Tim Whelan: Comedy Highs and Lows

Indiana native Tim Whelan (1893-1957) started his career as an actor and director with touring stock companies, and in vaudeville with his wife Judy King in an act called “Suite Sixteen”.

In the 1920s he broke into movies as a scenarist and gag man on comedies and that is principally what interests us in mentioning him here today. As a writer, Whelan worked on the Harold Lloyd comedies Safety Last (1923), Why Worry? (1923), Girl Shy (1924), Hot Water (1924), and The Freshman (1925); the Harry Langdon comedies Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926) and The Strong Man (1926); Bea Lillie’s Exit Smiling (1926); and Wheeler and Woolsey’s Hook Line and Sinker (1930), Peach O’Reno (1931), Girl Crazy (1932), and Hold ‘Em Jail (1932), as well as Everything’s Rosie (1931) which Robert Woolsey without Bert Wheeler. During the same years, as we wrote here, King became a silent movie comedienne.

With the Monty Banks comedy Honeymoon Abroad (1928) Whelan became a director as well. From 1933 through 1940, he worked mostly in England, although though were some Hollywood assignments such as 1935’s The Murder Man with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. For Alexander Korda he made such films as The Divorce of Lady X (1938) with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, St. Martin’s Lane (1938) with Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison, and Charles Laughton, and The Thief of Bagdad (1940) with Sabu and Conrad Veidt (co-directed with Michael Powell). With the advent of World War Two Whelan returned to the States where he helmed such pictures as The Mad Doctor (1941) with Basil Rathbone, Higher and Higher (1943) with Frank Sinatra, and the Randolph Scott westerns Badman’s Territory (1946) and Rage at Dawn (1955).

Whelan was probably glad not to have been credited as one of the directors on Laurel and Hardy’s 1951 Swan Song Utopia. He thus had journeyed from some of comedies highest heights to one of its lowest lows. In the early ’50s, he dabbled a little in television direction, with his last professional credit in 1956. In later years he was married to former silent film actress Miriam Seegar.

For more on classic film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube. To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.