Bert Roach: A Name You Can Trust

Bert Roach (Egbert Roach, 1891-1971) is the sort of name you might invent for a fictional silent screen comedian, mixing as it does the surname of Hal Roach, and the first name of Bert Williams, Bert Lahr, and Bert Gordon. But he was no relation to studio head Roach (though he did come to work for him) and his name was genuinely Bert. He just happened to have a perfect name.

Originally from Washington, DC, the chubby, face-making comic started out in musical comedy. He was only 20 when he appeared with Nora Bayes in Little Miss Fix-It on Broadway in 1911. And he appears to have been in the road cast of Louisiana Lou, a smash success for Sophie Tucker and Alexander Carr (later of Potash and Perlmutter).

By 1914 Roach had made his way to the west coast and the film industry. His first movie role was in a Universal Ike comedy, but then he went over to the Keystone lot to appear as an extra in Fatty’s Magic Pants. He seems to have gone wherever he could get work rather than remaining at one studio. His next part was in a Billie Ritchie comedy for L-KO, where he later got to star in some of his own comedies. He played Hindenburg in Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919). He supported Ben Turpin yet again in A Small Town Idol (1921). In the mid 20s he supported Alice Howell as Bert the Butler in a series of shorts for Universal. He’s in the silent screen version of the comic strip Tillie the Toiler (1927) with Marion Davies, and has a great role in King Vidor’s classic The Crowd (1928).

Roach’s musical comedy background served well when talkies first came in. You can see him in So Long Letty (1929) with Charlotte Greenwood; The Show of Shows (1929); No No Nantette (1930); Hold Everything (1930) with Joe E. Brown and Winnie Lightner; 6 Cylinder Love (1931), again with Brown; and the all-star Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933). He was also in non-comical stuff like Arrowsmith (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and The Thin Man (1934), although usually as comic relief.

Roach has quite good roles as late as San Francisco (1936) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), but by the mid 30s he worked mostly as an extra. Other films you can catch him in are Mae West’s Goin’ to Town (1935), Keystone Hotel (1935), The Arkansas Traveler (1938) with Bob Burns, Honolulu (1939) with George Burns and Gracie Allen, Rose of Washington Square (1939), Hellzapoppin’ (1941) with Olsen and Johnson, Shine On Harvest Moon (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Bringing Up Father (1946), The Perils of Pauline (1947), Excuse My Dust (1951) with Red Skelton, and Show Boat (1951). He was often prized for his drunk turns; at least 15 of is credits call for this schtick; many others cast him as a partygoer or a bartender.

Before the sun set on his career, Bert Roach had appeared in 350 films.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy performers like Bert Roach see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube