Originally from Springfield, Illinois, he started out working the peanut concession at his local vaudeville house, eventually making his way to the stage as a teenager performing blackface** and stock Irishman bits. He later toured with the Kickapoo Medicine Shows and performed with a Gus Edwards troupe in Chicago and Coney Island.
Watson was 30 when he made the big time on the legit stage. In 1918 he replaced Frank Craven in Cohan and Harris’s original production of Going Up. The cast also included Donald Meek, Marion Sunshine, Ed Begley, and Edith Day. Next he appeared with Day in the hit musical Irene (1919-1921) in the role of Madame Lucy (Watson had done drag in his vaudeville days. Frequently on stage and screen he played effeminate characters, e.g., designers, choreographers, and the like). His next show was The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly (1923-1924), which also featured Margaret Dumont and a young Ruby Keeler. Then came Annie Dear (1924-25) starring Billie Burke, with (my distant relative!) Helen Herendeen.
D.W. Griffith’s That Royle Girl (1925) with Carol Dempster and W.C. Fields was Watson’s first film. Until the end of the decade he alternated silent movies and Broadway appearances. Other early pictures included George M. Cohan’s The Song and Dance Man (1926), directed by Herbert Brenon; and The Romance of a Million Dollars (1926). His remaining Broadway shows were American Born (1925), Allez-Oop (1927), The Optimists (1928), The Greenwich Village Follies (1928), and Cross My Heart (1928).
The 1929 musical Syncopation, with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, Morton Downey, and Dorothy Lee, was Watson’s first talkie film. Nearly 100 screen credits would follow. Early on, he starred in comedy and musical shorts like The Maid’s Night Out (1929), Contrary Mary (1930), The Baby Bandit (1930), Naughty-Cal (1932, with Lillian Roth), Paul Revere Jr (1933, with Gus Shy); he also had supporting roles in 3 Charley Chase shorts: The Grand Hooter, From Bad to Worse, and Calling All Doctors (all 1937). You can also see Watson in features like Follow the Leader (1930) with Ed Wynn; Moonlight and Pretzels (1933), and Hips Hips Hooray (1934) with Wheeler and Woolsey. By the mid ’30s he was mostly a bit player, although you can still see in major releases like After the Thin Man (1936), Abbott and Costello’s It Ain’t Hay (1943), Duffy’s Tavern (1945), Night and Day (1946), The Paleface (1948), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953).
World War Two brought Watson an unexpected new sideline. Of German-American heritage, it turned out that the Illinois native bored an uncanny resemblance to German dictator Adolf Hitler. Hal Roach first put this talent to use in The Devil With Hitler (1942) and That Nazty Nuisance (1943). He also portrayed the Nazi leader in Hitler — Dead or Alive (1942), Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), The Hitler Gang (1944), The Story of Mankind (1957), On the Double (1961, with Danny Kaye), and Vincent Minnelli’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), his last film.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent era film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.