The Original George Sidney: A Cohen Among Kellys

George Sidney (Samuel Greenfield, 1877-1945) was a vaudeville, stage and screen comic, closely associated with Jewish stereotype characters. He was the brother of producer Louis K. Sidney, and blackface comedian** Jack Sidney (who billed himself as “Jack of Spades”, as well as the uncle of MGM director George Sidney, his namesake.

Sidney was born in Hungary and emigrated to New York in his youth. He developed a character named “Busy Izzy”, whom he played on the vaudeville circuits, as well as the Broadway shows The Floor Walkers (1900) and Busy Izzy’s Boodle (1908), as well as the silent film short Busy Izzy (1915). Other Broadway shows included The Show Shop (1914-15), Oh, Look! (1918), Why Worry? (1918), Welcome Stranger (1920-21), and Give and Take (1923).

In 1924 he was hired to replace Barney Bernard as Abe Potash in the Potash and Perlmutter movie sequels In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter (1924) and Partners Again (1926). His next film series was the Cohens and Kellys, playing Jacob Cohen (later changed to Nathan) to Charlie Murray’s Patrick Kelly in The Cohens and Kellys (1926), The Cohens and the Kellys in Paris (1928), The Cohens and the Kellys in Atlantic City (1929), The Cohens and the Kellys in Scotland (1930), The Cohens and the Kellys in Africa (1930), The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood (1932) and The Cohens and Kellys in Trouble (1933). Though he didn’t originate the bit, and it was originally a different Cohen, he did a film version of Cohen on the Telephone in 1929. In 1927 he played a character named Hyman Cohen in a movie called Clancy’s Kosher Wedding (1927) which sounds very similar in its Hebrew-Hibernian theme. The Cohens and Kellys series was so popular that Sidney and Charlie Murray became an informal comedy team, co-starring in close to two dozen comedies outside the franchise between 1926 and 1934.

Sidney also appeared in a number of films without Murray. These included Classified (1925), Millionaires (1926), The Auctioneer (1927), For the Love of Mike (1927), The Latest from Paris (1928), We Americans (1928), A Butter ‘n’ Yeggman (1931), High Pressure (1932), Running Hollywood (1932), The Heart of New York (1932), Rafter Romance (1933), Manhattan Melodrama (1934), and Diamond Jim (1935).

On a handful of occasions, Sidney stepped outside his Jewish character to be play stereotyped Germans in the manner of Weber and Fields. This was the case in The Prince of Pilsen (1926), Lost at the Front (1927), The Life of Riley (1927), and Give and Take (1928). Remarkably, in his very last film, Good Old Soak (1937), he portrayed a character named Kennedy, his own and only Irishman! Sidney returned to Broadway for one last show Window Shopping (1937-38) and retired thereafter. Just in time to pass the torch to his namesake. 

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

**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.