Smiling Billy Parsons: The Cinema’s Most Successful Dilettante

I had a heck of a time getting a bead initially on today’s subject, for two not insignificant reasons, over and above his relative obscurity. One is his multiplicity of professional names. William Parsons (1878-1919) also went by W.E. Parsons, William E. Parsons. Bill Parsons, Smiling Bill Parsons, and Smiling Billy Parsons. The other reason I had a tough time tracking him down is that there have been many distinguished men named William Parsons throughout history, including an 18th century English actor/comedian, a 19th century Anglo-Irish scientist, an American architect, a rockabilly performer, a key member of the crew that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, a professional baseball player, and a court composer to King George III.

Our William Parsons of course features in the silent film business. Originally from Middletown, New York, he studied medicine, but eventually became a prosperous life insurance executive. Then, at the age of 36, he decided he wanted to go into the movies — as an actor. Amazingly, he was a success at it. In 1914, he played the title character in Vitagraph’s The Brute opposite William Desmond Taylor, the first of his 77 screen credits as an actor. His skills as an insurance salesman, combined with the fact that, as a stout, balding middle aged man he was a useful type, initially got him cast in dramas as studios like Vitagraph and Lubin.

Then after only a year in the business, Parsons brought together five other partners and formed the National Film Corporation of America, bringing talent like the Talmadge Sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Carter de Haven, and Henry B. Walthall into the fold, without breaking stride himself as an actor. In 1917 his wife Bertha divorced him, but she bet wrong regarding his prospects. For the following year he purchased the rights to Edgar Rice Boroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes and produced the first screen version, starring Elmo Lincoln. Obviously, it was a massive hit. I’m sure his ex-wife was kicking herself!

That same year of 1918, he launched his Smiling Billy Parsons comedies, in which Parsons starred as a character clearly based on himself, cheerful, plucky, and persuasive. Much like the earlier John Bunny, he would sometimes get into rascally trouble, but he had a knack for negotiating his way out of it. He married his costar in the Smiling Bill comedies, Billie Rhodes, in 1919. Also in 1919, he hired the vaudeville team of Neely Edwards and Edward Flanagan to star in a series of popular Hallroom Boys comedies, based on the comic strip.

Then in September of 1919, it all ended with tragic abruptness. Only 41 years old, Parsons died of what may have been a kidney problem, or complications from diabetes. This comes from Grace Kingsley’s Hollywood‘s excellent post, which also solved the mystery for me of what Parsons did prior to entering films. Parsons’ last screen credit was the posthumous crime drama Eyes of the Heart (1920) with Mary Miles Minter and Lucien Littlefield.

Today, the public’s memory of Parsons is nonexistent, and his footprint was never very large to begin with. Why do I call him cinema’s most successful dilettante? Because he was on his WAY. When I think of Hollywood’s best known moneybags dabblers, guys like William Randolph Hearst and Howard Hughes, I think of guys who don’t have the movie business in their bones, to put it mildly. As producers they had crummy instincts and talent only for wasting money. For whatever reason, Parsons had an eye for promising properties. Tarzan obviously remains popular with screen audiences down to the present day, over a century later. The Hallroom Boys franchise also outlived the producer, as it was taken over by Harry and Jack Cohn prior to their formation of Columbia, and it kept going well into the 1920s. You can think as a sort of foreshadowing for their later Columbia shorts department, home of the Three Stooges, et al. Even the Smiling Billy rubric outlasted Parsons: silent star Billy Sullivan used it as the title of a 1927 action film co-starring Jimmy Aubrey and Armida.

As an impresario, Parsons was kind of pioneering new territory. In some ways he was kind of like Mack Sennett or Hal Roach, except unlike them he didn’t stop acting when he became a mini-mogul. Yet he was doing this at a time when the big studios were being founded. What would his place have been, in that environment? What would he have gone on to do if he’d lived 40 more years?

For more on early silent screen comedy, please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.