George E. Stone: From Sewer Rat to Society Max

Today we expend a few syllables to extol the accomplishments of George E. Stone (Gerschon Lichtenstein, 1903-1967). Stone was a supporting player whose roles embraced a wide range of sizes, from second-billed to walk-on. He often played gangster types, and was a friend of Damon Runyon. For quick reference, he played the condemned man Earl Wilson in the 1931 screen version of The Front Page. and Society Max in Guys and Dolls (1955). It will only be with great restraint that I don’t list every one of his nearly 200 movies, there are so many classics and notable turns.

Stone was a Polish Jew (born in Lodz) who immigrated to New York at the age of 10 with his family. He started out as a vaudeville hoofer and graduated to stage plays. His one Broadway credit was Hello, Lola (1926) with Jay C. Flippen. He was originally billed as Georgie Stone, but he decided to tweak it to sound more mature (though it was good enough for Georgie Jessel and Georgie Price!)

In two of his earliest films, his character was named merely “sewer rat”, which will give you some idea of what his screen image was like. (The two pictures were Seventh Heaven [1927] and The Redeeming Sin [1929]). Little Caesar (1931) is the best remembered of the classic gangster pictures he appeared in, in the role of Otero. He was also “Velvet” in Brass Knuckles (1927), “Flash” in San Francisco Nights (1928), “Sparrow” in Tenderloin (1928), “Slinky” in The Crimson City (1928) and State Street Sadie (1928), Joe Scarsi in The Racket (1928), Tony Caponi in Naughty Baby (1928), “Johnny the Sheik” in Sob Sister (1931), “Skeets” in Taxi (1932), “Spats” in Sing Sinner Sing (1933), “Butch” in Public Hero No. 1 (1935), “Silk” in Man Hunt (1936), “Wires” in Bullets or Ballots (1936), and “Weeper” in Jail Break (1936), et al. His one starring picture was the title character in The Big Brain (1933) with Phillips Holmes and Fay Wray, in which he plays a guy who goes from sweeping up the back room at the barber shop to being a criminal kingpin, all on account of his diabolical, mysterious ability to plan and think.

Stone’s vaudeville background stood him in good stead in Melody Lane (1929) with Eddie Leonard and Josephine Dunn, Under a Texas Moon (1930) with Frank Fay, The Medicine Man (1930) with Jack Benny, the musical classic 42nd Street (1933), Polo Joe (1936) with Joe E. Brown, Scared Stiff (1945) with Jack Haley, the 1946 version of Abie’s Irish Rose, and A Girl in Every Port (1952) with Groucho Marx. (He also had a role in that 1957 oddity, known to all Marx Brothers fans, The Story of Mankind)

In westerns, Stone was often the token Jew: he played Sol in Cimarron (1931), Abe in Frontier Marshall (1934), Solly in Frisco Kid (1935), and Abe in Cherokee Strip (1940). On other occasions he played Mexican characters. He also did mysteries and horror. He was part of the all-star ensmble in The Vampire Bat (1933 billed just under Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, and Maude Eburne, but above Dwight Frye). He also played Chester Morris’s sidekick The Runt in the Boston Blackie series of movies, as well as on radio, thoughout the 1940s.

Stone was in Runyon’s Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952) and Guys and Dolls (1955). Undoubtedly by way of the latter he also appeared with Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Goldern Arm (1956), Some Came Running (1958) and Oceans 11 (1960). With Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis he appeared in 3 Ring Circus (1954); with Mickey Rooney he was in Baby Face Nelson (1957), with Bob Hope he was in Alias Jesse James (1959). He often seemed to be cast for nostalgic purposes in some of his last roles, such as Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) and Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (1961), which was course another Runyon story.

In the 1960 Vincent Minnelli musical Bells Are Ringing with Dean Martin and Judy Holiday, Stone played a Blind Bookie, and sadly there was more truth to the casting than anyone would have liked. He was indeed going blind. At this stage Raymond Burr got him a recurring role as a Court Reporter on Perry Mason, for which he only had to sit, pretend to listen, and type. He was in nearly four dozen episodes of the show from 1958 to 1962. His last credit was a 1963 episode of 77 Sunset Strip. He died of stroke-related causes in 1967.

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