Irving Bacon: From Vaudeville to Van Dyke

One might be forgiven for assuming that character actor Irving Bacon (1893-1965) was a brother or some other relative to director Lloyd Bacon, since the former acted in some of the latter’s movies, but it is not the case. Irving was the son of actors Millar Bacon (1877-1911) and Myrtle Vane (1867-1932). Millar had acted with the Webster-Ross Stock Company in northern California. Myrtle was also a stage actor and appeared in support of the likes of Madge Bellamy, Colleen Moore, and Florence Vidor in silent films in 1923 and 1924.

Irving appeared in stock companies and vaudeville in his younger youth. His first verified film was Keystone’s A Favorite Fool (1915) with Eddie Foy and Polly Moran. After nearly a decade he returned to work for Mack Sennett in 1924, acting in around 85 comedy shorts between that year and 1932, around 1/7 of his overall body of work. There is a tendency to privilege his appearances in features, as though shorts aren’t even worth mentioning, a pretty common failing on the part of commentators. But from our perspective, they are of great significance. At Sennett, he worked with the likes of Harry Langdon, Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde, Ben Turpin, Ralph Graves, Alice Day, Madeleine Hurlock, Daphne Pollard, Vernon Dent, and a young Carole Lombard, as well as directors like the aforemention Lloyd Bacon, Harry Edwards, Sennett himself, and Larry Semon. He was never the star, even of these little program-filling comedies, just a supporting player in roles as waiters, servants, and so forth but he did establish a reputation as a reliable player, as well as professional relationships that would stand him in good stead for decades. Some better remember films he appeared in for Sennett include Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies (1925), His First Flame (1927), and the Smith comedies. One of his last Sennett shorts was Sing, Bing, Sing (1933) with a young Bing Crosby. Off the Sennett lot, he was also in several Dane and Arthur comedies in 1930.

One could go crazy trying to list of Bacon’s over 500 screen credits, but we will try to restrict ourselves to the more relevant areas of classic comedy. For example he’s in numerous W.C. Fields comedies, including Her Majesty Love (1931), Million Dollar Legs (1932), If I Had a Million (1932), Tillie and Gus (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and Song of the Open Road (1944). With Joe E. Brown you can see him in Bright Lights (1935), and Earthworm Tractors (1936). Other classic comedies and relevant pictures include The Vrginia Judge (1935) with Walter C. Kelly , The Singing Kid (1936) with Al Jolson , Arizona Mahoney (1936) with Joe Cook, Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) with Mae West, Professor Beware (1938) with Harold Lloyd, The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), Pack Up Your Troubles (1939) with the Ritz Brothers and Jane Withers, At the Circus (1939) with the Marx Brothers, Great Guns with Laurel and Hardy (1941), The Wild Man of Borneo (1941) with Frank Morgan, Two Weeks to Live (1943) with Lum and Abner, and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) with Charlie Chaplin. He played Mr. Beazly in the Blondie films, and was also in movies in the Maisie and Ma and Pa Kettle series.

Bacon was also in musical and variety extravaganzas like The Big Broadcast (1932, as well as the 1937 and 1938 editions), George White’s Scandals (1934), Vogues of 1938, Merry-Go-Round of 1938, Broadway Melody of 1940, and the WWII musicals Star Spangled Rhythm (1943), and This is the Army (1943).

Frank Capra liked Bacon so much he featured him in Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Broadway Bill (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Meet John Doe (1941), State of the Union (1948), and Riding High (1950). For Howard Hawks, His Girl Friday (1940). You’ll be appalled at some of the classic films I’ve omitted to mention, but I do think it’s worth including that he’s in the BOTH of the first two versions of A Star is Born.

Naturally when television came along, he worked in that medium as well. He played Ethel’s father on an episode of I Love Lucy, and was also on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and My Little Margie. His last credit a 1965 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show — capping off a 50 year career.

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