Today is the birthday of Karl Dane (Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb, 1886-1934), who for four years was paired in a comedy team with George K. Arthur (1899-1985).
Dane had been a manual laborer and soldier in his native Denmark (with an interest in acting and puppetry) before immigrating to the U.S. where he then worked at a succession of blue collar jobs before finding work as an extra at Vitagraph in 1917. His big break was World War One. Nordic and 6’3″, Dane was a natural to play villains in propaganda dramas like My Four Years in Germany (1918) and To Hell with the Kaiser (1918) (there were several more like this.) By the mid 20s, he was very successful, with great roles in hit movies like King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), Valentino’s last movie The Son of the Sheik (1926), and The Scarlet Letter (1926) with Lillian Gish, and many others. Dane was often used as the comic relief in these films, big, dumb lummoxes.
In 1927 MGM decided to pair him with Arthur (who was only 5’6″ tall) to form a comedy team, along the lines of the earlier (big and little) Mutt and Jeff team and of course Ham and Bud. It was a time for teams: W.C. Fields and Chester Conklin had also recently been paired, and 1927 was also the year that Stan Laurel would be matched with Oliver Hardy. George K. Arthur was a British performer who started out in army shows, got some experience in the theatre and had his first hit with 1921’s film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Kipps. This led to a move to Hollywood, and such notable films as James Cruze’s Hollywood (1923), the self-produced The Salvation Hunters (1925, directed by Josef von Sternberg), and The Boob (1926, with Joan Crawford, directed by William Wellman).
Throughout 1927 and 1928 Dane and Arthur co-starred in silent comedy features with titles like Rookies, Circus Rookies and Detectives. In 1928, they made their first talkie Brotherly Love. They made a couple more for MGM and then were set adrift. It was thought at that the time that Karl Dane’s accent was a problem and they became less popular with audiences. (Dane’s contract with MGM was cancelled, although Arthur made more films with them). From 1930 through 1932, the team toured in vaudeville and made comedy shorts for Paramount and RKO.
Neither man fared particularly well after the dissolution of the team. Arthur made out better, getting bit parts in films through 1935, after which he tried various producing, distribution and other entrepreneurial ventures which kept him busy through the 1960s.
But Dane’s story is one of the saddest of Hollywood tragedies. He only made a couple of movies after the breakup of the team (his last was in the 1933 serial The Whispering Shadow with Bela Lugosi.) He tried a solo tour in vaudeville but bombed, lost his money in bad investments, did manual labor, and tried a hot dog stand which failed, ironically located just outside the MGM gates. At the end of his rope by April 1934, he ended his life with a revolver.
There is a biography about this interesting and ultimately sad performer by Laura Peterson Balogh. You can buy it here.
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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn 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.