NO stars (the closest thing to a star in the film is Michael Chekov). Have you ever heard of a film doing well in the studio era with no stars? For Sutherland to be banned on the basis of this one film seems unlikely.

He was known to be a playboy. He was great friends (drinking buddies) with W.C. Fields and John Barrymore (he even gave both men some of their last roles when they were quite failing, with alcohol as the culprit, Barrymore in The Invisible Woman, and Fields in 1944’s Follow the Boys).

He was also married to party girl Louise Brooks (who’d co-starred with Fields in It’s the Old Army Game), and pals with (and an apologist for) Jack Pickford, who killed himself through substance abuse. And I notice his only sustained relationship over a long period of time with a comedian is Fields. With most of the other comedy stars he seems to have worked only once. Could it be that he couldn’t get along with them? He is famous for bad-mouthing his experience working with Stan Laurel, a man with a vastly better comedy track record, to put it mildly. But more convincingly, there is the question of fashion. The mid 40s were JUST when the old style vaudeville comedy began hitting the skids. Most of the comedians he had worked with were history by the late 40s as well. I imagine producers at this stage regarded him as old hat and washed up.

At any rate, Sutherland kept plugging, helming one more film Bermuda Affair in 1956, but mostly directing television. Some of his final work was reportedly on that last gasp of classic comedy Mack and Meyer for Hire in 1965.

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, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about the variety arts 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. 

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