William LeBaron: Comedy Champion

William LeBaron (1883-1958) is a figure I knew chiefly about as a Hollywood executive who gave a lot of opportunity and support to some of my favorite classic comedians, but it’s important to know that he also started as a “creative” and had a lengthy stage career as a writer first.

Originally from Elgin Illinois, LeBaron attended the University of Chicago and NYU. He co-wrote his first show The Echo (1910) with Deems Taylor, whom you may remember as the narrator in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940). Produced by Charles Dillingham, the show featured Bessie McCoy, Annie Yeamans, George White, the Dolly Sisters, and Arthur Hill in the very promising-sounding role of Mr. Bruin, which suggests to me that he was wearing a bear costume. Another 15 shows followed over as many years for which LeBaron wrote the books and/or song lyrics, including the revues Hello Paris and A La Broadway, both 1911 at Jesse Lasky’s short-lived Folies Bergère. This has to have been where he met Mae West, whom he would later champion at Lasky’s studio Paramount.

Meantime LeBaron had begun to dip his toe in silent films in the late teens, working for William Randolph Hearst at Cosmopolitan Pictures. The Marion Davies vehicle When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) was one of the films he worked on. Something to brag about (1925), co-written with Edgar Selwyn, was his last Broadway show. Early films from his Hollywood period include It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and Running Wild (1927) with W.C. Fields, and George Kelly’s The Show-Off (1926) with Ford Sterling and Louise Brooks (who had also been in It’s the Old Army Game.) From Famous Players-Lasky he went to FBO, which morphed into RKO with Joseph Kennedy at the helm. There, he was instrumental in overseeing the early films of Wheeler and Woosley and Dorothy Lee, as well as other early classics such as the 1931 version of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron.

LeBaron then went to Paramount where he produced the vehicles of W.C. Fields and Mae West and things like Baby Face (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck. In 1936 he was made production chief, replacing Ernst Lubitsch and remaining there in the post until 1941, long enough to have the early films of Preston Sturges and Bob Hope come off the line under his watch. From there he went to 20th Century Fox, where he remained until his retirement in 1947, produing films like Stormy Weather (1943) with Lena Horne, and Pin-Up Girl (1944) with Betty Grable. The last film to bear his credit was Carnegie Hall (1947).

In 1909, LeBaron married British-American musical comedy actress Mabel Hollins, whose Broadway credits had included Piff! Paff! Pouff! (1904) with Eddie Foy and John Hyams, His Honor the Mayor (1906-07) with Blanche Ring, The Little Cherub (1906-07), and The Girls of Gottenburg (1908) with Louise Dresser. Her sister Hilda Hollins was also a Broadway actress, with a similar list of shows over the same period, notable The Sambo Girl (1905) with Eva Tanguay. (Oh and let’s not forget Bill’s brother — Chrysler LeBaron! Ar! Ar!)

At any rate, both Fields and West had been embattled at Paramount. LeBaron is fondly remembered by their fans for championing them while they were at the studio.

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To learn more about entertainment history, 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.