“Big” Billy Gilbert (Billy Gilbert # 1)

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Today is the birthday of the great character comedian Billy Gilbert ( William Gilbert Barron, 1894-1971). We call him “Billy Gilbert #1” to distinguish from the the silent movie comedian of the same name, whom will also appear in our “Stars of Slapstick” series a scant three days from now. This Billy Gilbert, as if you didn’t know was a very large, often mustachioed man who specialized in playing comic foils and foreigners. And also sneezing.

Gilbert’s parents were singers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company. He began performing himself in vaudeville starting around 1906. Gilbert was brought to pictures by none other than Stan Laurel, who saw him in a revue called Sensations of 1929. Gilbert started working in comedy shorts for Hal Roach, Vitaphone, RKO, Columbia and others. Among the famous shorts he appears in are the much cherished The Happy Hottentots (1930), one of the only appearances of Joe Frisco on film; Laurel and Hardy classics like The Music BoxThe Chimp, County Hospital and Towed in a Hole (all 1932) and Them Thar Hills (1934), and Three Stooges shorts like Men in Black (1934). He also starred and co-starred in his own shorts in the early 30s.

He also got scene-stealing turns in features, including the all-star Million Dollar Legs (1932), Wheeler and Woolsey’s Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934), the Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera (1935), On the Avenue with the Ritz Brothers (1937), Block-heads with Laurel and Hardy (1938), screwball classics like Destry Rides Again (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940), the melodrama parody The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940) and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). He was also the voice of Sneezy in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the Giant in Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947). From time to time he had small roles in films that weren’t comedies, such as the horror classics Mad Love (1935) and  Todd Browning’s The Devil-Doll (1936).

Gilbert continued to work in film and television until 1962.

Here he is, doing what he did best, being tortured by the kids from Our Gang:

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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