James C. Morton: Flipped His Wig

Montana born James C. Morton (1884-1942) started out in vaudeville and burlesque, and for a time in the early 20th century he was teamed with Frank Moore, Florence Moore’s brother in an act called Morton and Moore. With Moore he appeared on Broadway in The Merry Whirl (1910), and in L. Frank Baum show The Tik-Tok Man in Oz (1913), which was produced on the west coast.

But Morton’s solo legacy was much vaster. His Broadway credits included From Broadway to Paris (1912-13), Polygamy (1914-15), Spice of 1922, Holka Polka (1925), Lace Petticoat (1927), The Circus Princess (1927), Countess Maritza (1928), and Hobo (1931). He also took two early tries at the flickers during the silent days. Early on he appeared in one Mack Sennett short for Biograph called A Grocery Clerk’s Romance (1912) with Ford Sterling. A decade later he appeared in the Fox short The Barnstormers (1922) with Vernon Dent and Billy Armstrong. Other than this he stayed away from film until talkies came in and the Depression took a bite out of live theatre opportunities.

Starting in 1930, he began working as a bit player in Hollywood, with roles ranging from minor supporting parts to walk-ons and extras in over 200 films. His first talkie was Follow the Leader with Ed Wynn (1930). Morton soon became a familiar sight in comedy shorts in the 1930s, notably those of Our Gang (The Little Rascals), Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges. He frequently played a guy whose toupee would come off. For example, in the three Stooges film Disorder in the Court, (he’s the guy whose toupee is accidently taken off by a violin bow and later mistaken for a tarantula!). In addition to scores of these classic shorts, he also appeared in classic comedy features, such as You’re Telling Me (1934) and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) with W.C. Fields; A Night at the Opera (1935) with the Marx Brothers; Modern Times (1936) with Charlie Chaplin; the Laurel and Hardy features Our Relations (1936), Way Out West (1937), Block-Heads (1938), and Saps at Sea (1940); Arizona Mahoney (1936) with Joe Cook; Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) with Mae West; My Little Chickadee (1940) with both Fields and West; and other assorted classics like Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), Rose of Washington Square (1939), Swanee River (1939), Lillian Russell (1940), and Yokel Boy (1942). His last turn was in the B pictures Murder in Times Square (1943).

Not that you were going to but James C. Morton is not to be confused with the earlier James J. Morton, considered by some to be the first M.C. in vaudeville.

To learn more about vaudeville, 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.

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