Tom Murray: from Black Larsen to the Beverly Hillbillies

Tom Murray (1874-1935) appeared in fewer than two dozen films, most of them silent comedies, but some of them are so significant that we understate to say that he rates attention here. Murray’s best known role was that of the villainous Black Larsen in Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about his screen character. He typically played rough, tough, mean, big guys with a rural mien in keeping with his origins in downstate Illinois.

Murray first appeared with Marcel Perez in a half dozen of his “Tweedledum” comedies in 1916. After a gap of some years he returned to the screen in the Irene Castle picture French Heels (1922), and worked pretty steadily before movie cameras through the end of the silent era. Murray also supported Edward Everett Horton in Too Much Business and The Ladder Jinx, Brownie the Dog in Sic ’em Brownie, and Billy West in Don’t Be Foolish (all 1922), Chaplin in The Pilgrim and Bert Lytell in The Meanest Man in the World (both 1923), Bobby Vernon in Ride ’em Cowboy (1924), Edward Everett Horton again in The Business of Love (1925), Harry Langdon in Tramp Tramp Tramp (1926), and Georgie Jessel in Private Izzie Murphy (1926). He also has a walk on in Corinne Griffith’s Into Her Kingdom (1926), a costume drama.

Apart from the pictures, Murray had an entirely different career as a country musician: his two bands were known as the Beverly Hillbillies (for real!) and The Hollywood Hillbillies, sometimes called Uncle Tom Murray’s Hollywood Hillbillies. Roy Rogers, Shug Fisher, and Ramblin’ Tommy Scott are some of the well known performers who played in his outfits, which played live dates and were also popular on radio. How great that he shares a birthday with both Jimmie Rodgers and Patsy Cline! In 1931, Murray appeared in his only talkie, a low-budget western called White Renegade, in which fellow silent comedy vet Billy Franey also appeared.

Murray was married to stage and screen comedienne Louise Carver, with whom he appeared in some of those old Tweedledum comedies. He died at age 60, two days after his Gold Rush co-star Mack Swain.

For more on silent slapstick comedy, in which Tom Murray occupied his own special niche, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.