Today is the birthday of William “Shorty” Blanche (1875-1931).
Described a little unfairly as a “toothless dwarf” by W.C. Fields biographer James Curtis (see photo above, he’s not a dwarf, just a short guy), Shorty Blanche was a show business legend as Fields’ real life valet and onstage comedy stooge. He began working for Fields in 1915 in his offstage capacity, then was drafted to play the caddy in the golf sketch in the Ziegfeld Follies, after Fields fired the temperamental actor who previously played the role. Blanche was a key member of Fields’ on and off stage entourage for the next several years, playing important roles in sketches like the “little feller” with the beard in the stage version of “The Dentist”, a peanut vendor in the Broadway production of Poppy, etc, etc. He also played small roles in Fields’ first three (silent) Paramount features: Sally of the Sawdust (1925), That Royle Girl (1925) and So’s Your Old Man (1926). Fields and Shorty were said to squabble constantly, but the Great Man apparently had enormous affection for Shorty and considered him indispensable. Unfortunately, when Fields went to Hollywood in 1930 to launch his career in talkies he could’t afford to keep Shorty on the payroll (this was a brief lean period for him). Shorty remained behind in New York, continuing to work as a stage hand, until he died unexpectedly a few months later. Fields buffs have always bemoaned this sad development — his sound pictures pretty much all have “Shorty” parts, but the movies we all know and love essentially have understudies playing roles created by one of Fields’ great muses.
Learn more, much more about W.C. Fields this year during Fields Fest! (more to come)
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube