Today is the birthday of Genevieve L. “Jan” Hussey Duggan (1881-1977). How fortunate that her birthday falls during our two monthlong celebration of her biggest fan and promoter W.C. Fields!
Fields was a collector of characters; he lived to work with such human oddities as the height challenged Shorty Blanche, and the rail thin Bill Wolfe. Duggan was just such a character, a real-life one, mixing elements of the Cherry Sisters, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Margaret Dumont. She had spent several decades as a St. Louis music teacher, concert singer, and participant in local theatricals when she wound up cast in a campy 1933 revival of the old temperance melodrama The Drunkard at the Theatre Mart in Los Angeles. Fields was apparently enraptured and caught the production many times. She, and the production, were just the thing it seems for a project he was developing with the working title In the Sticks, a rough remake of his earlier silent picture Two Flaming Youths. When it made it to the screen in 1934 it bore the name The Old Fashioned Way.
Fields loved her so much he employed her again, in Mississippi (1935), You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), My Little Chickadee (1940), and The Bank Dick (1940). And then other casting directors, producers, directors and comedians liked her so much that they began to hire her: she’s in Will Rogers’ The County Chairman (1935), the Andy Clyde short Alimony Aches (1935), Burns and Allen’s Damsel in Distress (1937), the Ritz Brothers’ Life Begins in College (1937) and Kentucky Moonshine (1938), the Marx Brothers The Big Store (1941) and her last film, Jack Benny’s The Meanest Man in the World (1943). She even got to work with Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer — that photo above is not from a Little Rascals short though but from the 1938 film Scandal Street.
Extraordinarily, after retiring in ’43, she lived another 44 years, passing away at the age of 96.
To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.