Sorting Out the Smiths

I hope the title of this post doesn’t result in disappointment for some people (actually, I don’t care). While it’s not impossible that I would ever write an article about the ’80s New Wave band The Smiths, let’s just say it wouldn’t occur any time in the near future. I could conceivably get around to such a thing 20 or 30 years from now. Prior to that, if left to my own devices a “Smiths” article by me would likely concern such things as Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith, Stan Laurel’s Smithy, or for that matter something on the Greek God Hφαιστος.

As it happens, today’s piece is about several men with the Smith surname who wrote lyrics and books to Broadway shows in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The fact that there were no fewer than three of them, and that they collaborated in various combinations has always muddled me a little, so we’ll use this space to, as we say, sort them out. The men in question are Harry B. Smith (1860-1936), his younger brother Robert B. Smith (1875-1951) and the unrelated Edgar Smith (1857-1938). Unrelated, I said. Yet, see how Harry’s and Edgar’s names are linked together on the sheet music above? This could lead to confusion.

Harry and Robert grew up in Chicago. Harry, the elder by 15 years, started as music critic for the Chicago Daily News and then was drama critic at the Tribune. This led to opportunities in the theatre. With composer Reginald de Koven he co-wrote operettas like Robin Hood (1890) and Rob Roy (1894). With Victor Herbert, such shows as The Wizard of the Nile (1895) with Frank Daniels, and a musical adaptation of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1908). He worked on several Weber and Field shows (which is confusing because so did Edgar). He wrote for several of the earliest editions of the Ziegfeld Follies (1907-1912). He wrote the book to Irving Berlin’s first show Watch Your Step (1914) starring Vernon and Irene Castle. His last new show (out of dozens) was Marching By (1932). Robert’s numerous Broadway credits were mostly in collaboration with his brother as senior partner.

Edgar Smith was even more associated with Weber and Fields than the Smith Brothers (ha! I said “Smith Brothers”. I say, I say, it’s a cough drop, son!) His profile was a bit different. He came from Brooklyn, and was an actor in addition to being a writer. As opposed to Harry Smith, who had been associated with librettos for some relatively slick operettas, Edgar was more down in the trenches, a sketch writer as well as a lyricist. Other than the WeberfFields (and just Weber) productions, he was known for such shows as The Merry-Go-Round (1908) with Mabel Hite and James J. Morton, Tillie’s Nightmare (1910) with Marie Dressler (the basis for the film Tillie’s Punctured Romance), La Belle Paree (1911) with Al Jolson, Robinson Crusoe Jr (1916) with Jolson, and many other shows. He also contributed to the original 1903 production of The Wizard of Oz.

We cannot discuss these Smiths without mentioning two Smith women, both named Irene Bentley, and both connected with Harry B. Smith. The first Irene Bentley (ca. 1870-1940) was Smith’s wife, and an actress, and she appeared in several of his shows including The Rounders (1899), The Casino Girl (1900), The Belle of Bohemia (1900), The Strollers (1901), The Wild Rose (1902), and The Girl from Dixie (1903). Confusingly she was also in The Mimic World (1908) which featured lyrics by Edgar, but not by Harry.

For more confusion, we give you the other Irene Bentley (1904-1965). She was the older Irene Bentley’s niece, and had a very brief screen career spanning all of two years and six films. She is sixth billed in My Weakness (1933) under Lillian Harvey, Lew Ayres, Charles Butterworth, Harry Langdon, and Sid Silvers. She’s actually the female lead in two westerns Smoky (1933) opposite Victor Jory, and Frontier Marshall (1934) with George O’Brien. Then, for whatever reason, a mysterious and rapid drop in status. She has uncredited bit role in David Harum with Will Rogers and Louise Dresser. And she’s a chorus girl in Kid Millions (1934) and Folies Bergère de Paris (1935).

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.