John Tyrrell: Contract Con Man at Columbia

Bronx native John Tyrrell (1900-1949) was only 16 when he went into vaudeville as part of the team Tyrrell and Mack, which performed dance routines and crosstalk, with Tyrrell taking the straight lines. Touring the circuits nationally led to engagements with touring units of George White’s Scandals.

By the early 1930s, vaudeville had died, making work for performing teams scarcer than ever. Tyrrell decided to enhance his portfolio as a bookable solo, taking singing lessons and acting with a Connecticut stock company for two years. In 1935 he was signed to Columbia as a contract player, where he remained for 11 years, playing bit and supporting roles in both feature films and shorts. He specialized in playing thugs, henchmen, and flim flam men. Occasionally he would be cast in a prestige picture like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Bedtime Story (1941), or Gilda (1946), but normally he could be found in B movie fodder like the Blondie, Lone Wolf, or Boston Blackie series, or stuff like Mandrake the Magician (1944) or Cry of the Werewolf (1944).

Above all, Tyrrell’s meat and potatoes were dozens and dozens of classic comedy shorts, starring The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde, El Brendel, and others. Stooges fans will know him from such gems as Three Little Beers (1935), We Want Our Mummy (1940), You Nazty Spy (1940), They Stooge to Conga (1943), and If a Body Meets a Body (1945). Uncivil War Birds (1946) was his last with the Stooges. Tyrrell’s last comedy short was Ain’t Love Cuckoo? (1946) with Gus Schilling. The Walls Came Tumbling Down (1946), a feature length mystery, was the last film on his Columbia contract. All told, Tyrrell appeared in an incredible 300 films for Columbia over that 11 year period.

After this, he free-lanced and had quite a good little run in pictures we now consider classics: The Jolson Story (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), My Favorite Brunette (1946) with Bob Hope, The Perils of Pauline (1947) with Betty Hutton, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) with Danny Kaye, all in bit parts. His last film was Best Man Wins (1948), an adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. He died of pneumonia the following year. He was only 48.

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