Sammy Cohen: Hebrew Comedian

Jack Pennick (left) and Sammy Cohen (right) in “Plastered in Paris” (1928)

Sammy Cohen (1902-1981) had quite a substantial career in movies, and yet I only find the odd reference to him here and there — this may be the only honest-to-God article on him to be found anywhere, even if it is only semi-complete. We know that he was from Minneapolis. The Embassy Theatre Archive (Fort Wayne, Indiana) mentions him as a comedian and dancer in vaudeville in connection with an autograph he’d written to a local stage manager. We know that he was prominent enough that Sammy Cahn the songwriter (whose real name was Samuel Cohen) had to change his name to avoid confusion.

Mostly, Sammy Cohen made his mark in films. Billed as a “Hebrew Comedian”, he specialized in stereotyped Jewish roles. His character names in films tell the story: Ike Ginzberg, Pawnbroker’s Son, Sam Nosenbloom, Sammy Beezeroff, Sammy Shnable, Benny Cohen, Abie. Sometimes, for a visual joke (a common one at the time) they would give him an Irish name, like Calahan, or Murphy. Interestingly, his prominent proboscis made him look quite a bit like Larry Semon, a much better remembered screen comedian who never referenced his Jewish identity onscreen at all. Cohen initially played supporting parts in major films. His first was the independently produced The Skyrocket (1926), a vehicle for Peggy Hopkins Joyce, in which he played one Morris Pincus. In Fox’s silent version of What Price Glory? (1926), he’s Private Lipinsky. It was the first of several films in which he was paired with Ted McNamara. Also for Fox, he appeared in a string of broader comedies in more prominent roles: Benjamin Stoloff directed him in The Gay Retreat (1927) and Plastered in Paris (1928), a French Foreign Legion comedy which gave him his first co-starring role; he’s teamed with Jack Pennick. Henry Lehrman directed him in Why Sailors Go Wrong (1928), and Homesick (1928). Four A.M. (1928) paired him with Marjorie Beebe. These late silents were the pinnacle of his screen career.

Unfortunately, Cohen’s promising trajectory as a starring silent comedy star was interrupted by the coming of sound, though he continued to work for many years. The 1929 Vitaphone short What Price Burlesque? in which he does his Jolson impersonation, gives a glimpse into what what his vaudeville performances must have been like. He also did his stage material in several of the Voice of Hollywood shorts in 1930. Starting in 1933 he became a supporting player, very much in the mold of his earliest silent performances. In B movies he got bigger parts. He’s third billed in the Tom Tyler pictures Rip Roarin’ Buckeroo and The Phantom of the Range, both in 1936. His final movie role was a worthy one in light of the career that proceeded it: he played Evil-Eye Fagin in the 1946 Bowery Boys comedy Mr. Hex. 

After this, Cohen, still only 44, reverted to live performance with the U.S.O., and in major presentation houses and night clubs (like Slapsie Maxie’s) for several years.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see 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.