Charles Butterworth: Hilarious Hoosier, Sad Suicide?

Charles Butterworth (1896-1946) was born on this day. This low-key, subtle comic actor was sort of the quintessential screen Hoosier, playing dry, mild-mannered, vaguely distracted midwesterners at a time when that was very much in vogue in the writings of guys like George Ade, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and countless others. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, he got a law degree from Notre Dame, but immediately dropped the law to become a newspaper reporter. His circle of friends would come to include a large number of important humor writers, including Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, Cord Ford, and Frank Sullivan.

In 1924 he turned his own talents as a humor writer to the stage, becoming a comedy monologist in vaudeville. Within two years he was on Broadway, performing his act in the revue Americana. This was followed by Allez-Oop (1927) and Good Boy (1928-1929). In 1929, he performed one of his vaudeville monologues in an early Paramount comedy short called Vital Subjects, his first film.

For the rest of his career Butterworth would divide his time between Broadway and Hollywood. He appeared in Sweet Adeline on Broadway from 1929 through 1930. Then it was back to the movies. He’s little more than an extra or bit player in a couple of Barbara Stanwyck precode pictures Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Illicit (1931), but he’s used to much better effect supporting fellow vaudevillian Winnie Lightner in The Life of the Party (1930) and Side Show (1931). He’s in the John Barrymore horror picture The Mad Genius (1931), and in a killer ensemble in the highly entertaining Lee Tracy vehicle The Nuisance (1933) along with Frank Morgan, Virginia Cherrill and David Landau. From 1932 to 1933 he appeared in the Broadway revue Flying Colors with Patsy Kelly, Clifton Webb, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen and others. But mostly Butterworth worked in film constantly throughout the 30s. Directors especially prized him because, due to his writing ability, he was able to ad lib better lines than had been written for him, enriching the script.

One of his few starring vehicles (and many think his crowning achievement) is Baby Face Harrington (1935), in which he plays an easy-going, irresolute small town book-keeper, who through a series of misunderstandings, gets mistaken for being a hardened gangster. A cast that includes Una Merkel, Eugene Pallette, Nat Pendleton and Donald Meek keep the comedy moving. That same year he was 3rd billed in the classic melodrama Magnificent Obsession with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunn. He’s in the 1937 Mae West vehicle Every Day’s a Holiday (that’s the first movie I ever noted him in). Other notable films included The Boys from Syracuse (1940), the old barnstorming classic Sis Hopkins (1941), This is the Army (1943) with George Murphy, The Sultan’s Daughter (1943) with Ann Corio, and many others. His last film was Dixie Jamboree (1944).

He appears to have hit a dry spell here. In late 1945 he returned to Broadway to appear in Brighten the Corner, which ran until early 1946. Six months later, he died in a car crash on Sunset Boulevard; he’d skidded off the road and smashed into a lamp post. Some have speculated that it was a suicide, either because of his faltering career, or because he was blue over the death of his close friend Robert Benchley. I find the latter idea tough to credit. The men weren’t romantically involved; neither was gay. Butterworth had been married before and at the time was seeing Natalie Schafer (best today as Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island). On the other hand, if he was a close friend of Benchley’s there’s a good chance alcohol was involved, although that’s just speculation on my part. He was not yet 50 when he died.

To learn more about vaudeville, including monologists like Charles Butterworth, see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available wherever fine books are sold.

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