On the Hard Working Fred “Snowflake” Toones

Character actor Fred “Snowflake” Toones (1906-1962) notched 223 screen credits in his 23 year career, all but two of them between 1931 and 1947. Though he worked in every genre, Toones is especially remembered as the comic relief in B movie westerns, and for his appearances in classic comedies. As was common at the time for African American actors, Toones was normally cast as menials: porters, cooks, butlers, bootblacks and the like. As a bit player, he often went uncredited, but very often his billing and his character name, or both, were “Snowflake.”

According to his hometown Lumberton, North Carolina newspaper, Toones (also known as Buster Hayes) had worked as a handyman, chauffeur and train porter prior to being bitten by the bug. He reported entering a Chicago cinema and being convulsed by an African American silent film comedian named “Snowball” (probably Spencer Bell). He resolved then and there to go to Hollywood and try to break into films.

Toones’ first role was the part of a barber in the silent comedy feature Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath (1928), directed by Eddie Cline and starring James Finlayson, Dorothy Mackaill, Jack Mulhall, and Big Boy Williams. Adapted from the play Ladies Night by Avery Hopwood and Charlton Andrews, the film was released by First National (which all goes to the point that it was a major release.) This film is extant, incidentally.

Toones’ career didn’t begin in earnest until 1931, when he started appearing in dozens of films a year. His comedy features included Meet the Baron (1933) with Jack Pearl, Twentieth Century (1934) with John Barrymore, Mississippi (1935) with W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby, Alibi Ike (1935) with Joe E. Brown, The Virginia Judge (1935) with Walter C. Kelly, Way Out West (1937) with Laurel and Hardy, The Whistler in Brooklyn (1943) with Red Skelton, Where There’s Life (1947) with Bob Hope, and the Preston Sturges comedies Christmas in July (1940), and The Palm Beach Story (1942).

His first comedy shorts were for Mack Sennett: Who’s Who in the Zoo (1931) with Billy Bevan, Dream House (1932) with Bing Crosby, Shopping with Wifie (1932) with Andy Clyde, and The Loud Mouth (1932) with Matt McHugh. After Sennett went out of business he made shorts at other studios, mostly Columbia. With The Three Stooges he appeared in Woman Haters (1934) and Sock-a-Bye Baby (1942); with Andy Clyde, The Peppery Salt (1936) and Jump, Chump, Jump (1938); with Harry Langdon, Love Honor and Obey (the Law) (1935), and Here Comes Mr. Zerk (1943). There was also Good Morning, Eve (1934) with Leon Errol and June MacCloy, Romance in the Air (1936) with Wini Shaw and Phil Regan, Pardon My Berth Marks (1940) with Buster Keaton, Groom and Board (1942) with Johnny Downs, Who’s Hugh (1943) with Hugh Herbert, A Rookie’s Cookie (1943) with El Brendel, and Hectic Honeymoon (1947) with Sterling Holloway. 

Toones was also in some classic musicals: Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames (1934), Go Into Your Dance (1935), The Big Broadcast of 1936 and Gold Diggers of 1937. Other important pictures you can see him include: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Cabin in the Cotton (1932), American Madness (1932), Gabriel Over the White House (1933), Imitation of Life (1934), Green Pastures (1936), A Star is Born (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Remember the Night (1940), and The Lost Weekend (1945).

Dodge City (1939) was one of Toone’s few “A” westerns. By far, the bulk of his credits in oaters are B pictures, mostly made for Republic. Typical fare included The Singing Cowboy (1936), Oh, Susannah! (1936), Yodelin’ Kid from Pine Ridge (1937), Carolina Moon (1940), and Back in the Saddle (1941), all with Gene Autry and Smiley Burnett; and The Yellow Rose of Texas (1944) with Roy Rogers. 

After ending his movie career in 1947, Toones came back just once, to take a TV part in a 1951 episode of Racket Squad.  The fact that he essentially retired at the age of 41, and passed away at 56, indicates that health problems may have plagued his last years. His cause of death was “heart ailment”. According to Republic director William Witney, in his memoir In a Door, Into a Fight, Out a Door, Into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door, Toones also operated a shoe shine stand on the Republic lot during the years of his contract there (1936-47). 

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