John Berkes: From Broadway to the Bowery

Thanks be to friend and colleague Jenny Lee Mitchell for calling my attention to stage and screen comedian John Berkes (1895-1951). Berkes’ early life in Trenton is an enigma but he made good early, and was a well known vaudeville and Broadway performer when quite young, co-starred in comedy shorts for a time, and in his later years was a beloved bit player, often in “drunk” or “bum” turns.

Berkes was only 21 when he began getting quite prominent parts in Shubert shows. He was in Robinson Crusoe Jr (1916) and Sinbad (1918-19) with Al Jolson, and The Passing Show of 1921. Throughout the ’20s, he played the big time Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit as a comedian. In the mid-20s he was teamed for a time with Benny Rubin’s former partner Sheila Terry.

Berkes’ first film was the Vitaphone short Double Exposure (1935) co-starring a young Bob Hope. Berkes style is often compared to Stan Laurel in this picture. He plays Hope’s assistant; Hope is a photographer. In the film, Hope is directed to slap Berkes repeatedly in the low comedy style associated with the Three Stooges. The Stooge mention is not random; Berkes was to appear in several comedy shorts with Shemp Howard in 1936 and 1937, including many of the Joe Palooka films, along with at least one more opposite Hope. By the late ’30s movie shorts were on the way out, though Berkes did support others in a few more of them in the early ’40s, starring the likes of Walter Catlett, William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, and Edgar Kennedy.

Throughout the ’40s, Berkes was able to movie his career along as a bit player in features. Classic comedies you can see him include the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941), Nazty Nuisance (1943) with Bobby Watson and Johnny Arthur, Lost in a Harem (1944) with Abbott and Costello, Nothing But Trouble (1944) with Laurel and Hardy, Monsieur Beaucaire (1946) with Bob Hope, and The Egg and I (1947) with Ma and Pa Kettle. Romance on the High Seas (1948) with Doris Day was the picture Jenny and her husband Aldo Perez took note of him in (he does a drunk turn). Berkes had kind of a hangdog face, with big eyes with bags under them that made him good for characters in crime stories and other seedy settings. You can also see him in such things as Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), Gang Busters (1942), Bowery Nights (1942), The Killers (1946) and The Corpse Came C.O.D. (1947). Other classics you can see him include Woman of the Year (1942), Shine on Harvest Moon (1944), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). His last film was Journey into Light (1951), wherein Sterling Hayden plays a minister whose wife commits suicide, so he becomes an alcoholic on Skid Row…where he encounters the likes of John Berkes.

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