Frank Hayes: A Face Fit for the Movies

Funny man Frank Hayes (1871-1923), born this day. Hayes’ memorable puss, sort of long and pushed in, seemingly toothless, with sunken, pale blue eyes, made him eminently castable in character parts in silent film comedies and melodramas. He was especially useful as codgers, frequently of the rural variety. He simply looked very much like a farmer or the keeper of a general store.

Originally from Sam Francisco, Hayes first went on stage in 1898. In the first decade-plus of the 20th century he was often paired in vaudeville with opera singer Anna Suits, described in reviews as a “statuesque prima donna”.

They performed a comical song and dance act, and got good reviews. Hayes also performed without Suits on occasion, as in his 1906 turn in the Broadway production of The Student King. Hayes also participated in the White Rats strike of 1901. 

Mack Sennett hired Hayes at Keystone in 1914, where he appeared in supporting parts in dozens of comedies starring Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Charlie Murray, Syd Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Polly Moran, Louise Fazenda, and others through 1917. He sometimes played one of the Keystone Kops.

In 1918, he moved into his first features, the best remembered of which is Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919). For the remainder of his career he divided his time between features and comedy shorts. He’s in the Comique short Love (1919) with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. From 1919 through 1923 Hayes appears in numerous Larry Semon shorts.

Homely enough in his usual persona, he was breathtakingly ugly as a female, which is why he was cast in drag parts more than once, as in Yankee Doodle in Berlin, School Days (1920) and Sunless Sunday (1921). He also has roles in no less than two simian comedies, both made in 1920: Prohibition Monkey, starring “Joe Martin”, an Orangutan, and A Tray Full of Trouble, with Snooky the Humanzee.

Other notable pictures Hayes is in include Hawthorne of the USA (1919) with Wallace Reid, Vanity Fair (1923) with George Walsh, Hobart Bosworth, and Harrison Ford; and Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), his last film.

Frank Hayes was only 52 when he died of pneumonia in 1923. His children followed him into the business. His daughter Venice Hayes played nine roles at Keystone in 1915. His son Ward Hayes also started at Keystone, then became a director, helming dozens of comedies and westerns at various studios between 1920 and 1925.

For more on vaudeville, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; to learn about silent film see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

And I highly recommend Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory by Brent Walker, a great aid in the creation of this post.