Archive for clowns

Ten Tramp Comedians

Posted in Clown, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

This weekend is the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. I have always been partial both to the hobo ethic itself (I’ve been working on an essay about that very thing for a while now) and the image of the Tramp Comedian or Clown. The first costume I can recall ever wearing was a tramp/clown get-up for a Halloween parade when I was about four years old. It captures the imagination — the rootless wanderer, riding the rails, hitting the road, no ties, bindlestiff on his shoulder. Samuel Beckett put a core of such characters at the center of his masterpiece Waiting for Godot, the first non-children’s show I ever saw in a theatre. And it’s the theme of one of my favorite terrifically strange movie musicals Hallelujah I’m a Bum

The theme is romantic, sentimental. And, in the hands of the right comedian, it is funny. Here’s a handful of some prominent ones from vaudeville, circus and films (there were scores, maybe hundreds of others besides these). Just click the links below to learn more about the performers.

Charlie Chaplin

Tramp comedians had long been popular in vaudeville and music hall when Chaplin decided to take his screen character in that direction, thus becoming the most popular tramp in the entire world. Not only were there other tramp comics in the world, but there were several that looked like Charlie’s. Chaplin was said (by some) to have taken his took from Billie Ritchie ; in turn Billy West stole his look and act from Chaplin.

Nat M. Wills

Billed as “The Happy Tramp”, Wills may well have been America’s most popular stage tramp from the turn of the century to his untimely death in 1917. He was a star of vaudeville, Broadway, and some of the very first comedy albums.

Harrigan

Harrigan was widely emulated in vaudeville from the late 19th century through the early 20th as the first tramp juggler. 

W.C. Fields

One of the many to emulate Harrigan early in his career was the young W.C. Fields, shown here in his tramp get-up around the turn of the century

Emmett Kelly a.k.a Wearie Willie

Circus performer Emmett Kelly’s sad clown make-up and costume were so much imitated it became a cliche.

Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader

Stage and screen Skelton had a repertoire of many characters; his clown “bum” Freddie may have been the most beloved.

Lew Bloom

Bloom was the first of the tramp comedians, preceding even Wills or Harrigan. He was known as “The Society Tramp”.

George Dewey Washington 

African American comedian George Dewey Washington affected a tramp look in Broadway and in films.

To learn more about vaudeville, including specialties like tramp comedians, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

 

 

 

When Did the Circus Become Un-American? (Keynote Speech, Congress of Curious Peoples)

Posted in AMERICANA, BROOKLYN, Circus, Coney Island, CULTURE & POLITICS, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2017 by travsd

New Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame

This past weekend was the annual Congress of Curious Peoples at Coney Island USA. I was honored to be asked to give the keynote address this year on the topic “When Did the Circus Become un-American?” My speech followed the public unveiling of CIUSA’s new Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame (above). The content of my speech is here. Thanks Norman Blake and Carolyn Raship for photos!

WHEN DID THE CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?

…Before we tackle the main question we should point out, and maybe some of you are way ahead of me, that the modern circus in and of itself per se is NOT by definition American, as much as it pains me to point out.  The modern circus was invented in England by equestrian Philip Astley and later improved upon in America even as it was simultaneously evolving all over Europe. There’s plenty about the American circus that may well not speak to Europeans, and they have the right to their erroneous opinions even as I have the right to my infallible ones. At any, there are plenty of the oldest circuses in the world that have ALWAYS been un-American.

But let’s tweak it a little for clarity – WHEN DID THE AMERICAN CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?

As P.T. Barnum famously said, the American circus hangs on two pegs: clowns and elephants. And all at once, the American public seems to be becoming terrified of clowns, and morally outraged at the presentation of elephants. We’ll get to both directly, but I’m going to broaden it somewhat. As we all know, the American circus is in jeopardy: our largest, oldest and best known circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey is closing in a matter of days. Cole Brothers and Clyde Beatty both seem moribund. Big Apple Circus went bankrupt although some new owners promise to resurrect it this fall. But these recent developments are part of a process, a multi-pronged assault that has been going on for the better part of a century. Different aspects of the American circus have been under attack, sometimes perhaps with justification, but the bottom line is that it hurts the circus. So different aspects became “un-American” at different times, so there will be many different answers.

My first answer (and many of my answers will be contradictory) is that circus became un-American as long ago as a century, when it began to be superseded by new-fangled inventions, better mouse-traps, and lost its age old primacy as often the only entertainment medium for the masses in the hinterlands. It lost an economic competition! What is more un-American than that?  Starting in the 1920s and 3o’s it began losing ground to movies, and radio, then TV, and then to home video, and now to hand held gadgets! Circuses and sideshows died, some survived by merging, and those that survived did so by figuring out that its traditional nature was its very charm. It’s nostalgic, and there’s a market for that, although it’s no longer a universal market. We have niches now. Some people won’t even watch a black and white or silent movie nowadays, while other people are at this very moment rediscovering the joys of old time radio shows over the internet. Once populist, a lot of surviving circus is now elitist, and some could say THAT’S un-American, and I would tend to agree. It’s expensive to attend the big top and a lot of the surviving shows feel a need to be self-consciously artistic in a way that frankly turns my stomach, far more than any amount of popcorn or cotton candy.

Next, the Americana aesthetic has been under attack since the mid-20th century. By that I mean: the tent, the sawdust, the midway, the circus that Toby Tyler ran away to join. My feeling has always been that culture must maintain some tradition even as it evolves. It’s the theme of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: you change, yes, but you don’t throw out the essential parts. To cut the umbilicus that connects us to Barnum, to be tied to nothing emotionally significant, makes the American circus vulnerable to destruction.

My first visit to Ringling was in the mid 1970s. I was about ten years old. And I was enormously disappointed. Not sure what I was expecting. My head was full of circus images from stage, screen, books, old photos, and poster art: Magic and visual poetry. But what I got was something impersonal, corporate, amplified, loud, obnoxious and disconnected from its own history, from any history, and from me. And over the years I felt that whenever I saw their three ring show. So when I read the headline about Ringling’s imminent closure, I wept all morning, but when friends were making plans to see it one last time, I was like, “Nah, I don’t want see that fuckin’ thing.” I cried for the loss of continuity and history and so forth, but the reality was that the things I actually cared about were out of it long before I was born: a steam calliope, a brass band, red white and blue bunting, a tented menagerie, a sideshow. Visually I get more of the circus I’m looking for from the picture on a box of animal crackers than from the Ringling shows.

And not to single out Ringling. You don’t get that stuff much of anywhere. Until recently you got even less of it at Big Apple Circus, whose entire aesthetic scheme: costumes, sets and music seemed really European to me. It had the look or feel of Paris or perhaps dare I say Montreal. It looked insecure to me, as though it were seeking validation from a superior culture. We have no need to do that. CIUSA’s motto: “Defending the Honor of American Popular Culture”.  It is Honorable, it is Valid. As Emerson wrote in “The American Scholar”: “We have listened too long to the Courtly Muses of Europe… We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” But some circus seems to have backslid. So when did a lot of circus become aesthetically un-American? If you equate “American” with Americana, as I tend to: decades and decades and decades ago. 50 years ago.

These decisions I know were made for marketing reasons at a time when the country was changing. These changes were happening everywhere. At around the same time, In the early 1970s, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, all had popular variety programs on CBS, and there were these rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and then some younger executive came in and pulled the plug on them all at once to accommodate fresher, hipper, more topical shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Show. I really love those new shows but there’s something kind of Chairman Mao about feeling a need psychologically to completely eliminate the more traditional programming and wipe it off the face of the earth. That was happening everywhere in music, movies, tv and in the circus. It was like a cultural purge. Is The Beverly Hillbillies the hill I will die on? Actually, yes!

I grant you it’s complicated: 19th century entertainment was not just patriotic, but jingoistic, and even racist and many other things. Maybe trying to separate the patriotic imagery from heinous attitudes at the time, in the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, seemed like trying to separate Siamese Twins. But by burying the traditional visual iconography it lost the connection to its origins. I have zero emotional investment in a circus that lacks those connections. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care if it lives or dies because as far as I’m concerned it’s already dead.

When Cole brothers came here to Coney Island a few years ago, it was quite a shabby show, but it opened with a single lady riding around the ring on a horse, carrying an American flag – I loved the simple, ritualistic, solemnity of it. I decided that shabby as it was it was my favorite circus. That was pretty much what I wanted.

Know that my point isn’t strictly about patriotism; it’s about symbolism. There are plenty of left wing and anarchist circuses I love: Circus Amok, The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the NoFit State Circus. The point is integrity. A large establishment circus that seems to stand for nothing is more like a monster truck rally at the mall than what I am looking for at a circus.

Something else that turned me off during that first visit to the circus, and has never ceased to disappoint me, although I understand it more nowadays – was the existence of safety wires and safety ropes and nets underneath the trapeze and wire walkers. While we’re all smart enough to know there is still a risk in those undertakings even with the safety devices, at some primitive level, I am convinced that these precautions effect the audience psychologically. “So they lack that much confidence, huh? So the guy could do the trick, not do the trick, call in sick and the janitor stands in for him, whatever”. I understand why the measures are in place. Workplace issues, lawsuits, bad publicity or whatever (and some artists still take such risks, the Flying Wallendas recently were hurt rehearsing a trick), but I guarantee at some animal level, to some degree, it effects audience psychology. It’s less impressive, entirely, intrinsically much less thrilling. What is a daredevil with training wheels?! If risk-taking is American, especially risk-taking on OUR behalf, then I leave you to draw your own conclusion about what “safety” is in this context. So whenever they started doing that is another date when the circus became un-American.

That’s aesthetics — So now we come to ethics. And the way Dick has framed the question is interesting: “When did the circus become un-American?”  (note: this talk was prepared at the invitation of CIUSA founder Dick Zigun, who suggested the topic). Because there are actually two conflicting American ethics. One is just as American as the other, and they have been wrestling with each other for centuries, never more so than at the present dire political moment. To put them in circus terms: it’s the Right to Exploit vs. the Right Not to Be Exploited. I have evolved quite a lot on this, and I’ve come to see the light, but God forgive me, purely out of romanticism I used to be 100% pro 19th century circus, which is to say 100% capitalist exploitation in the service of the circus. What is the circus, or what was the circus if not that? The apparatus exists to make its nut. Every single circus movie is about debt and creditors and foreclosures. So much can go wrong: bad weather, townspeople who attack you and chase you out of town, crooked local officials, bad luck: injury, death, sickness, fire. And circus is in the business of presenting living breathing beings as spectacle. Humans and animals are not just your product but also your equipment, your infrastructure. It’s all in the cause of providing amazement to audiences – but it is still a situation where the circus owners own not just canvas, and trucks and trailers but also individuals and creatures. For a time, the circus was the closest thing to a slave plantation there was. Dependent on the circus for food and shelter and far from your point of origin, if you were unpaid or otherwise dissatisfied, it was very difficult to escape. And because everyone agrees that the mission – creating happiness – is Holy, sacrifices are made in its service.

Truth is the first casualty. Entertaining claims of a thousand kinds are made on behalf of the shows and its performers in the form of advertising. And the performers suffer all kinds of privations and discomforts just for a few minutes of glamour and glory each day. And it becomes easy for the impresario to rationalize anything in the name of The Show.

That’s really American. It so American that it might be tempting to call anything else un-American. But the concept of Individual Rights is every bit as American. It’s enshrined in our founding documents, although at first we used to make all sorts of exceptions for African Americans and women and the poor and immigrants and children etc. But progressively we started eliminating the loopholes, and laws were made to protect people and social mores started to change.  And bit by bit these laws came into conflict with things that were uniquely characteristic about the circus. Consumer laws. Truth in advertising! I love food and drug laws but not when they hurt the medicine show! If you can’t claim your tonic is a miracle cure, you might as well pack your sample case and go home! And so it affected the circus in ways big and small, especially the sideshow. If you can’t claim these microcephalic kids from New Jersey are from a missing South American civilization, you are beginning to lose the intrinsic point of the entire enterprise, which is imagination. You need the wiggle room to claim that the seven foot man is a nine foot man!

One of the few cool things RBBB did in the late 20th century was heavily advertise that they were presenting a unicorn. It was a one-horned mountain goat, but it passed muster with lawyers, because well “unicorn” means one horned beast so you can get away with that. And STILL there was controversy and complaint! “Why that’s fraudulent! I thought this was a genuine zoological exhibition presented by scientists!” So some combination of lawyers and the people who use them to sue other people are inimical to the circus arts.

[At this point I produced a glass of water to use as a prop]. Ladies and gentleman, I beg you to direct your attention to this miracle, all the way from the North Pole, this genuine portion of the polar ice cap, exhibited to you in the exact state in which it was found!

And the culture grew so humorless and ill-natured that now you have to advertise in literal language who you are presenting in spite of the obvious fact that everyone knows that Daniel Day-Lewis is not Abraham Lincoln. It’s suddenly quite sinister if you say a 90 year old woman is 200 years old. But it’s very hard to sell tickets to a glass of water!  Puff is extremely American.

But so is muckraking. To flip it, there is the dignity of the performer that needs to be respected and which used to get short shrift as part of that process. The born different and people of color used to get seriously ill-used as part of that process, and by the mid 20th century, the freak show died out. In modern times it’s being reclaimed in a more sensitive way. Is it un-American to respect all people, no matter what they look like? Quite the opposite. But it took a little time to sort out a way to do that in the context of this traditional art form. And now we’ve gone from African Americans being presented as wild men and exhibited as zoological attractions to the Universoul Circus.

Ditched my costume somewhere around here

This eventually led to the expansion of the concept of rights to include animals, and this has proven to be near catastrophic to the art of the circus. To be super obvious, circus is Latin for circle, or ring, that large ring that was devised especially for horses to run around. Eventually this came to include far more exotic creatures from distant climes, such as elephants, apes, lions and tigers, the kinds of beasts people buy tickets especially to see. In a way these became the heart of the circus. Humans had domesticated, trained and exhibited animals for centuries. But starting in the 1970s, the animal rights movement began an unrelenting campaign to end the practice and its manifold forms of documented mistreatment. By recent times the internet and then social media transformed the movement from a fringe cause to one with widespread support, to the extent that sufficient financial pressure could be wielded, finally forcing the major circuses to retire their performing animals or close entirely. (There are still some regional circuses with trained animals, but I would imagine their days are numbered. For example, Kelly Miller Circus and Carson & Barnes Circus, both based in Oklahoma. That’s where they have rodeos and wild west shows, so they might hold out for a while there).

So to return to the opening question: is exploiting animals American? Or is protecting them? I used to work at Big Apple Circus about 20 years ago and I used to become extremely indignant at the hate-mail we would occasionally receive with all of their allegations. (“That’s Mr. Woodcock, he’s not doing what these people are accusing them of!”)  But even without actual torture, you do have to concede that elephants need wide open spaces to be happy, and the minute you realize how unhappy they must be, unless you’re a sadist, all the pleasure goes out of it.

That said, when you take all the animals out of the circus, what are you left with? Much of the thrill and magic is gone. The current touring show Circus 1903 has a wonderful solution, with puppets supplying the missing elephants. I have long thought that circuses could do amazing things with animatronics, and there would be no need to stop at elephants. You could have mastodons. You could have fire breathing dragons. You could have dinosaurs, and there is no need to restrict yourself to the dimensions of actual dinosaurs. Puny things, really. There are ways in which a lack of imagination has been the curse of the circus at least over the past century or so. Presenting the same acts for 200 years!?  That’s one of the things that killed vaudeville! Why shouldn’t it kill the circus? And the application of imagination could be its salvation. Free the animals, enslave the robots. It’s a win/win.

And the subject of imagination brings us to our last topic. A second ago, I asked rhetorically what we’re left with in a circus without animals? (Don’t say Cirque du Soleil. Not a circus, not a circus, not a circus.) But clowns are also under attack! For the past few years there’s been this apparent mass psychosis/ fad involving terror of clowns. When you say this, the clown-phobes are always like, “No, I’ve always been afraid of clowns.” Well, that may be so, but there is a distinct difference between a FIVE year old being irrationally terrified of a children’s birthday clown, and a THIRTY FIVE YEAR OLD needing to be held.

That said, I find the indignation of clowns equally amusing. They always take this tone of, “What do you mean being afraid of clowns, who only bring joy and wonder to the world?” That, too, is a disingenuous self-denial. Anyone who has studied the history of clown, knows that it goes back to the earliest origins of mankind, and it’s always been intrinsically a little scary. That too is part of its function. You don’t put on that grotesque make-up because you want to make people super-comfortable at their familiar surroundings. You’re throwing things off base a little, knocking the globe off its axis. Otherwise there would be no outlandish get-up. You would just be an actor or a stand up comedian! The clown has always been a mix of funny and scary: always. Al Lewis in the Ric Burns Coney Island documentary talks about loving the scary leering face of the Steeplechase Clown over the gates as you walked in.  It’s fun, but it’s also unexpected, otherworldy, abnormal. DESIRABLY so. Otherwise stay home, under the covers.

That said horror and science fiction and even reality started to hit the sinister side a little hard in the 20th century: Batman’s Joker, Stephen King’s It, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and the clown guy Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses. And the music group Insane Clown Posse and their army of Juggalos.  And there’s the fact that serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a children’s clown, and Brian Dennehy played him in that tv movie. But frankly that’s getting to be a cliché. If I see a scary clown, I’m less likely to go, “Oh scary” then “Oh, what a cliché!”

But then a few months ago it was taken up a notch in the “clown sighting phenomenon of September 2016”  When for pranks people started dressing as scary clowns and hanging out in unexpected places like schools and graveyards and scaring people. This account from Wikipedia made me roar with laughter:

“A person in clown attire was spotted in a cemetery in Chicago, Illinois in July 2015. This occurrence involved two residents who spotted the “creepy clown” scaling the gate at the Rosehill Cemetery late at night. After the clown entered the cemetery, he or she turned to face the residents and began waving slowly as they made a video recording. After waving for a few seconds, the clown ran into a dark wooded area and was not seen again. Police investigation of the sighting did not lead to any arrests.”

“Arrests”?! Has no one ever been a teenager? I don’t know how many times I’ve played pranks of that nature. Perhaps a hundred? Like, why do we even know about this? This is a story? That gets reported as news around the world? A kid dressed as a clown was in the graveyard? That is at best a story for your friends at the bar.

And then there was this follow up: “In October 2016, McDonald’s decided that Ronald McDonald would keep a lower profile as a result of the incidents.”

So because of social media, granted there have been hundreds of these incidents, but what’s more intriguing is the widespread panic and terror to the extent that in some places you can’t rent a clown costume and that people who work as clowns have seen a dip in demand for their services.

You don’t have to be some kind of major sociologist to see what’s going on here. One is that this is age of the helicopter parent and the coddled child and now coddled children who grow into infantilized adults. And far more terrifying to me than any losers running around in clown outfits is the idea of all these legal measures empowering police to chase clowns. That is literally a Mack Sennett movie with a tragic ending. And secondly it is an obvious if amusing parallel to living in the age of terrorism, clearly inspired by it and fed by it. “If you see something, say something.” “I saw a clown!” It’s like a parody of the real situation where people are getting really freaked out by people who are different from them in their vicinity and reporting them to police. Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, and that’s not so funny.

I cant help but contrast that spirit with Reverend Billy’s wonderful invocation at the Gala here a few weeks ago, when he sang the praises of Coney Island as the home and haven for freaks, that what the circus teaches us to do is appreciate those who live outside “normal straight society”. Coney Island’s mission again: “defending the honor of American popular culture”. And so my ultimate answer is that in certain ways the circus didn’t become un-American — America has.

 

The Great Comedians and Their Studios

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by travsd

After years of navigating this treacherous terrain myself, today I felt it was high time to share this little road map of the great comedians of the studio era, and the factories in which they primarily toiled. Our principal field of concentration is the so-called classic era (roughly 1920s through 1950s), although some of them have roots extending back much further, when the landscape was very different. Thus while we mention important companies like Keystone and Roach and other early ones, our main focus is on those that would become the major studios of the sound era.

Fields and Costello, two top Universal ccomedy stars of the 1940s

Universal 

Universal played a major role in two different phases of classic comedy, at the beginning and at the end. If you were to graph it, it would resemble a bar-bell. During neither phase were they known for developing their own comedians, but for plundering those brought along by other studios for the most part.

The company was formed in 1912 by the acquisition and consolidation of some of filmdom’s earliest studios, one of which was Nestor, which came with future comedy auteur Al Christie. Universal also came up with several comedy brands of their own (such as “Joker”), which would wind up competing directly with Mack Sennett’s Keystone. They stole Augustus Carney from Essanay, changing him from “Alkali Ike” to “Universal Ike”.  They poached Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman from Keystone and gave them their own production units.  Important comedians at Universal’s various brands included Max Asher, Billy Franey, Gale Henry, Louise Fazenda, Harry McCoy, Billie Ritchie, Alice Howell, Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran and others (again, many of them former Keystone people).

Then comes the skinny period at the studio for comedy. By the late ’20s and early 30s Universal had discovered a cash cow in the form of horror. They made some talkie shorts with Slim Summerville and others, but relatively few compared with other studios. And unfortunately — unthinkably — Universal destroyed most of its silent film cache in 1948 to save money, so we can’t see most of the films from the early silent period to evaluate.

But the second phase of Universal comedy is well known, easily as well known as Paramount’s great comedy period or that of the Columbia Shorts Department.  It happened late in the game, just around the time some of the studios seemed to be be making less of an effort on the comedy front, allowing Universal to pick up a lot of great comedians at what amounted to a fire sale. They picked up the Dead End Kids from Warner Brothers in 1938, W.C. Fields from Paramount in 1939, the Ritz Brothers from Fox in 1940, and Olsen and Johnson (formerly with Warner Brothers) in 1941. But they did create their own mega-comedy stars in the form of  Abbott and Costello (1940-1956), the team for which they remain best known today. They also developed the popular late comedy series Ma and Pa Kettle which ran 1947-1957.

A quarter century separates Universal’s early and late periods. And, given that the later period includes many comedy classics (including some of W.C. Fields’ most enduring films, the screen version of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin and any number of Abbott and Costello favorites) one can’t help but wonder how the earlier period would measure up. They had some great talent in the bullpen.

(20th Century) Fox

Fox launched their own comedy units in 1916,  including one under the direction of Charles Parrott (later known as Charley Chase), another under Henry Lehrman after he departed Universal. Like Universal, Fox offered many separate brands to exhibitors, such as Foxfilm, Sunshine, and Imperial, and they had great comedy stars like Hank Mann, Billie Ritchie, Dot Farley, Heinie Conklin, Clyde Cook, and Al St. John. As with Universal, many of these were plundered from Keystone and Sennett.

Fox also distributed the product of Educational Pictures which, starting in the mid, 1920s included comedies by the likes of Lupino Lane, and Lloyd Hamilton and later (in the talkie period) Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton (Educational is essential the most obvious linking element between the silent period and the talking period at Fox.  Clark and McCullough started their movie career at Fox in 1928. Fox stopped carrying shorts in 1937, around the time they merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox.

Major Fox comedy stars of the 1930s included Will Rogers; Shirley Temple (who’d come to the studio via Educational’s Baby Burlesks and Frolics of Youth); and The Ritz Brothers (who’d also come via Educational).  In their declining years (early 1940s) Laurel and Hardy made some of their worst comedies for the studio.

Sadly, most of Fox’s silent product (and thus also much of Educational’s) was lost in a fire in the 1930s. It’s a great loss for many reasons. One would be interested in comparing the early silent Fox comedies with those of their competitors. But it also would be interesting to measure them against the studio’s comedy product of the ’30s, which was on the weak side to put it mildly. There may have been some redemption and more vigor in the comedies of the teens — like Keystone product, but slicker. I think it’s likely that there was.

Paramount 

Of all the major studios, Paramount may have the longest and best known association with comedy. It begins with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who launched his own independent production company Comique in 1917, releasing the films through Paramount. In 1920, Arbuckle bequeathed Comique to Buster Keaton and went to work as a star for Paramount directly, until the scandal of 1921 derailed his career. Mack Sennett also cut a deal to release his comedies through the studio starting in 1917, an arrangement that lasted until 1923, and was resumed 1932-1934.  Others who made silent comedy features at Paramount included Raymond Griffith (1924-1927), and W.C. Fields (1925-1928). Harold Lloyd’s independently produced features were distributed by Paramount from the mid 20s through 1936, and he starred in the Paramount comedy Professor Beware in 1938.  The Marx Brothers made their best movies for the studio from 1929 through 1933. Mack Sennett released comedies through Paramount from 1932 to 1933, which led to W.C. Fields getting picked up by the studio again for a second stretch (1932-1938). Burn and Allen worked for the studio from 1930 through 1939, first in their own series of comedy shorts, then usually integrated into feature comedies with ensemble casts, e.g., the Big Broadcast series. Mae West made her classic films for Paramount from 1932 through 1937. In the ’30s both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby came to the studio, occasionally teamed in their own “Road” comedies. And the line stretches all the way to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1949-1956), then Lewis’s solo comedies through the mid 1960s. That’s a good half century of solid, reputable comedy output. And, while we’re not not focusing on directors in this post, we’d be remiss in not mentioning that the great Preston Sturges made his masterpeices of the 1940s for Paramount as well. Does Paramount win? One is tempted to assert so — until we recall the minor fact that they also fired Arbuckle, the Marx Brothers, West and Fields. Get your head out of your ass, Paramount!

Columbia

Like the studio itself, Columbia’s comedies have been dissed over the years, but are nowadays garnering well deserved respect. The Cohn Brothers and Joe Brandt began as CBC Film Sales, producing the Hall Room Boys, based on a comic strip (1918-1923), and distributing the Mickey McGuire comedies (1927-1934), starring a very young Mickey Rooney. Frank Capra, the studio’s principle earner, arrived in 1928 to keep the studio solvent. And while Capra essentially invented the screwball comedy with It Happened One Night (1934) and can be called one of America’s greatest comedy directors (You Can’t Take It With You, Arsenic and Old Lace, not to mention his early pre-Columbia work with Our Gang and Harry Langdon) his labors were entirely separate from the low comedy happening at the legendary Columbia shorts department (1933-1958). Jules White was the main man there and he created the shop’s signature style, which was fast-paced, violent, and full of cartoon sound effects. The main stars of their stable were The Three Stooges, and for most part the remainder were refugees from the ruins of Roach and Educational, like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase etc etc. When the shorts department closed in 1958, the Stooges continued to make features for the studio through 1965. Another notable Columbia comedy product was the Blondie series (1938-1950), adapted from the comic strip and starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (himself a veteran of comedy shorts at the various studios since the earliest days of talkies.)

Red Skelton, “A Southern Yankee”

MGM

Considered by many to be the greatest of the classic era Hollywood studios overall, MGM was easily the worst studio for comedy, apart from the films they merely distributed. Throughout the 1920s MGM and Metro (one of the companies that was merged to create it) distributed Buster Keaton‘s features, which are comedy masterpieces. And from 1927 through 1938 they distributed Hal Roach films, including the very best output of Laurel and Hardy , and the comedies of Our GangCharley Chase, and many others. This adds up to some of the best comic product in the business, and you can see how proud they are of these associations in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a showcase film in which we have the rare spectacle of seeing Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton in the same movie.

But MGM’s merciless machine was a comedy killer. It seems like whenever their management got their hands on comedians, they succeeded in killing what was excellent about them. Keaton became a contract player in 1929. By 1933, after 4 years of terrible films, he vamoosed, returning later only as a gag man. The Marx Brothers arrived in 1935; by 1941 they were so disgusted with their MGM experience they retired. When MGM took over direct production of Our Gang in 1938, they killed the essential spirit of the franchise. And when Laurel and Hardy escaped from Fox briefly in the ’40s to see if MGM could do any better for them, they were sorely disappointed.

The only comedy star that can truly be called MGM’s creation is Red Skelton, who made his comedies there from 1941 through 1954. Red had starred in some shorts prior to this, but it was MGM that made him a star (with guys like Buster Keaton in the wings to spruce up the gags). Nearly all of the films are excrutiatingly dull — the prevailing MGM comedy aesthetic. The same can be said of the Maisie series (1939-1947), starring the otherwise winning Ann Sothern. The credits promise racy comedy; but the actual product is fairly barren of laughs. You need freedom and independence to make comedy, and you don’t have those when you’re a cog in a machine.

RKO

On the other hand, the most under-rated and unsung studio for comedy from the classic era has got to be RKO. After Paramount, Universal and Columbia, I would have to place RKO in the comedy studio rankings. This despite the fact that the studio had a short life compared to the rest of them — less than 30 years. RKO was founded in 1928, in a move that included a merger of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit and Film Booking Offices, which had earlier absorbed the Mutual Film Corporation, which had earlier swallowed up Keystone, Lone Star, Majestic, Reliance-Majestic and others, brands associated with major comedy founding names Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and others. Their product included the features of Wheeler and Woolsey (1929-1938); the shorts of Edgar Kennedy (1930-1947), Clark and McCullough (1930-1935), and Leon Errol (1934-1951), the Mexican Spitfire series starring Lupe Velez (1939-1943); Hal Peary’s Gildersleeve comedies (1942-1944); and the brief teaming of Alan Carney and Wally Brown (1943-1945). But there are many amazing things to remember RKO for, including the musicals of Fred and Ginger, the spectacle of King Kong, and the masterpiece that was Citizen Kane. We can perhaps be forgiven of not thinking of their comedians first, but they had great ones.

Warner Brothers

Similarly we have other reasons to think of Warner Brothers before comedy: gangster pictures, swashbucklers, and Depression Era tap musicals.  But there’s a comedy legacy here as well. In 1924 the Warner Brothers acquired the old Vitagraph studios (where Larry Semon was the big comedy star). This is why their famous sound process would be called Vitaphone when it premiered a couple of years later. In 1928, they merged with First National, which had released many of the masterpieces of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon in earlier years.

Most of the early Vitaphones were more like documentary recordings of vaudeville acts than comedy shorts. They might star comedians like Burns and Allen but in a film like Lambchops they’re just doing their stage act. But some of the Vitaphones of the late ’20s and early ’30ss are proper, plotted comedy shorts, featuring comedians like Shemp Howard, Jack Haley and Lionel Stander. Best of all are a half dozen made by Fatty Arbuckle just as he was returning to pictures to make his comeback in 1932. Olsen and Johnson made three features at Warner Brothers in 1930 and 1931. Not surprisingly a half dozen of the Dead End Kids pictures were made there in the late ’30s with stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. These tend to be more gritty than funny, as they later grew to be.

But the greatest of all Warner Brothers classic comedy stars was Joe E. Brown, who made features at the studio from the late ’20s through the late ’30s. If you’re only going to have one comedy star, that’s a good one to have. Brown was so popular a star in the early ’30s it was as good as having a whole stable of comedians. Warner Brothers did end up making a major mark in the comedy business in the end — in the form of animated shorts, but that’s a topic for a different time.

Odds and Ends

Charlie Chaplin was one of the founders of United Artists. UA released all his movies from A Woman of Paris (1923) on. They also distributed all of Eddie Cantor’s comedies of the 1930s, which were produced by Sam Goldwyn.

Starting in 1940 the former Dead End Kids became the East Side Kids and Bowery Boys at low-budget Monogram (through 1958).

For more  on silent and slapstick film don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc To find out more about show biz history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

In Which I Rank the Silent Comedians

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2015 by travsd

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This post grew out of my conviction that the prevailing trope of there being a “Big Three” or a “Big Four” among silent film comedians is a false portrait of reality, and ultimately unhelpful to analysis. When I wrote Chain of Fools, I toyed with creating a “Big Six” or a Big “Ten”, and even shifting the usual order around some, just to be provocative. Ultimately, though I found even those expanded paradigms to be confining, so I’ve opened it up a lot wider.

I do not pretend that the order here is any sense “definitive” or “inarguable”. We are talking about comedians, not Olympic athletes. My criteria for placement tries to strike a balance among: 1) how funny I find them (entirely subjective); 2) how well their films are constructed; 3) their standing among other critics and the public, past and present (I never disregard that completely, even when I disagree); and 4) talkies are taken into account, as are shorts.

For various reasons, I left a few of the silent comedy giants out of the running. My accounting starts at the year 1914, when Chaplin came into the picture. Is this Chaplin-centric? Maybe, but I do have a reason. I feel like the form of the silent comedy short doesn’t really gel until Chaplin masters it during his Mutual period. Others may disagree, but that’s how I feel. It could have been anybody; it happened to be Chaplin. This means that some great ones from the field’s early years have been left out, notably Max Linder and John Bunny, both of whom I worship as performers, even though the vehicles that capture them are rudimentary. Linder, of course did return and make some features in the 1920s, and they are quite enjoyable. But rather than include Linder in the list below and give him a middling ranking (a grave injustice to somebody so important to silent comedy) I left him out completely. In essence, we may say that he is ABOVE this list. I also left out Douglas Fairbanks, whom I hold to be extremely important to silent comedy, but ultimately his reach was wider than comedy, and though he was very physical, slapstick was not his metier (i.e., he jumped over things, he didn’t trip over them). And lastly, painful though it is, I left off W. C. Fields though he starred in many silent features for Paramount and of course conquered the field of comedy during the talking era. Ultimately, he was not a creature of silent comedy as the performers below were, all of whom did some time in the trenches learning their craft in shorts. The career of Raymond Griffith‘s is closest to Fields’ silent career but even he spent time under Mack Sennett.

As always, click on the links for my full biographical article on each comedian. Now, starting at the top, and working our way down, a ranking of the top silent comedians:

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Charlie Chaplin

It’s fashionable to prefer Keaton over Chaplin these days, and technically Keaton is the better film maker and the more modern in sensibility. But Keaton came along six years after Chaplin. Essentially he quietly improved on what Chaplin invented and OWNED for decades. It is Chaplin who remains one of the world’s most recognized and beloved stars to this day. Educated modern people tend to pooh-pooh Chaplin’s “sentimentality”, but I did a little survey the other day. Chaplin made around 90 films. How many of them have pathos front and center? Scarcely more than a dozen. That they are among the better known and loved of Chaplin’s films tells you something about the tastes of the public. (And when someone derides Chaplin for being “sentimental” it tells ME something about THEM — that they haven’t seen many Chaplin films.) ALSO: this is a list of comedians, not necessarily directors (many of the folks below did not direct their own films). Chaplin’s film direction was crude and simplistic. After all, he started directing in 1914. But as a comedian — he was a comedy master. So was Keaton, but Chaplin had many more colors in his palette as a performer. And lastly, Chaplin’s talkies help secure his status as the top comedian; most of Keaton’s talkies are wretched (people are usually quick to add “through no fault of his own!”, but, no, I would call drinking, alienating studio chiefs, and letting others make your career decisions faults of your own.) Chaplin’s work was top notch from 1914 to 1952 at least. Keaton’s was equally superlative from 1917 through 1929. This isn’t to run down Keaton, it’s to defend Chaplin, whom I hear unthinking detractors trash almost daily. Anyway, read much more about him on this blog and in Chain of Fools!

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Buster Keaton

Keaton is arguably the greatest silent comedian of all time. See what I did there? Well, it’s true! And I don’t mean it lightly. I devoted an entire chapter in Chain of Fools to the genius of Keaton, and I even implied that he was smarter than Chaplin. Keaton was the complete creature of silence, and the ultimate master of silent comedy form and the better technical director. But we are talking about “favorites”, are we not? Mine, and the general public’s favorites, and in both cases, Chaplin continues to rule. Today, modern critics tend to prefer Keaton. I understand all of their points. But really, in the end it’s a debate about “Which is better, chocolate or vanilla?” I love them both when they’re good. Someone has to be second, and for reasons already enumerated, Keaton takes second place, and he would probably agree himself. (I’m guessing every comedian on this list would put Chaplin first without hesitation).

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Harold Lloyd

Like everyone else, I put Lloyd third, although I’ve often toyed with replacing him with someone else for various reasons (usually Harry Langdon or Laurel and Hardy). The reason being that Lloyd is less of a “clown” (or less obviously a clown), and his work is less personal. There is something transcendent and uncanny about Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy and even Larry Semon which is NOT present in Lloyd (although many modern people read “clown” into what he does on screen but I think that has more to do with the medium than the actor). Lloyd’s vehicles are strictly commercial entertainments. That said, as you see, I keep Lloyd in the third slot and it is impossible to do otherwise. Like Chaplin, he was a founding artist of silent comedy. Having begun his career in around 1915, he helped invent the form. Then there is the sheer volume of his work — he made many more films than Chaplin or Keaton, all of a consistently high quality. And though his work is less “personal” or distinctive than the clownier clowns, it’s easy for me to group his films mentally with those of later Hollywood comedy auteurs like Frank Capra or Preston Sturges (or later Hollywood comic actors who followed his template like Danny Kaye). Also, like Chaplin, his films remained of a high quality well into the talking era. And lastly there have been times (the 1920s) when the public at least would have rated Lloyd as number two or even number one.  Lloyd merits his place as “The Third Genius.”

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Laurel and Hardy

It’s customary to place Langdon fourth, and that order works for me if we are strictly talking about silent comedy features. Langdon’s features rank him with the other three, even though he made a smaller number of them. Laurel and Hardy broke into features during the talking era, and none of them are anywhere near what I would call a comedy masterpiece in a league with those of the Big Four silent comedy giants. That said: many, many, MANY Laurel and Hardy shorts (both silent and talking) are indeed comedy masterpieces. If you want to hear people LAUGH, and laugh hard — rock the HOUSE with laughter — Laurel and Hardy win, hands down. If it were only that, they’d be at the very top of this list. But we’re weighing several factors here. Every one of Laurel and Hardy’s features (and they made a lot of features) has serious weaknesses. That is because, generally speaking, even in a comedy if we’re to spend a good bit of time with a character, we want to identify with him and care what happens to him. Properly categorized, Laurel and Hardy (much like the Three Stooges, believe it or not) are satire, not comedy. (Look up the difference, if you don’t already know it. Most people don’t seem to). We laugh AT Laurel and Hardy, not with them. Unlike most comedians, we aren’t meant to feel sympathy toward them or root for them.  It is a forgone conclusion that they will never realize their goals or anything they set out to achieve. If we were meant to care about what they do, their movies would be depressing instead of funny — but we find it funny. The satire is very broad. It is social, not political, and is (based on every interview I’ve read with Laurel) entirely unconscious.. It has to do mostly with sending up institutions like marriage, friendship and the workplace, and the inability of some people to live up to society’s expectations. (Stan Laurel’s best solo work was also of this type, by the way. He’s weaker in the films where we’re meant to identify with his character. His strongest solo films are his spoofs and parodies). Laurel knew this about his comedy (that we’re not meant to identify emotionally with the team), and he said many times that he didn’t want to make features, because he saw the challenge we’re identifying. But the industry shifted, and when they stopped making shorts he had no choice but to make features.  But while the features generally have problems, some of those shorts are abstract, formal masterpieces. Man, just like music.

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Harry Langdon

Like I said, there have been times when I have been tempted to be provocative and rank Langdon third in the pantheon. Like Chaplin and Keaton, he is a great clown (Lloyd is not a clown, more like a comic actor), and Stan Laurel, it is commonly acknowledged today, based much of his screen character on Langdon’s, theoretically elevating Langdon above Laurel. Further, as outre as Langdon’s character is, Langdon found a way to make him sympathetic. (Whereas Laurel and Hardy’s features, even the best of them, never give us that level of emotional involvement. We laugh at them — perhaps harder than we laugh at anybody else — but the story is generally just excuse for slapstick. It’s not like we care what happens to the character — in fact the more they fall down and hurt themselves, the better.) Our ranking of Langdon fifth has more to do with volume ultimately. I’ve seen all of his extant films, including the talkies. Some are very funny and some are masterpieces. But (in the silent era, at least) there aren’t very many of them. And while his output in the talking era was respectably large, most of it wasn’t in a class with his silent work. But what there is of Langdon’s best work is pretty damned dazzling.

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Larry Semon

Commentators throughout the 20th century were in a habit of disparaging Semon. But with proper perspective, I believe he deserves a place close to the top. Langdon only beats him out because of the quality of his silent features (most of Semon’s features were relatively terrible) and because his career went so much longer (Semon died in 1928). But I think Semon belongs in a class with Chaplin, Fairbanks and Lloyd as being one of the founding geniuses of the silent comedy short. He arrived that early and his early movies are that good.  For a time in the late teens, he was considered second only to Chaplin. His gags were among the funniest and most memorable of any ever put on film (sometimes for originality, sometimes merely for scale and extravagance). The visual impact of his clown character ranks him with the top screen clowns. And I have answers for most of the usual criticisms of him. He is often accused of being repetitive. And it’s true that he often stages similar business from film to film. But ironically this is because they were successful with audiences! And the films were never meant to be watched several at a time. As with the Three Stooges, I say Larry Semon shorts are best watched “one in a row”. Another criticism is that, unlike Keaton or Lloyd, Semon doesn’t do his own stunts, so his films are less thrilling and impressive. That may matter to you — it doesn’t matter to me. Is every comedian supposed to take a Keaton level of punishment? Keaton is not human. Semon’s strength was imagination (he started out as a cartoonist). He doesn’t jump out second story windows, but it’s not as though he has no strengths. The criticism that hits home is that he is all gags, no story. He is a surrealist. That’s why his features are a jumble and many of his shorts overstay their welcome. But I think that of all the silent comedians, his comic sensibility comes closest to the Marx Brothers and the other nut comedians of the 1930s. If he had lived a few more years, it would have been interesting to see what he would have brought to talking pictures.

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Charley Chase

I doubt anyone could dislodge my top six, but the only factor preventing Charley Chase from climbing higher is that he didn’t star in features (aside from a couple of obscurities).  A great many of Chase’s shorts are works of comedy perfection, and I’ve always thought it was a case of gross myopia on the part of Hal Roach not to give him features to star in, especially during the talking era. The domesticity of Chase’s character suits him to all kinds of situations conducive to films of greater length. In fact, his character was far better suited to features than were Laurel and Hardy’s. But naturally Roach knew things we don’t, and perhaps stumbling blocks like Chase’s drinking problem (he had one) were a factor. As it is, some of the funniest, best made comedy shorts starred Charley Chase (often made with the assistance of his brother Paul Parrott, and a dream team that included Leo McCarey and others).

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and  Mabel Normand (tied)

I can’t help associating these two mentally because of all the co-starring they did in 1915 and 1916, and because of a certain parallelism in their careers. They’re each unique, but they also both rate a place in the rankings….right about here. And I have difficulty elevating one above the other. So let them share this slot.

Mabel came earlier than Roscoe; she was working with Sennett as early as 1911. She was the top female comedian of the silent era. There were many others, but the reason why you won’t find them on this list, although we’ve certainly written about them on this blog and will again is because 1) many of them were not slapstick comedians, but were more like comic actors in the vein of Fairbanks (e.g., Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Constance Talmadge), and 2) many were the leading ladies of slapstick comedians and not the stars of the films themselves (Edna Purviance, Bebe Daniels [in the Harold Lloyd pictures], Mildred Davis), and 3) many were parts of comedy ensembles (Louise Fazenda [at Keystone], Gale Henry, Minta Durfee) but not solo stars of slapstick comedies. (Alice Howell starred in her own films but I’ve not seen enough of them yet to weigh in on whether she ought to be on this list). There are ways in which Normand has aspects of all three of those other qualifiers, but you can also say that she starred in her own slapstick films (or co-starred as the equal of peers like Chaplin or Arbuckle), and also starred in her own features. She was also one of the industry’s first female directors and producers. In the end, scandal and illness hurt and shortened her career but not enough to damage her relatively high ranking on this list.

As for Arbuckle he was one of the most popular and recognizable comedians of the silent era and is still one of the best known. He was so popular that like Chaplin in 1917 he got his own production company to star in his own series of shorts (where Buster Keaton was his apprentice] and in 1920 he became one of the first comedians to stars in features. Scandal killed his career even worse than Normand’s, but by that time he was a highly respected, very solid comedy director so he worked steadily behind the scenes under pseudonyms for close to a decade and then made some interesting and funny talking shorts in the early 30s before he too died prematurely in 1933.

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Lloyd Hamilton

My regard for this important comedian is sort of the opposite of most others’. There are at least two important phases of Hamilton’s work. First, with Bud Duncan, as part of the team of Ham and Bud (1915-1917). Second, a solo career (1917-1935, with some interruptions). I’m one of the few people apparently who prefers the Ham and Bud work. It’s crude and it’s early, but it’s also pioneering. They were one of the screen’s earliest comedy teams, fully a decade before Laurel and Hardy. They were very clownish and made a very striking visual impression, and their gags are funny. It’s not sophisticated but it works for me. More folks are fans of Hamilton’s solo work, and I can certainly see that and respect it. His character was very interesting..sort of midway between the stylization of the clowns and the more realistic approaches of Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase…with a smidgen of Arbuckle’s character thrown in. Hamilton was very well thought of by his contemporaries and was even tried in features. I find that many of his shorts share some of the extravagant drawbacks of Semon’s films. But over time I am growing to appreciate him more.

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Raymond Griffith

Like Bunny and Fairbanks, it’s a little problematic to include Raymond Griffith here, as he often appeared in films that weren’t comedies. He was an actor. But a few things nudge him onto this list. One is that he spent a few years on the Mack Sennett lot and other slapstick studios 1915-1921, where he acquired a physical comedy vocabulary. I’m a little tempted to put him after Langdon on this list, because some of his features for Paramount are that good and I love him that much as a comedian. But there is something to be said for doing the day-in, day-out bread and butter work of comedy shorts. They deserve respect, and as I said the shorts of Laurel and Hardy, Semon, Charley Chase, Arbuckle and Normand count for something. (Griffith didn’t really distinguish himself until features).

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Ben Turpin

I’ve grown to think of Ben Turpin as the ultimate Mack Sennett star, and when I think of Sennett’s features, the ones he made starring Turpin like A Small Town Idol (1921) and The Shriek of Araby (1923) come to mind first. Somehow, there’s something about laughing at a guy with crossed eyes that is the essence of Sennett’s low-brow but ultimately irresistible comedy. Prior to his many years with Sennett, Turpin had also been one of the first comedy stars at Essanay, making him the silent comedy star with the longest career, as well (dating back to 1909…the age of Max Linder and John Bunny). It’s somewhat hard to gauge his talent. His crossed-eyes seemed to be his chief attribute, and if you’ll excuse the expression, it’s hard to see past them. He starred in lots of funny and popular comedies and the public has always loved him (and he remains one of the better known of the lesser silent comedians to this day…because of those damn eyes).

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Sydney Chaplin

“Putting Syd Chaplin BELOW Ben Turpin?! Are you CRACKED?!” he asked himself. Well, I don’t. Let’s say the two are tied. Obviously Syd was the better comedian. It’s too much to say that he taught his younger brother Charlie everything he knew, but he sure played an important role, and he shared that same excellent Karno training. Syd started his career at Sennett right when Charlie left (1915) and had some success playing a comedy character he called “Gussle”. And he also starred in some of the greatest comedy features of the silent era including A Submarine Pirate (1915, Sennett’s second biggest hit), Charley’s Aunt (1925) and The Better ‘Ole (1926). He also memorably appeared in several of Charlie’s films from the First National period. (My favorite bit with him is as the lunch wagon owner in A Dog’s Life, where he keeps almost catching Charlie as he steals muffins).

Now we go down a rung. Let’s say these guys are all about tied: 

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Chester Conklin

Great star of shorts as “Walrus”, co-star of Paramount features with W.C. Fields, Charlie’s boss in Modern Times, and a bit player in the sound era.

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Ford Sterling

One of my favorites! Major star of comedy shorts through 1921 (and one of Sennett’s biggest stars prior to Chaplin) and later more of an actor in features, including comedies like The Show Off (1926) and Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926). He had some success as a character actor in the early 30s and rounded out his career by starring in some comedy shorts for RKO.

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Mack Swain

Another of my favorites. A great star of shorts as “Ambrose”, and a prominent part of the ensembles in features like Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Griffith’s Hands Up. 

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Al St. John

Arbuckle’s nephew. First a valued part of the ensemble at Keystone, then part of a loose team with Arbuckle and Keaton at Comique, and then finally the star of his own shorts at various studios in the 1920s. In the sound era he finally moved up to features playing sidekicks in B movie westerns.

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Billy Bevan

One of Sennett’s biggest stars in shorts during the 20s, he mostly played bit parts in features during the talking era.

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Lupino Lane

One of the most talented and versatile of silent comedians, by virtue of his training as a music hall acrobat. Most of his work was for Fox and Educational. He made a couple of talking features before returning to England in the early ’30s.

Next Rung: 

Below these top guys, several supporting  and ensemble players who deserve honorable mention, but I’d have great difficulty ranking them:  Eric Campbell, Edgar Kennedy (who finally got to star in shorts in the sound era),  Snub Pollard, James Finlayson, Vernon Dent, Bud Jamison, Charlie Murray, but really by now it’s getting foolish. There are 50 other worthy people I could name, but you’ve got to stop some place! For my most on the Great Female Comedians of Silent Comedy go here. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Six Brown Brothers

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2011 by travsd

The Six Brown Brothers were a sextet of Canadian saxophonists (or should I say a saxtet of Canadian sexophonists? Perhaps not) The group is largely credited with helping to popularize the sax, which (unlike most instruments used in western music which go back for centuries) had been invented in 1846. The father of this large brood (there was also a musical sister named Myrtle) all played multiple instruments. They performed in various numerical configurations in the early years, and they always shuttled back and forth between circus, minstrelsy and vaudeville.

Tom is the one on the left. We don’t endorse the news, we just report it.

The founder of the act that became the Six Brown Brothers was Tom, the second oldest (1881-1950), who dressed in a blackface** tramp get up. Four of them were performing as The Brown Brothers as early as 1906; by 1911 all six of them had joined (and at various times, other musicians were part of the act as well). In 1914, they put down their other instruments and concentrated on the sax, which they played with a lot of comedy, often dressed as clowns or a uniformed band backing up their blackface leader Tom. They used the squeaks and squawks of the sax as comical sound effects in addition to playing straight tunes. Their heyday saw them through vaudeville, Ringling Bros. circus, Primrose and Dockstaders Minstrels, and several Broadway shows. The act collapsed around the same time that vaudeville did, in 1933. For more information on them, see this wonderful essay. And listen to them below. After a few seconds, you’ll realize why they called this piece “the Chicken Walk”; the saxes sound kind of like a barnyard full of hens.

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Walker and Williams: Greatest African American Vaudeville Team

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy Teams, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by travsd

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Today is Bert Williams’ birthday.

George Walker and Bert Williams are important figures not only in show business history, but American cultural history, as well. Williams, the more gifted and longer-living of the two, was the Jackie Robinson of American show business, and in his theme-song “Nobody” (lyrics by Alex Rogers), left the world with a standard that’s still being covered today (e.g. by Johnny Cash on his American III: Solitary Man album).

When life seems full of clouds and rain

And I am full of nothin but pain,

Who soothes my thumpin’, bumpin’ brain? Nobody!

When winter comes with snow and sleet

And me with hunger and cold feet,

Who says, “Here’s 25 cents, go and get something to eat?” – Nobody

The supreme irony is that while Williams is the most famous black man to come out of vaudeville (apart from Bill Robinson), he was by ancestry mostly Caucasian. His paternal grandfather was the Dutch Consul in Antigua, West Indies. His paternal grandmother and his mother were both quadroons—one quarter black. This would make Williams something like 3/16 African, but in the racist world that he was to inherit, that was enough to make his life a supreme challenge.

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He was born Egbert Austin Williams in the year 1874. In 1885, the family moved to California. As a teenager, Williams hoped to go to Stanford University. He became an entertainer to raise money to pay for his tuition. Because he had no experience, theatres wouldn’t book him. He started out in the rough-and-tumble world of Barbary Coast saloons instead, where his poise, dignity and class were only handicaps. An 1893 tour of lumber camps where he performed skits and songs fared hardly better. In these years, he gradually had the horrifying revelation that he was the victim of the racist expectations of the audience and that, in order to be a success, he would have to stoop to portraying the sort of low stereotype that white people expected. While Williams was light-complexioned, African features predominated – to the audience he was a “black man”, and in America, “black men” behaved a certain way. The problem was that Williams was well-educated, upper middle-class, and sophisticated. To make a success in show business, he actually had to struggle to learn what was to him an alien dialect and mannerisms.

In these early years, Williams displayed few of the gifts for which he was later distinguished, was no great shakes as a singer, dancer, musician (he played banjo) or comedian, yet his high intelligence managed to carry him through. With his evolving new “darky” persona (which undoubtedly galled him), he started getting his first decent bookings, first a few months at the San Francisco Museum, then with Martin and Seig’s Mastodon Minstrels.

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It is at this early and embryonic juncture that Williams met George Walker, who was a year younger than Bert, but already a veteran of minstrel and medicine shows. The two hit it off and worked up an act. George sang a song “See Yer Colored Man”, while Bert played banjo. Bert was the straight man in their first crude comedy routines. For nearly two years (1893-95) the two performed their songs and skits at Jack Halahan’s Cramorne Theatre (later known as the Midway Plaisance.)

When the pair heard about a successful show in Chicago called The Octoroon that was hiring black performers, they decided to take their chances and move there in hopes they could bluff their way in. Their plan was to work their way east with a traveling medicine show. The scheme was rudely interrupted in Texas by a lynch mob, however, who were offended by Walker and Williams’ flashy, expensive clothes (which, by the way, were a professional necessity for vaudevillians). The mob tore off their clothes and gave them burlap sacks to wear. The good “doctors” of the medicine show did not defend them, and so they were left naked and penniless to make their way to the next town. How they managed to do so is not recorded for posterity. After this incident, the boys vowed never to work the South again, a promise on which they made good.

Miraculously, they managed to make it to Chicago and get a week’s try-out in The Octoroon – but they flopped and were let go. The set-back provided them with an opportunity to take stock of their act and decide on some improvements. In the next few months, they developed the basic characteristics of the act that would make them world famous.

First, Williams bit the bullet and decided to black up. It was common for African Americans to wear blackface in those days. In fact, that was how blacks broke into show business in the first place, by performing in minstrel shows as “genuine coons”. As with so many performers, the blackface seemed to work a miracle on the naturally shy and introverted Williams – it released his inhibitions and freed him up to be funny. He finally let go of his dignity (which is a fine thing for a man to possess, but a handicap for a clown), and started going for the bellylaughs. The character he became known for was a loser, a sort of shabby pessimistic everyman in threadbare clothes, or as he sang in one of his more popular songs, “The Jonah Man” – the guy to whom everything bad happens. In contrast, Walker was a flashy dude in smart clothes, a ladies’ man, a talker, a schemer, the eternal optimist, and the motivating force behind the plots of all their stories. The two characters, of course, were exaggerations of the men’s actual personalities.

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Billed as “Two Real Coons”, the two traveled with their constantly improving act starting in 1896. In 1898 they were spotted by a scout in French Lick, Indiana and tapped to perform in a Broadway show The Gold Bug which lasted one week. A succession of prestige vaudeville gigs followed, though: Koster & Bial’s, Proctor’s, Hammerstein’s Olympia, Tony Pastor’s Music Hall, the Keith Circuit. They were credited with introducing the cakewalk to mainstream America in their act, a popular dance which evolved from the minstrel show walkaround. Comical dancing became a highlight of their act, Walker high-stepping and lively, Williams, shuffling and clumsy.

In 1898, they toured with Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk, a book musical that further helped to legitimize African Americans on stage. They followed this up with a tour of “A Lucky Coon” , a sort of compendium of their minstrel bits, in 1899.

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In 1901, Walker and Williams made history by becoming the first black recording artists, and the cylinders they cut sold well enough to put them among the first black best-sellers. Walker and Williams went on to star in and produce many important musicals over the next few years, including The Sons of Ham (1901), In Dahomey, the first all-black musical to open on Broadway (1902-05), and Bandanaland (1908). In 1903, Walker and Williams became the first African Americans to give a command performance for an English Monarch (Edward VII). George Bernard Shaw said of their performance: “the best acting now in London is that of Williams and Walker in In Dahomey.

In 1905, Williams started singing Nobody, which was to be his theme song.

When I was in that railroad wreck

And thought I’d cashed in my last check

Who took that engine off my neck? Hm…not a soul…

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In 1908, Walker contracted syphilis, which in those days was without a treatment. By 1909, the condition was affecting his performance and though he struggled valiantly to control the symptoms, he began to stutter, forget his lines, and lose his motor control on stage. That year, he retired from the act. By 1911, he was dead.

For a brief while, his wife Aida Overton Walker (a dancer who had performed with the team for years), went on as his replacement in drag. After a period of uncertainty, Williams developed a solo act, and in so doing, revealed himself to be one of the great comic artists of the 20th century. In addition to his classic character songs like Nobody with their distinctive mix of pathos and humor, he also told dialect stories, (or “lies” as he called them) in the great tradition of African American folklore, and pantomime, which he claimed to have learned in Europe from a man named Pietro. His “poker routine”, in which he silently portrayed every player in a card game, conveying several distinct characters right down to what hand each man was holding, was legendary (and, luckily, was preserved on film). He toured the country in vaudeville with this material, almost never receiving the top billing he deserved because of the prejudice of the times, although there times when he was next to closing at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue and Hammerstein’s. From now, through the rest of his life, Williams was in the strange position of being hailed as a genius, universally beloved and respected by his colleagues, adored by his audiences…yet forced to leave the theatre by the back door, stay in separate “colored” hotels and boarding houses (in towns that had them), and avoid local troublemakers (including law enforcement officers) who relished making life hell for “uppity” Negroes. A touching anecdote has Joe Keaton finding himself sitting at the same bar with Williams and noticing that they are opposite ends. “Come down and have a drink with me, Bert,” Keaton offered. But the bar was segregated and Williams was at the black end, so he mumbled an embarrassed but polite refusal, and Keaton, realizing the situation, came down to his end of the bar to join him.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

In 1910, Williams became the first major black star in motion pictures, a series of one-reel silent shorts for Biograph. In 1911, Ziegfeld hired him for his Follies – the first black to be so honored. When most of the cast threatened to leave, Ziegfield is reported to have said, “Go if you want to. I can replace everyone of you, except the man you want me to fire.”  Though getting his foot in the door at Ziegfeld’s was an achievement, it didn’t spell the end of racism in his life. In the show, while given many chances to shine, they were plenty of times when the roles he was given to play were an unfortunate reflection of the attitudes of the times: red caps, cab drivers, or some other type of lackey to his white co-stars were the typical parts given to this grandson of a diplomat. In 1914, he headlined at the Palace, another first for an African American, and the very pinnacle of success for a vaudevillian. Perhaps it was such triumph that gave him the serenity of mind to best a racist bartender in St. Louis. In a not-too-subtle effort to oust Williams from the bar on account of his skin color, the barkeep attempted to charge him $50 for a glass of gin. Williams calmly put a $500 bill down on the bar and said,  “I’ll have ten of them.” On another occasion, Lionel Barrymore was backstage watching Williams work, and a stagehand came up and said, “Like him, huh?” Barrymore said, “Yes, he’s terrific.” Just as Williams got offstage the stage hand said loudly, “Yeah, he’s a good nigger, knows his place.” and Williams said, “Yes. A good nigger. Knows his place. Going there now. Dressing room ONE!”

His last years were spent working the Follies, the Frolics and the Keith vaudeville circuit, but by the late teens his health began to fail. He died of a combination of heart failure and pneumonia while performing in Under the Bamboo Tree,­ a Shubert show in Detroit.   He was only 47.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Three Keatons (and Buster): A Domestic Violence Act

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Buster Keaton, Child Stars, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2009 by travsd

The Three Keatons

“Maybe you think you were handled roughly as a kid – watch the way they handle Buster!”

– a 1905 ad for The Three Keatons

Here’s something we haven’t seen in a while–a domestic abuse act! Many people today don’t know that the great silent comedy star Buster Keaton (whose birthday is today) started out as part of a family act with his parents, Joe and Myra. By the time he left the act to star in motion pictures with Fatty Arbuckle at age 22, he had already been doing slapstick comedy for over 86% of his life. He’d also conditioned himself to be nearly impervious to pain, out of sheer physical and psychological necessity.

Myra Keaton came from a show family. Her father Frank Cutler ran and performed in the Cutler Comedy Company, a traveling medicine showthat also featured melodramas, banjo music and blackface minstrelsy.** Little Myra (who stood 4’11” even in adulthood), played piano, coronet, bull fiddle and sax, and sang.

Joe Keaton got involved in the company when they passed through Oklahoma (then known as the Indian Territory). Joe was a character – a sort of cocky, bull-shitting drifter like Billy Bigelow in Carousel. The sort of man who relished a fight at the slightest perceived insult. Ed Wynn called him a “totally undisciplined Irish drunk”. Cutler hired Keaton as a sort of roustabout. Keaton attempted performing as well, but he was a big flop. It was clear to Cutler that Keaton’s primary interest in the company was Myra. Not interested in having such a worthless wastrel as a son-in-law, Cutler gave Keaton the axe. Keaton left the company but Cutler’s plan backfired. Myra ran away and married Keaton instead.

Several years of privation and hardship followed. Where life with the Cutler company was relatively comfortable and respectable, Joe and Myra were now shifting for themselves with far inferior medicine shows, just barely eking out a living.

While they were performing with the Mohawk Medicine Show in Piqua Kansas in 1895, Myra stopped to give birth to their first child, Joseph Frank Keaton. Legend has it that the baby literally had a steamer trunk for a crib. While performing with the California Concert Company, Joe and Myra became the best of friends with Bess and Harry Houdini. It was Houdini who supposedly nicknamed the child “Buster” when the precocious child fell headlong down several flights of steps, although this may be apocryphal (print the legend!).

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In 1899, the family moved to New York City to break into vaudeville. By this time, they had evolved quite an act, developed in their years with the medicine shows. Called “The Man with the Table,” it involved Joe doing everything conceivable acrobatic that it is possible to do with a…table. He would dive onto it, do handsprings off it, fall from it onto his head. He might choose from a couple of different climaxes for the act. He might place a chair on top of the table, and from a standing position, leap so high into the air that he would land sitting in the chair (when he was sober enough to get it right). Another showstopper would have Myra sitting on top of the table, and Joe kicking her hat off her head. (The martial arts style high kick was Keaton’s specialty. He had developed the technique while brawling, and it was always his secret weapon in those situations. Keaton could kick up to eight feet high.) Meanwhile, while Keaton was doing all this kicking, falling and leaping, Myra would play her cornet, which was thought to give the act a little class.

Their first New York job was at Huber’s Museum, where their buddy Houdini had also gotten his start. It was only one week’s employment, and it’s a fortunate thing it was: at Huber’s you worked 15-20 shows a day – a grueling grind for anybody, but hell on an acrobat. After the Huber’s date, Joe unsuccessfully pounded the pavement for some time, before fortuitously bumping into Tony Pastor on the sidewalk. The fast-talking Keaton described his act to him, and landed a job. They did 3-4 shows a day during the engagement, and they were last on the bill.

The Keatons were now a vaudeville act. It remained only for Buster to get involved.  His first onstage appearance was at age three, when he crawled and joined his parents uninvited, to gales of laughter from the audience. It wasn’t until Buster reached the age of five that he became a regular part of the act.

The Three Keatons’ act would play as shocking and as dark today as it no doubt did  then. The gist of the routine was that Buster would torment Joe while he was busy doing something and then Joe would proceed to “discipline” him. “Father hates to be rough,” he’d say just before slinging his son around stage like a sack of turnips. Joe and Buster were dressed identically in very strange grotesque outfits. In a typical routine, Joe would come out and sing a song. Buster would enter from behind and carefully select a broom from 15 or so that were arrayed onstage and then, taking careful aim, crack Joe over the skull with it. In another bit, Joe is shaving at a mirror with a straight razor. Unseen by Joe, Buster begins to swing a basketball attached to a rubber house over his head, each pass getting closer and closer to Joe’s head until it finally smacks him. In response to these shenanigans, Joe “swings Buster around, bounces him off the scenery, throws him offstage”, and otherwise exercises his fatherly prerogative.

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Nobody had ever seen anything like this before. It gave the act an edge, a gimmick that it had previously lacked, and the Three Keatons now became a big success. Offers flooded in. Though the Keatons were never major headliners, they were successful and constantly booked. They were very well known and had lots of fans. Will Rogers wrote of going to see them on his honeymoon – and preferring them to the Great Caruso.

The success of the act can be chalked up to two things. One: shock value—one could not believe what one was seeing. Two, and more importantly, Buster turned out to be a child prodigy, a sort of Mozart of physical comedy, with a gift for mimicry and improvisation that already outclassed most adults in the field. The critics raved about Buster.

James Austin Fynes, Proctor’s general manager was one of the first to spot Buster’s talent. He advised Joe and Myra to claim Buster was seven years old to help forestall the trouble with the authorities that was almost sure to come.  At the turn of the century, they played Proctor’s Albany, where they did so well, they were moved three times to better spots during the run. In 1901, they played Proctor’s Pleasure Palace, truly the big time.

As time went on, the act got progressively rougher. A suitcase handle was sewn onto Buster’s back so he could be easily picked up and thrown. Keaton regularly chucked the little guy into the orchestra just for laughs. Like a cat, Buster needed to become adept at taking falls, relaxing and tumbling into them, or risk broken bones or worse. Joe even threw Buster at some hecklers once, advising him just before letting him go to “tighten up your asshole”. Buster came out okay, but he broke one of the young men’s noses. There was a Pavlovian quality to Buster’s training. He was not allowed to cry or laugh or else he’d get beaten. This is the origin of Keaton’s famous “stoneface”. Meanwhile, his father’s self-discipline was such that he once accidentally kicked the eight-year-old Buster in the head, rendering him unconscious for 18 hours.

It’s heartening to know that even in those less enlightened times, plenty of people were outraged (and many more, were at least uncomfortable) with this act. From the first, the Keatons were plagued by the attentions of the Gerry Society (the NY Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). Gerry representatives would frequently come around to spy on the Keatons’ shows. The Keatons did everything they could to thwart them, right down to dressing Buster in a little suit, derby and cane so that he would seem like a midget.

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Joe compounded his own woes by envisioning an Eddie Foy-like kiddie empire, involving Buster’s little brother Harry (known as “Jingles”) and baby sister Louis in the act. In 1907, Keaton trotted out the whole brood on stage for a benefit, and was nabbed but good by the Gerrys – banned from the New York stage for two years, when Buster would turn “16”. (Really 14, for the Keatons had been making Buster two years older). Without Buster, there could be no act; he was the one who got all the raves. Lacking Buster’s talent, Jingles and Louise were shipped off to boarding schools. A 1909 tour of England was a disaster, when the bookers and audiences there were appalled and offended by the child abuse. The Keatons sailed back to the US one week later. That year they got their revenge by staging their triumphant return to the New York stage at Hammerstein’s Victoria.

Joe revealed his business acumen (or lack thereof) by turning down an offer from William Randolph Hearst to portray Maggie and Jiggs in a series of silent comedies based on the comic strip “Life With Father.” Joe had an irrational dislike of films…one which his son very shortly was to prove he did not share.

The act went progressively downhill from this point. As a teenager, Buster got bored and sloppy in the act. Joe’s drinking got worse and worse so that he could be reckless, mean and sloppy himself on stage. Buster, tired of absorbing his blows, started hitting his father back. By the time we reach the point of a twenty year old and his drunken father angrily trading fisticuffs onstage, we have strayed really far from the charms of the original act.

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In 1916 Joe’s long simmering feud with Martin Beck came to a boil. Beck was the manager of the Palace as well as the Orpheum Circuit. He was notorious for his weekly meeting wherein he conferred with his staff like some Anti-Claus and decided who was naughty and who was nice (and consequently got work). Joe Keaton was never nice. The final nail in his coffin was an incident in Providence. Keaton, enraged by some cheap prop furniture procured by a stingy stage manager, proceeded to smash every stick of furniture in the theatre. It was just a matter of time before the Keatons were finished in Big Time.

A few days later, Beck was backstage when the Keatons were about to go on. “Make me laugh, Keaton” Beck is reported to have taunted. True to form, Keaton literally chased Beck out of the theatre and half way down the street. It’s a hot tempered vaudevillian indeed who tries to strike the most important booker in vaudeville.

Finished in big time, the Keatons started working the lowly Pantagescircuit, but it was hopeless. At this point, Joe was never NOT drunk. Buster and Myra quit the act, leaving Joe to sober up on his own.

The Keatons’ agent Max Hart (who was also an agent for Will Rogers,W.C. FieldsBert Wheeler, and Eddie Cantor) booked Buster in The Passing Show of 1917. This was a very good booking indeed. Nevertheless, Buster dropped this prestige gig in favor of what was at the time a huge gamble: he opted to make films with Fatty Arbuckle instead.

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After a brief apprenticeship with Arbuckle and a short stint in the army in World War I, Keaton went on to make 19 perfect shorts (1920-23) and 10 perfect features (1923-28) for his own company, Comique. Surreal, fast-paced and highly inventive, these films continue to inspire film-makers as diverse as Woody Allen and Steven Speilberg today. These highly personal films usually pitted Buster against impossibly overwhelming forces such as a tornado, a burst dam, or an avalanche of boulders, against which he emerged victorious through sheer offbeat ingenuity. Rare even then, Buster did all of his own stunts, accounting for many cheerfully broken bones over the years. Some of his films, like The Navigator were huge hits in their own day. Others, like The General were major flops that have over time come to be considered masterpieces. A marriage to Natalie Talmadge (whose sisters were both movie stars, and whose brother in-law Nicholas Schenk was a major mogul) assured Keaton status as part of Hollywood’s royalty throughout the 1920s.

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In 1928, he became a contract player for MGM, and after a couple of great silent films (The Cameraman and Spite Marriage), he began a long and painful path to almost total self-destruction.

His decline may be attributed to several factors. First, oddly enough, his voice. Although he had a great one, it worked against the type of characters he usually played. His character was usually a young man, a wispy, and lovelorn character. He was often cast as a sort of wealthy naif, a young New York playboy pampered by butlers and the like. The image contrasted sharply with his squeaky, raspy voice, which was naturally deep and hardened from years of smoking and drinking. This, combined with his rustic Kansas accent, undermined the romantic leading man idea. Keaton had the voice of an old sailor – the voice of experience, a character who goes to bars and visits prostitutes. If he’d begun playing farmers – farmers with crazy inventions out back in the barn – his voice would have worked in talkies. Second, MGM tampered with his character. In Keaton’s third wife Eleanor’s words, previously, “he had never been a bumbler.” Instead of creating chaos wherever he went, Buster’s character always tried to impose order on a universe that was chaotic. Now the studio increasingly cast him as an incompetent, the sort of part that did not jibe with his natural dignity. Furthermore, for his last three features he was teamed with Jimmy Durante, no shrinking violet, who couldn’t help but hog every scene he was in, while Keaton floundered in uncertain seas.

Despite all this, Keaton’s MGM talkies, though nearly unwatchable today, were big hits at the time. In them we see sad evidence of the third and most crucial factor in Keaton’s rapid decline in the early thirties: he’d inherited his father’s alcohol problem. Each Keaton performance is progressively more unbearable, as his liquor problem grows to the point where it was visible onscreen. The problem was exacerbated by his divorce from Talmadge in 1932. By then Keaton drank so much he either missed workdays or would be drunk for the shooting. L.B. Mayer fired him, but Irving Thalberg pleaded with him to come back. Buster, brazenly assuming there would be offers from other studios, turned Thalberg down. The other offers never materialized.

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From here, Keaton tumbled to poverty row, first with a series of two-reelers for Educational Pictures (1933-37) (some of which are quite good), then some Columbia shorts directed by Jules White of Three Stooges fame. The 1940s were his toughest decade, when he worked primarily as “technical advisor” for MGM films, including many by Red Skelton. A highly successful 1947 performance at Cirque Medrano in Paris helped rehabilitate his reputation, as did some 1949 shots on The Ed Wynn Show. In 1950, he had his own Buster Keaton Show on a local Los Angeles station, then went on to a series of much cherished guest shots in films and television over the next 17 years. Keaton worked on prestige TV programs such as Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone, as well as numerous commercials. Films beckoned one again, too. High profile cameos in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)brought him back to cinemas, although in both these films his scenes had an eerie, unearthly quality, as though he were some sort sort of ghost from the early days of flickers. In the sixties he was a familiar face in the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach party movies – something akin to hiring Heifitz to play third fiddle at a barn dance. If the beach party movies weren’t proof enough that he’d take whatever work he could get, in 1964 Keaton starred in an art film called Film by Samuel Beckett, where he was directed to stumble around bumping into walls with a sack over his head.

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One of his last projects turned out to be the very last one for his co-star Ernie Kovacs, a TV sit-com called The Medicine Man. It featured Keaton as the Indian sidekick to Kovacs’ travelling snake-oil salesman. Keaton had come full circle to his medicine show origins. He passed away in 1966

In addition to the dozens of films Keaton made himself, there are two bio-pics for the intrepid investigator to explore. The 1956 film The Buster Keaton Story is terrible. Much more interesting and accessible is a 1969 film called The Comic starring Dick Van Dyke and directed by Carl Reiner. The film is clearly based on Keaton’s life (among others).

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy films, including those of Buster Keaton, don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc To learn more about vaudeville and acts like The Three Keatonsconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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