Bobby Burns: A Peek at “Pokes”

There seems to be a surfeit of Burnses in the classic comedy world. We’ve already written about Sammy Burns and Neal Burns, and later there was Bob Burns, the Arkansas Traveler, inventor of the Bazooka. Today we treat of Robert P. “Bobby” Burns (1878-1966), who appeared in nearly 300 films, most of them between 1912 and 1952.

Originally from Philadelphia, Burns was an acrobatic comedian in vaudeville, and played in road companies of the Fred Hamlin-Julian Mitchell musical shows The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Toyland in the middle oughts. In 1912 he began cranking out comedies for the Lubin Manufacturing Company, and others.

Burns had already appeared in over five dozen comedies when he formally paired with stage veteran Walter Stull (who’d been in many of Burns’ movies since the very beginning) in the screen comedy team of Pokes and Jabs. Burns was Pokes. Unlike the roughly contemporaneous Ham and Bud (Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan) and the much later Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Stull were of the same body type, and neither was particularly ludicrous in appearance. As the name of the act advertised, however, the two engaged in comedy fisticuffs at the climax to every picture. Early career Oliver Hardy was one of their supporting players. The pair made nearly 100 of these Pokes and Jabs comedies, with titles like Blundering Boobs and Barnyard Frolics, through the end of 1917. Burns directed about two-thirds of these shorts.

After parting ways with Stull, Burns starred in four “Cuckoo Comedies” with Jobyna Ralston in 1919 and 1920. He appeared in another couple of dozens comedies for various studios through the end of the silent era, sometimes starring, sometimes playing supporting parts. In the sound era he became a bit player, but he has parts in dozens of comedy classics starring Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde, Walter Catlett, Edgar Kennedy, and others. The Good Bad Egg (1947) with Joe DeRita, was his last comedy short. After this he was an extra in films like The Snake Pit (1948) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).

To learn more about vaudeville, please see my book 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.