The Other Johnny Burke: “Ragtime Soldier Man” and “Handy Andy”

Some attention today for Johnny Burke (1881-1952), but not the songwriter who penned Tin Pan Alley tunes with Jimmy Van Heusen — that’s a topic for a different day. This Johnny Burke was a vaudeville and silent screen comedian.

Starting around 1910, prior to both World War One and the eponymous Irving Berlin tune, Johnny Burke was touring the vaudeville circuits with an act called “The Ragtime Soldier Man”. The advent of the war gave his “dough-boy” act a boost, and he performed it for years, changing the title to “Dirty Work” in 1925. When Harry Langdon left Mack Sennett in 1926 to make features, Sennett sought to replace him with a similar veteran of the circuits who was “ready made”, so to speak. The tricky difficulty was that most silent comedy stars of the top rank were men in their mid ’20s. By the time of his hiring, good-looking Burke was in his mid ’40s, normally the age of character actors who played supporting parts.

Burke made just over a couple of dozen movies in his short screen career, most of them between 1927 and 1930. His first film was a supporting part in A Blonde’s Revenge, starring Ben Turpin and Vernon Dent, at the end of 1926. After playing several similar supporting parts, the rationale for hiring him was finally unveiled: The Good-Bye Kiss (1928), a feature loosely inspired by his soldier act, co-starring Sally Eilers. It was the first Sennett film to included sound elements. Next he was tried in a series of “Handy Andy” comedies, Harry Langdon retreads helmed by Harry Edwards (who’d directed the Langdon comedies), co-starring Langdon’s usual co-star, Vernon Dent. These were not successes. But he also starred in other Sennett comedies, as well, usually opposite Daphne Pollard. His last Sennett film was the talkie short He Trumped Her Ace (1930) with Marjorie Beebe. He returned to the screen just twice. In 1937 he appeared in a Vitaphone Vaudeville called Vitaphone Funsters, performing his act on a bill that included The Three Swifts, The Three Reddingtons, and the dance team of Andrew and Louise Carr. In 1940, now sixty years old, he played an old farmer named Silas in a production of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men, directed by Norman McLeod. 

For more on Johnny Burke and his films, I direct you to Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory by Brent Walker, which was a great help in the creation of this post. To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent and classic film comedy in general please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.