Frank Butler: From Roach to “Road” Pictures

Today we write of Frank R. Butler (1890-1967), not to be be confused with Frank E. Butler, sharpshooter and husband of Annie Oakley. Our Butler was a a silent screen actor and screenwriter, mostly associated with classic comedy, although he worked in many genres.

My information on Butler’s early years is sketchy. Born in Oxford England, he appears to have started out on the music hall as a comic and worked his way to North America. Some of his earliest film credits bear the billing “F.R. Butler”; he may have used this handle on the stage to avoid confusion with the aforementioned sharpshooter. At the time his son Hugo Butler (also a well known screenwriter) was born (1914) Frank was working on the Pacific Canadian Railway.

In 1920 Butler begins showing up in Hollywood films. Indeed, right out of the gate he has decent supporting parts, usually quite high up in the billing, in some major Hollywood films, such as The Great Moment (1921) with Gloria Swanson, The Sheik (1921) with Rudolph Valentino, Bluebeard’s 8th Wife (1923) with Swanson, Call of the Wild (1923) with Jack Mulhall, Satan in Sables (1925) with Lowell Sherman, Made for Love (1926) with Leatrice Joy, and some Buck Jones westerns.

In 1923 Butler began starring in Hal Roach’s “Spat Family” series of comedies, directed by Fred Guiol, in which he played a character named Tewksbury Spat, who was not unlike the characters of Harold Lloyd or Charley Chase. There were a couple of dozen of these Spat comedies through 1925. During the silent period, he also supported other Roach comedians, like Will Rogers and Max Davidson, and starred in a couple of comedies himself outside of the Spat series. Towards the end of the silent era he transitioned to becoming part of the team behind the camera. He directed one Laurel and Hardy comedy Flying Elephants (1927). and was one of the writers on the shorts The Nickle Hopper (1926) with Mabel Normand; The Honorable Mr. Buggs (1927) with Matt Moore, Anna May Wong, and Oliver Hardy; and Sailors Beware (1927) with a not-yet-teamed Hardy and Stan Laurel.

Writing dialogue seems to have been Butler’s true metier. He was one of the writers on the Laurel and Hardy features March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), Bonnie Scotland (1935), and The Bohemian Girl (1936). Other classic comedies that bear Butler’s credit include Eddie Cantor’s Strike Me Pink (1936), Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way (1936), four of the Hope and Crosby Road movies (Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco and Bali) as well as Hope’s My Favorite Blonde (1942) and Crosby’s Going My Way (1944), for which he won a screenwriting Oscar (shared with Frank Cavett). Related stuff includes the all-star College Humor (1933), When a Feller Needs a Freind (1932) with Chic Sale and Jackie Cooper, the Texas Guinan bio-pic Incendiary Blonde (1945), and The Perils of Pauline (1947), the latter two with Betty Hutton. His last screen credit was The Miracle (1959).

For more on silent and classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.