The Humor and Horror of Erle C. Kenton

Here’s where an affection for the psychotronic can be a little dangerous; I’d long registered the names of guys like William Beaudine and Jean Yarbrough, who’d started out in silents and made comedy and horror films of the Grade Z sort…which led me down the Primrose Path away from noting somebody who actually made GOOD comedy and horror classics, Erle C. Kenton (1896-1980). Today we rectify the lapse.

Montana-born Kenton was only 19 years old when he began getting small parts in Mack Sennett comedies. A Janitor’s Wife’s Temptation (1915) with Fred Mace was his first. (Beware bios that tell you someone was “one of the original Keystone Kops“. It’s a meaningless and misleading designation. You could populate a very strange island with everyone who’s had that credit attached to his name, but the Kops pool wasn’t some rigid cohort with a “membership”. In every case what it generally means is that the actor worked for Mack Sennett playing a variety of parts, including the inevitable policemen. In some cases, they didn’t even do that.) Kenton appeared in 18 Keystone comedies through 1920, but by 1916 was already allowed to assistant direct on such shorts as A Bath House Blunder with Mae Busch and Black Eyes and Blue with Billy Armstrong. He co-directed several films in 1919, and then by 1920 was allowed to fly solo in directing the Sennett feature Married Life, starring Ben Turpin, Charles Murray, Jimmy Finlayson, Phyllis Haver, Heinie Conklin, Ford Sterling and Louise Fazenda. That, in case ya don’t know, is an all star silent comedy cast. Dozens of comedy shorts followed through the end of the silent era, the best remembered of which may be Picking Peaches (1924) with Harry Langdon, along with some features like A Small Town Idol (1921) with Ben Turpin and Wedding Bill$ (1927) with Raymond Griffith.

In 1927 he became a jobbing director of features. In the ’30s he directed numerous classics of both the comedy and horror genres. Of the former we have You’re Tell Me (1934) with W.C. Fields, and Little Tough Guys In Society (1938), as well as the Abbott and Costello comedies Pardon My Sarong (1942), Who Done It (1942), It Ain’t Hay (1943) and In Society (1944). He also had a cameo in A&C’s The Gay Nineties (1942), and was associate producer on Olsen and Johnson’s Crazy House (1943). Of his horror classics, there’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and The Cat Creeps (1946). There were also other genres, like crime dramas and westerns in the mix. Kenton was clearly a guy with some chops, who could set the right mood no matter what kind of story he was telling.

Universal kept him employed through most of the ’40s, but after 1948 he and the studio parted ways, forcing him to take a couple of exploitation films: One Too Many (1950), and Why Men Leave Home a.k.a. Secrets of Beauty (1951). After this he shifted over to television, where he was steadily employed for another decade on such shows as Racket Squad, Public Defender and The Texan. He retired in 1960, after 45 years in the biz.

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