Walter James: Supported Silent Comedy’s Big Three

Stage and screen actor Walter James (1882-1946) had the rare distinction of playing good-sized supporting roles in features by all three top silent comedy stars: Battling Butler (1926) with Buster Keaton; The Kid Brother (1927), The Cat’s Paw (1934) and Professor Beware (1938) with Harold Lloyd; and Modern Times (1936) with Charlie Chaplin. A large man, he often played heavies, not unlike his fellow Walter, Walter Long.

James started out in vaudeville and with touring stock companies. His origins in Chattanooga lead me to speculate that prior to that he might also have had some experience in medicine shows, tent shows, show boats, and such like. His five dozen screen credits begin in 1915 with The Unbroken Road starring Mary Nash. His biggest screen roles were during the silent era. 1925 might have been his best year: he had the plum role of Mary Pickford’s father in Little Annie Rooney, and “Caliban” in The Monster with Lon Chaney. In the sound years he was mostly relegated to extra roles and walk-ons, with bigger parts in B movie westerns. You can see him in Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934) with Wheeler and Woolsey, and also such movies as Street Scene (1931), Ann Vickers (1933), Oh Susanna (1936) with Gene Autry, the 1938 Lone Ranger serial, and, believe it or not, Citizen Kane (1941). His last speaking part was in The Panther’s Claw (1942) with Sidney Blackmer. Walter James had been inactive for several years when felled by a heart attack at age 64.

For more on vaudeville, 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.