I have long mentally penalized character actor Donald MacBride (1893-1957) for being one of the most annoying parts of one of the worst Marx Brothers movies, Room Service (1938). He’s that goggle-eyed hotel manager who runs around yelling, “Jumping Butterballs!” The thing is, I would probably love that business if it were in some other movie…say, Arsenic and Old Lace, or You Can’t Take it With You (funny I named those ones — I was in both of those plays in high school). I would also like the routine in Room Service…if it were in a version where I didn’t have to watch the Marx Brothers being upstaged by one of the supporting players. And MacBride had actually appeared in just such a version of Room Service, on Broadway, the previous year. So he came by his scenery rattling honestly.
Brooklyn born MacBride had started out as a teenage singer in vaudeville, in George White’s Scandals and on 78 records. From 1914 through 1918 he appeared in dozens of silent movie shorts for Vitagraph, supporting Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, Anita Stewart, and others. After this, he served in World War One, then returned to live stage performing.
Ironically, MacBride’s return to films came as an extra in the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930) — he was one of the party guests. For over a quarter century he was to be a reliable supporting player in comedies and crime stories, often playing coppers and flatfeet in both. From 1933 through 1936 he starred in comedy shorts for Vitaphone, Educational and other studios, with such comedy stars as Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Shemp Howard, Harry Gribbon, Tim and Irene Ryan, Rosco Ates, Daphne Pollard, Block and Sully, Ken Murray, Ben Blue, George Givot, Tom Howard and George Shelton, and musical stars like Buster West, Tom Patricola, Molly Picon and Ruth Etting. He was also in the early musical Moonlight and Pretzels (1933).
Later comedies include The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939); Blondie Takes a Vacation (1939); My Favorite Wife (1940); Topper Returns (1941); the Bob Hope comedies Louisiana Purchase (1941) and You Got Me Covered (1943); Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942); the Abbott and Costello comedies Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hollywood (1945), Little Giant (1946) and Buck Privates Come Home (1947); the first Ma and Pa Kettle movie The Egg and I (1947); the Bowery Boys’ Bowery Battalion (1951); Red Skelton’s Texas Carnival (1951); and The Stooge (1951) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Other classics MacBride was in include The Killers (1946), The Time of Our Lives (1946), and The Seven Year Itch (1955). All in all Donald MacBride had well over 150 film and television credits at the time of his death.
To learn more about vaudeville, of which Donald MacBride was a veteran, 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.