Today is the birthday of the great character Eugene Pallette (1889-1954). Pallette is very well known to film buffs for his indispensable parts in the ensembles of classic movies like My Man Godfrey (1936), Topper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941). Imbued with the most gravelly, froggiest voice ever in pictures, he is also unmistakable in his 300 lb. girth and wide blue eyes that perpetually seem to pop and start out of his skull. With his gruffness and native Kansas accent, he had a common touch that audiences of the 30s and 40s loved.
I wanted to take a moment today and talk about his lesser known earlier career. Much slimmer as a young man, Pallette had spent six years with stock companies on the stage starting around 1905. In 1911 he broke into films as an extra. He thus spent nearly two decades in silent pictures — longer than he was in talkies. He appeared in dozens of westerns, had bit parts in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), and starred in the original Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1920), which was later remade starring Buster Keaton.
Of especial interest here, though, is his short time (starting in 1927) spent making silent comedies for Hal Roach. One of the earliest was Should Men Walk Home? (1927), directed by Leo McCarey with Mabel Normand (her penultimate film). He is very memorable as the traffic cop in the Charley Chase short Fluttering Hearts (1927). Most significantly, he is present in some of the very earliest Laurel and Hardy pairings, including Sugar Daddies (1927), The Second 100 Years (1927), and The Battle of the Century (1927). His last short for Roach was the Our Gang comedy Barnum & Ringling, Inc. (1928). After this, he was strictly in features at the big studios.
For more on 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 find out 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.