Barney Oldfield: Motoring Thespian

Today a brief tip of our leather motoring helmet to pioneering race car driver Barney Oldfield (Berna Eli Oldfield, 1878-1946). Originally a bicycle racer, Oldfield switched to the greater thrills of automobiles in 1902. The following year he became the first person to drive a car at 60 mph. A little over a decade later he became the first person to drive at 100 mph. He also was the first race car driver with an auto specially outfitted with a roll bar in case of accidents. In addition to all these records and firsts, Oldfield naturally won many professional races and test matches and became a famous figure in pop culture in the bargain.

Oldfield was also a pioneer in how to monetize such fame. In 1906 he played himself in a Broadway show called The Vanderbilt Cup. We know him primarily from two films he starred in for Mack Sennett’s Keystone: Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913) with Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand; and The Speed Kings (1913) with Sterling, Normand, and Fatty Arbuckle. Naturally, Oldfield does precious little acting in these slapstick comedies. Mostly he just drives his car. But they have been among the best known early Keystone comedies for over a century, because of Oldfield’s fame, and the close visual association between silent comedy and early automobiles. They go together like hand and driving glove!

After Keystone, Oldfield was in two films for IMP, precursor to Universal: The Universal Boy (1914) and The Speed King (1916). He retired from racing in 1918, but that didn’t stop him for returning to the silver screen once every decade or so. His additional films were The First Auto (1927) starring Russell Simpson, Patsy Ruth Miller and William Demarest; Speed in the Gay Nineties (1932), one of Mack Sennett’s last comedy shorts, starring Andy Clyde; and Blonde Comet (1941), with B movie western star Virginia Vale, directed by William Beaudine.

Our subject died of a heart attack in 1946. The ambulance driver, one takes it, was no Barney Oldfield.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc