Herman Bing: From Circus to Suicide

Herman Bing (1889-1947) was one of a slew of popular comical German Hollywood character actors of the first decade of talkies. He made hay while the sun shone, but was unable to cope with the fallow period that followed.

The son of a Frankfurt opera singer, Bing began performing as a clown in circuses and variety theatres (the German equivalent of vaudeville) when he was a teenager. His first film role was in the German silent Ciska Barna, die Zigeunerin (1921). (“die Zigeunerin” translates roughly as “The Gypsy Girl” or the “the Bohemian”). He swiftly became a protege of and assistant to F.W. Murnau, working with him on his last German and earliest American pictures: The Phantom (1922), Sunrise (1927) and 4 Devils . Before leaving Germany, he was also production manager on Ludwig Berger’s One Glass of Water (1923). In his early Hollywood days, he also worked on the production end for John Ford and Frank Borzage. 

When sound came Bing was stunt cast as a German director in the musical Married in Hollywood (1929). Thereafter he was in demand as one of Hollywood’s large crop of stout, comical Germans, complete with a funny accent and peepers that were prone to goggle. He massed well over 100 screen credits as a supporting player. Just a few you can catch him in include Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), Anna Christie (1930), The Guardsman (1931), Private LIves (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Tenderfoot (1932, with Joe E. Brown), Three on a Match (1932), Hypnotized (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), The Black Cat (1934), Harold Lloyd’s The Cat’s Paw (1934), The Merry Widow (1934), Broadway Bill (1934), The Mighty Barnum (1934), Call of the Wild (1935), Redheads on Parade (1935), Barbary Coast (1935), Rose Marie (1936), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Every Day’s a Holiday (1937, with Mae West), Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) by Lubitsch, and Walt Disney’s Dumbo (1941 — the voice of the Ringmaster).

Bing was also in a number of comedy shorts throughout the decade: The Plumber and the Lady (1933) with Frank Albertson and Marjorie Beebe, Fits in a Fiddle (1933) with Clark and McCullough, Trimmed in Furs (1934), The Misses Stooge (1935) with Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, Stage Frights (1935) with Tom Kennedy and Monte Collins, Slide Nellie Slide (1936) with Al Shean and Marie Wilson, and Oh, What a Knight! (1937).

During World War Two, for self-apparent reasons, audience demand for lovable Germans was way down; Hollywood was strictly hiring villainous ones. After The Devil with Hitler (1942) with Bobby Watson and Alan Mowbray, he appeared in only five more films through 1946, the last of which was the Cole Porter bio-pic Night and Day, starring Cary Grant. Depressed over the state of his career, he put a gun to his head and took his own life in early 1947.

To learn more about variety entertainment, 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.