Though they might know his name, classic comedy fans know the work of T. Roy Barnes (1880-1937) chiefly from two performances. He’s the insurance salesman who disturbs W.C. Fields’ rest in It’s a Gift (1934) by repeatedly asking for “Carl La Fong.” And he plays Buster Keaton’s business partner in Seven Chances (1925).
Born in Lincolnshire, England, Barnes moved to the U.S. as a child. He started out in vaudeville and appeared for years in an act with his wife Bessie Crawford called “A Package of Smiles.” Their greatest height as a team was an engagement in The Passing Show of 1914. Barnes’ other Broadway shows were The Red Canary (1914), See My Lawyer (1915), and Over the Top (1917-1918). Thanks to his success on Broadway, Barnes entered silent movies as a star, and for several years was a kind of rival of to Harold Lloyd, with a similar screen persona. Scratch My Back (1920) was his debut, followed by the first screen adaptation of So Long Letty (1920) with Colleen Moore replacing Charlotte Greenwood, who owned the part on Broadway and in the 1929 talkie. Then came the screen version of See My Lawyer (1921), as well as The Go Getter (1923), which described his screen character, and about a dozen other similar starring vehicles throughout the early ’20s.
By the second half of the decade his star had fallen and he had become a supporting player. In the talking era you can see him in smaller roles in Sally (1929) with Marilyn Miller, Caught Short (1930) with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, the 1935 Will Rogers comedies Life Begins at 40 and Doubting Thomas, and Walter C. Kelly’s The Virginia Judge (1935), his last. He also starred in the comedy shorts Carnival Revue and His Error, both 1930. Barnes retired at the young age of 55 and passed away two years later.
To learn more about vaudeville, where T. Roy Barnes got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.