On the Epic Ernest Torrence

You can tell that someone is a silent comedy geek — as opposed to just a silent movie geek — if they know Ernest Torrence (1878-1933) primarily as Buster Keaton’s rough, tough riverboat captain dad in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). Because Torrence wasn’t a comedy specialist; he had major character roles in a LARGE number of silent movie hits, among them Tol’able David (1921), The Covered Wagon (1923), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1923), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Peter Pan (1924 — he was Captain Hook), Mantrap (1926), and The King of Kings (1927). In the talkie era he continued to be a star, usually third billed or so. His last three pictures were Sherlock Holmes (1932) in which he played Moriarity; Hypnotized (1932), one of Mack Sennett’s last films; and I Cover the Waterfront (1933).

A tall, solidly built man (6’4″), with close-set eyes, Torrence was usually cast as either thuggish villains or dopey friends. Amusingly, he was originally a Scottish opera singer who’d been with the D’Oyly Carte company and studied at several prestigious music conservatories. After his singing voice fizzled out, he and his brother David Torrence, also an actor, came to the U.S. in 1911. Ernest appeared in eight Broadway productions between 1912 and 1920 before placing his chips entirely on the movies. His first film was Marrying Off Dad (1918), directed by King Vidor.

Torrence died at the young age of 54 when he had a massive gall stone attack when he was midway across the Atlantic on a passenger ship. It’s particularly sad because it’s the sort of thing that might have been relatively minor had he been near a hospital. Instead, it took him several days to reach one, by which time it was too late.

For more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,