Esther Howard: Comedy, High and Low

Esther Howard (1892-1965) is best remembered for playing dowagers and dames in comedies and crime dramas, but she had range — she also did Irish characters, homeless women, lady criminals and prostitutes. Over the course her two decade movie career she evolved from a plausible “girl” to a stout, imposing matriarch.

Howard’s parents were musical people from Boston: her father, an orchestral conductor, her mother an opera singer. The pair were living in Butte, Montana at the time of her birth; her father was conducting at the Butte Opera House. When she was five they moved back to Boston, where she attended Girls’ Latin School. She worked her way from supernumerary parts in Boston production to membership in a stock company in Lynn, Massachusetts, to, by 1917, Broadway.

Eve’s Daughter with Lionel Atwill and Rockliffe Fellowes was the first of a dozen Broadway productions she played in over the next decade. Sunny (1925-26) with Marilyn Miller was the most successful Broadway show in which she appeared.

In 1930 Howard began her movie career with the Vitaphone comedy short Who’s the Boss? directed by Slim Summerville, in which she played the Domineering Wife to Franklin Pangborn’s Hen-pecked Husband. Over 100 films followed, ranging from bit roles and decent supporting parts in features, to co-starring in comedy shorts.

Some highlights:

She played Mrs. Kelly in The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood (1932) with Charles Murray and George Sidney, the last film in the “Cohens and Kellys” series, although she was also in the very similar Fishing for Trouble (1934) with Murray and Sidney.

Howard was in nearly every movie that Preston Sturges directed (seven in total, from 1940 through 1949). She also had a small role in I Married a Witch (1942), produced by Sturges but directed by Rene Clair. 

Of her dozens of comedy shorts, Howard is most notable for playing Andy Clyde’s wife in the lion’s share of them, starting in 1940. She also appeared in shorts with Walter Catlett, Frank Orth, Hugh Herbert, the Three Stooges, Billy Gilbert, Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly, et al.

with Stan Laurel in “The Big Noise” (1944)

Classic comedy features included Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) with Wheeler and Woolsey, Klondike Annie (1936) with Mae West, Dead End (1937, the birth of the Dead End Kids), The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), My Favorite Blonde (1942) with Bob Hope, Tales of Manhattan (1942), and The Big Noise (1944) with Laurel and Hardy.

Howard also appeared in gritty detective dramas like Murder My Sweet (1944) with Dick Powell, and B movie series such as The Falcon and Dick Tracy, (both in 1946) — she played a character named Filthy Flora in the latter! The women’s prison picture Caged (1950) is another example.

Esther Howard’s last film was the Joe Besser comedy short Caught on the Bounce (1952). She retired at age 60.

To learn more about show business history 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.