T.S. Eliot was such a fan of British music hall comedian Ernest “Ernie” Lotinga (1875-1951) that he once wrote to Virginia Woolf, calling him ” “the greatest living British histrionic artist, in the purest tradition of British obscenity.” Born to well-off Jewish parents in Sunderland, England, Lotinga began his career in the 1880s and 1890s under the handle Dan Roe or Roy. For a time he had a knockabout act called the Six Brothers Luck, modeled on the successful act The Three Karnos but in 1909 he developed his most popular creation, a character named Jimmy Josser, whom he was to portray in comedy sketches and later in plays and films, for decades. (Josser is British slang, for a boob, a dope, or simpleton).
From 1901 to 1917 Lotinger was married to the great music hall male impersonator Hetty King. King had been part of the Six Brothers Luck, for a time. They broke up during their wartime tour as a team when Hetty had an affair with Jack Norworth.
As the Eliot remarks would indicate, Lotinga often ran afoul of authorities for pushing the limits with his act (England has always had stricter censorship laws than the U.S., though with different emphases). In 1924, his military stage comedy Khaki was closed down for making fun of officers!
In 1928 Lotinga broke into movies with a series of DeForest Phonofilms. His shorts included The Raw Recruit, The Orderly Room, Nap, Joining Up (all 1928) Josser KC, Doing His Duty, Acc-idental Treatment, and Spirits (all 1929). He then returned for a series of features: Dr. Josser K.C. (1931), P.C. Josser (1931), Josser in the Army (1932), Josser Joins the Navy (1932), Josser On the River (1932), Josser on the Farm (1934), Smiths Wives, or Josser’s Detective Agency (1935), and Love Up the Pole (1936), which also featured the naughty burlesque star Phyllis Dixey. I was delighted to learn that several of his movies also featured the droll Wilfred Hyde-White, whom I first knew from film and tv appearances as an old man (for example he was on the sitcom The Associates with Martin Short).
After the movie spigit stopped flowing, Lotinga returned to what he knew best: music hall, where he continued to perform his punning brand of old school comedy until his death in 1951.
Sadly most of Lotinga’s films are now lost.But he has been immortalized in sculpture. Learn about that and much more in this wonderful essay on Vinny’s Mislaid Comedy Heroes.
To learn more about vaudeville, 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.