Hal Skelly: From Burlesque to the Big Beyond

Hal Skelly (James Harold Skelley, 1891-1934) was just beginning to cement his fame when he was prematurely taken by an accident. The Broadway and Hollywood star was raised in the midwest (western Pennsylvania, Iowa and Illinois) and ran away to be in show business at age 15, working as an acrobat, eccentric dancer and all around performer in circuses, medicine shows, vaudeville burlesque, musical comedies, opera, and Lew Dockstaders minstrels. He was with Barnum and Bailey for a year, and toured the Far East. When he wasn’t performing, he played in minor league baseball and managed prizefighters.

Skelly was close to 30 when he broke into Broadway, appearing in nearly a dozen broadway shows: Fiddlers Three (1918), The Night Boat (1920), The Girl in the Spotlight (1920), Orange Blossoms (1922), Mary Jane McKane (1923), Burlesque, (1927–1928), Melody (1933), Ghost Writer (1933), Queer People (1934), and Come What May (1934). Burlesque, in which he was the principal comedian, was the longest running of these. It also featured Oscar Levant, and a young Barbara Stanwyck in her first starring role.

Skelly and Levant were also in the 1929 Hollywood film version of Burlesque, renamed The Dance of Life, which featured Nancy Carroll in the Stanwyck part. Skelly’s other films were The Dancing Town (1928, a short with Humphrey Bogart and Helen Hayes), Woman Trap (1929, with Chester Morris)Behind the Make-Up (1930, with William Powell, Fay Wray, and Kay Francis)Men Are Like That (1930, a remake of George Kelly’s The Show-Off with Clara Blandick)The Gob (1930, a short written by Paul Gerard Smith with Peggy Shannon and Madge Evans); The Struggle (1931, with Zita Johann, directed by D.W. Griffith)Hotel Variety (1933, with Olive Borden and Sally Rand); The Shadow Laughs (1933, with Rose Hobart and Cesar Romero); and The Chump (1934, a short with Lina Basquette and Sally Starr.)

Skelly was sadly killed in 1934 when a truck he was driving was struck by a train. The event robbed him of a bright future. He had been the star of all the films we’ve named. With a bunch more under his belt, he’d undoubtedly be better known today if not for his early death.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.