Leo White: Essanay Foil

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Today is the birthday of Leo White (1882-1948), best known today as Charlie Chaplin’s foil during his Essanay period.

White was an unconventional foil for Chaplin. When we think of Charlie’s films we usually think of a David and Goliath scenario (Chaplin had even referenced that Biblical parable in The Pilgrim). The usual Chaplin antagonist is normally a big bruiser like Eric Campbell, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann or Charles Reisner. By contrast, White (in Chaplin’s films) played a dapper, Max Linder-like French dandy in silk top hat and tails, oddly transplanted to American soil. Interestingly, it was the sort of villain Chaplin himself played when he had been cast as such during his Keystone period.

White had started out in the English music hall and initially came to the U.S. to appear in a couple of Broadway shows but quickly picked up film work. His first movie role was the title character in the western short The Dude in 1911. In 1913 he came over to Essanay, where among other assignments, he was cast in several of Wallace Beery “Sweedie” comedies. When Chaplin arrived in early 1915 he used White prominently as a member of his stock company in films like In the Park and A Night Out. When Chaplin moved to Mutual in 1916, White continued to be cast in his films, although usually in smaller, bit parts. When Essanay decided to make Triple Trouble out of discarded Chaplin footage after Charlie’s departure, it was White who directed the new scenes.

White got to support most of the major comedians of the day: in 1917 he began appearing in Billy West shorts, almost as a kind of consolation prize for having become marginal to Chaplin. He also supported Max Linder in Max Wants a Divorce (1917), Harold Lloyd in Why Worry? (1923), Syd Chaplin in Charley’s Aunt (1925), and Raymond Griffith in Paths to Paradise (1925). He also appeared in serious silent features such as Valentino’s Blood and Sand (1922), the sci fi classic The Lost World (1925) the blockbuster Ben-Hur (1925), and Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). By the sound era, he was relegated pretty strictly to extra and bit parts, but alert viewers can catch him in many a later classic comedy: he’s in the Ted Healy/ Three Stooges feature Soup to Nuts (1930), the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) and A Night at the Opera (1935), Mae West’s Night After Night (1932) and She Done Him Wrong (1933), Joe E. Brown’s Elmer the Great (1933), The Devil’s Brother with Laurel and Hardy (1933), Jack Pearl’s Meet the Baron (1933), and 400 films in every genre through the end of his life. He even get to work with Chaplin one last time as Hynkel’s barber in The Great Dictator. 

Here he is in the ensemble of Chaplin’s In the Park:

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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