The Short Family: Of Stage And Screen

I hope you won’t be too disappointed to learn that the title of this post doesn’t refer to a family of Little People. The Shorts were a family of actors of the early 20th century who started out in vaudeville and with traveling stock companies prior to going into the movies. They bore some relationship to Blanche Sweet — the second generation have been called cousins of hers, although I haven’t yet tracked down the exact connection.

The Parents were Lew (1875-1958) and Estelle (Eliza Estella Antrim, 1879-1949) Short. Both were from Ohio. The children were Antrim (1900-72) and Gertrude (1902-68), both born in Cincinnati. Both of them married equally successful spouses, whom we’ll introduce below. There was also a Florence Short (1889 or 1893 -1946) who is often identified as a sibling of Florence and Antrim, but her date of birth makes that seem unlikely to impossible. She was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. My best guess is that she was either Lew’s first wife, or his child by someone he had been with prior to Estelle, but only if we go with the birthdate of 1893, when he would have been 18. Or she may have been adopted.

At any rate, the whole family appears to have broken into films around the same time, between the years 1912 and 1914.

Estelle’s screen career was the most minimal. She did just five films: a 1913 Vitagraph comedy called A Matter of Matrimony; a 1916 Universal short called There is No Place Like Home written and directed by Lois Weber, which also featured Lew and Antrim; two Harold Lloyd shorts, also in 1916, under his “Lonesome Luke” guise, Luke, Newsie Knockout and Luke, Rank Impersonator; and the original 1923 screen adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, in which she has a bit part.

Florence in “Way Down East”

Florence appeared in 28 movies between 1914 and 1924, usually in supporting roles, often about 4th or 5th in the billing, including such fare as Pay Day (1918) with Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew; several D.W. Griffith films in 1920: The Idol Dancer, The Love Flower and Way Down East; and Woman’s Place (1921), directed by Victor Fleming, written by Anita Loos and John Emerson, and also featuring Hassard Short, who was apparently no relation. Her last film was The Enchanted Cottage (1924) with Richard Barthelemess. Florence also appeared in nine Broadway plays between 1913 and 1933. I found a nice little article about Florence here. 

Lew Short, the patriarch, was in 29 movies, the majority of them between 1914 and 1929, many of them directed by Francis Ford. Belasco’s The Heart of Maryland (1927), directed by Lloyd Bacon, is the best remembered of these, although Short has rather a small role in it as Allan Pinkerton. The Three Outcasts (1929), with Gertrude, was the last of this period. Later he was an extra at two different junctures in the late ’30s and the mid ’40s. Anthony Mann’s The Bamboo Blonde (1946) with Frances Langford, was his last film.

Antrim Short got a taste of success at age 8, when he was cast in the Broadway production of Salvation Nell (1908) starring Mrs. Fiske. Bobby’s Baby (1913) with Lois Weber, in which he played Bobby, was the first of his nearly 80 films. He was something of a juvenile star during the silent period, often in the kinds of roles associated with Jack Pickford. Of scores of silents he appeared in, he may be best remembered in the role of Joe Harper in Tom Sawyer (1917) and Huck and Tom (1918). A Greenwich Village Romance (1927) was the last film from this period. He then went east to appear in a play called Carnival on Broadway. Later he returned to Hollywood as a bit player, appearing in numerous films between 1934 and 1937, including major ones like Redheads on Parade (1935), The MIlky Way (1936), and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

In two of his films from this period, Rose Bowl and The Big Show, both in 1936, he worked with fellow bit player Frances Morris (1908-2003) who became his wife. Antrim dropped out of acting right after this and became a Hollywood agent.

Frances, however, continued working before the camera for nearly three more decades, amassing around 250 screen credits. Interestingly she was born in the same town as Florence Short, Springfield Massachusetts. She had a few decent supporting roles in B movie westerns 1929-35, but worked mostly as a bit player. You can see her in Harold Lloyd’s The Cat’s Paw (1934) and Professor Beware (1938), Laurel and Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland (1936), Winterset (1936), Easy Living (1937), Stella Dallas (1937), Charlie McCarthy Detective (1939), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Casanaova Brown (1944), Duffy’s Tavern (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and dozens of others, often cast as nurses or secretaries. In the ’50s she naturally worked in television. She had a recurring role as the Landlady in Walt Disney’s Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure (1956). Her last screen work was on TV westerns like Wagon Train and The Virginian in 1964.

Gertrude Short arguably had the most successful career of those in her nuclear family. She has almost 150 screen credits; we’ll just hot a few highlights. She was ten when she was cast in IMP’s Hearts in Conflict (1912). The following year she played Eva in Universal’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1915 she appeared in Fatty’s Infatuation, starring L-KO’s Fatty Arbuckle rip-off character played by Willard Gardner (an ill-fated gambit — this was Gardner’s second and last film and the only one as “Fatty”). In 1916 she appeared in Luke’s Movie Muddle, a comedy still enjoyed by Harold Lloyd fans. She played the supporting role of “Topsy” in both The Gold Diggers (1923) and Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). She was in Arbuckle’s Leap Year (1924).

“The Telephone Girl” series. Gertrude is holding the funnies, with Vaughn to her left

In 1924 she was also one of the cast regulars (playing the parts of Hazel and Sadie) in “The Telephone Girl” series starring Alberta Vaughan. Several of these were directed by Scott Pembroke (1889-1951), whom Short was to marry. Short also had a good supporting part that year in the screen adaptation of Clyde Fitch’s Barbara Frietchie starring Florence Vidor. The following year she was in the 1925 adaptation of Beggar on Horseback by Kaufman and Connelly, starring Everett Edward Horton and Esther Ralston. 1927 was another good year: she was in The Show with John Gilbert, Tillie the Toiler with Marion Davies, and starred as the title character in Polly of the Movies, with Jason Robards Sr. 

MacCloy, Schilling and Short in “Gigolettes” ((1932)

In the early talkie era (1932) she co-starred in Pathe’s “Gay Girls” series of comedy shorts with June MacCloy and Marion Schilling, some of which were directed by Roscoe Arbuckle as William Goodrich. You can also see her in a good role in Henry Lehrman’s The Butter ‘n’ Yeggman (1931) with George Sidney. In the talking era she was mostly a bit player, although she was in many classic films: Laughing Sinners (1931) with Crawford and Gable, What Price Hollywood? (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), Son of Kong (1933), The Thin Man (1934), Follow the Fleet (1937), The Big Broadcast of 1937, et al. In 1936 she appeared in the Broadway show Arrest That Woman, then returned to Hollywood as an extra for another decade. Her last film was a supporting part in the Pete Smith comedy short Gettin’ Glamour (1946).

And now some words on Gertrude’s husband Scott Pembroke. Originally from San Francisco he initially began his career as an actor under his given name Percy Pembroke. He broke into films in 1914 in the adventure serial The Hazards of Helen. As an actor he appeared in 72 movies through 1924, in such things as The Adventures of Tarzan (1921), and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1922). His first film as director was the 1920 Eddie Boland comedy June Madness. For Hal Roach and other studios he also directed numerous comedies starring the likes of Stan Laurel (prior to his teaming with Hardy); Will Rogers, Billy West, Jimmy Aubrey, Syd Saylor, et al. By 1927 he had graduated to features and rebranded himself as Scott Pembroke. One of the first of these was Gertrude’s starring feature Polly of the Movies. Some of his other features included Gypsy of the North (1928) with Georgia Hale; Sisters of Eve (1928) with Anita Stewart, Betty Blythe, and Creighton Hale; The Black Pearl (1928) with Lila Lee; Two Sisters (1929) with Viola Dana; Shanghai Rose (1929) with Irene Rich; The Medicine Man (1930) with Jack Benny and Betty Bronson; and The Jazz Cinderella (1930) with Myrna Loy and Jason Robards Sr. After the latter film it was six years until his next picture, The Oregon Trail (1936) with John Wayne. The following year he directed Telephone Operator, his last.

Pembroke died in 1951; Estelle Short had died in 1949. After this, Lew moved in with Gertrude through his remaining years (through 1958) in this house. Gertrude died a decade later.

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