Richard “Dick” Smith (Hiram Richard Smith, 1886-1937) was born on this day. Originally from Cleveland, Smith was a vaudeville comedian and an actor and director in silent comedies — including one very special, legendary lost film.
In 1910, Smith met the woman who would be his wife and comedy partner Alice Howell while she was performing in a DeWolf Hopper production. The pair formed the team of Howell and Howell, and performed on both the vaudeville and burlesque circuits. (I can fully understand choosing her name rather than his. Howell is more distinctive than Smith. Believe me when I tell you that it’s harder than it needs to be to research a guy named “Dick Smith”. ) It has been claimed that Smith worked for Mack Sennett at Biograph during these years; if he did, to date, none of these credits appear on IMDB.
In 1914, Smith and Howell moved to Los Angeles (reportedly for Smith’s health) and immediately began working for Sennett at Keystone. Some of his earliest credits were in classics like Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and Syd Chaplin’s Gussle the Golfer (1914). Like many Keystone performers, the pair was quickly lured to the splinter company L-KO, where they starred in comedies together. Later, with and without Howell, Smith would work at Universal, Reelcraft, Vitagraph, Christie, and other studios, both as a director and actor. His first film as a director was the 1917 Sammy Burns short That Dawgone Dog. Sadly, his most legendary credit as director is now lost: he was the man at the helm of the Marx Brothers 1921 silent film Humor Risk, one of many reasons I have come to suspect that the film wasn’t nearly as bad as Groucho claimed it was.
After 1920, Smith worked much less as an actor. His very last acting credit is in the 1927 Our Gang comedy short Heebee Jeebees. In 1923, he’d begun writing for films as well, notably for a series called The Collegians (1925-29). After the end of the silent era he stopped acting and directing completely and concentrated entirely on being a writer of comedy shorts. His last credit is for the screenplay for the Walter Catlett comedy short Fibbing Fibbers (1936). He died the following year at age 50, I’m deducing for the same health ailment which brought him out to L.A., for that is a young age (according to one who has passed it).
But Smith crammed so much into that 20+ year film career. Think of it! he is one of the few people who worked with both Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers! He worked with so many greats: Our Gang, as we said, and he’s in many films with Oliver Hardy, not to mention Mack Swain, Billy Bevan, Jimmy Aubrey, Billie Ritchie, Neely Edwards, Bert Roach and many others…not to mention his talented wife, Alice Howell. All in all not, a bad run for a guy named Dick Smith!