Silents are Golden: A Brief Look at Obscure Silent Film Comedians

A Brief Look at Obscure Silent Film Comedians

Since I touched upon the history of silent comedy a couple months ago, I thought I’d do a follow-up post exploring that history in a little more detail. Hope you enjoy!

If you ask anyone with a bit of film history knowledge under their belt to name some famous silent comedians, they’ll probably say “Chaplin - Keaton - Lloyd!” right off the bat (and without batting an eye). Some of them might also cite Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, or Ben Turpin.

Which is a grand and wonderful thing, of course. But while folks like Lloyd and Keaton were indeed some of the top names in their time, it’s worth knowing that the world of silent comedy was a massive one, constantly evolving and constantly throwing ideas at the wall to see what would stick with audiences. There was a veritable sea of comedians in every makeup you can imagine, all trying (and often failing) to make it big–or at least to entertain their own small groups of fans. Let’s take a look at some of the overlooked, obscure, or just plain forgotten names in silent comedy history!

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Billy Bevan and Louise Fazenda in It’s a Boy (1920)Billy Bevan and Louise Fazenda in It’s a Boy (1920)

One of the earliest comedians, aside from the more generally-known Max Linder, was the popular André Deed, a fellow Frenchman with a similarly bumbling character named “Foolshead.” Marcel Perez was a gifted comedian from Spain who performed in Paris, created a character named Robinet for a series of Italian comedies, and eventually headed to the U.S. where he cycled through a number of screen names — Bungles, Tweedy, Tweedy-Dan, and Tweedy-Dum (which has caused much confusion among silent film historians).

Spanish Comedian Marcel Perez in a Publicity Photo for his latest comedic shortMarcel in a 1918 publicity photo for his latest short.

In the early 1910s, what constituted as “comedy” was sometimes blurry, as performers might star in broad slapstick one day and “polite” comedy the next. But in time, comedians discovered their niches. The Vitagraph studio, for instance, would create series of light comedies, starring such favorites as the tubby John Bunny and rail-thin Flora Finch. The lesser-known Lillian “Dimples” Walker and Wally “Cutey” Van were also popular — Lillian, in particular, had a series of “Miss Tomboy” comedies.

On the other hand, Universal’s Joker Comedies unit (which churned out a mind-boggling number of shorts in the 1910s) proved to be an excellent boot camp for slapstick comedians like Max Asher, Harry McCoy, Bobby Vernon and Heinie Conklin, who would all be familiar to audiences for many years. Bobby Vernon, a diminutive actor who had worked as a stunt diver, would be one day be paired with Gloria Swanson in their own Sennett comedy shorts. Heinie would eventually adopt one of the oddest and most recognizable makeups in silent comedy — a dropping mustache with tiny curls on the ends.

Comedian Charles John "Heinie" ConklinComedian Charles John “Heinie” Conklin

Joker comediennes who would gain their own followings by in the late 1910s included skinny Gale Henry, sometimes said to be the inspiration for Olive Oyl, and Louise Fazenda, who would specialize in daffy “slaveys” (a catch-all term for a household servant). They perhaps took some inspiration from Rose Melville, who was famous at the time for her “rube” character named Sis Hopkins. Melville had played the character on the stage and then in a series of shorts for the Kalem company–all of which are sadly lost today.

Rose Melville as the original Sis HopkinsRose Melville as the original Sis Hopkins (1919).

The biggest comedy factory of all, of course, was the mighty Keystone Film Company. Aside from the famed Arbuckle, Normand, and Chaplin, one of the most popular Keystone comedians was Ford Sterling, one of the most uninhibited performers in silent comedy. Arbuckle’s petite wife Minta Durfee and the rowdy, tomboyish Polly Moran were confident presences in dozens of shorts. Chester Conklin, nicknamed “Walrus” for his big, bushy fake mustache, was often paired with gentle giant Mack Swain. Swain had a distinct look consisting of dark eye makeup, a large mustache, and a little lock of hair that comes across as rather startling today. Tall, skinny Slim Summerville was another instantly recognizable Keystone regular, as was the limber, trick bicycle rider Al St. John. Popular Bathing Beauties Phyllis Haver and Marie Prevost would become Sennett leading ladies, and would eventually leave the fold to star in other studios’ films.

Mack Swain, Chester Conklin and Gloria Swanson in The Pullman Bride (1917)Swain, Conklin, and Gloria Swanson in The Pullman Bride (1917).

Years before Laurel and Hardy were teamed up, there were comic duos like Ham and Bud, Waddy and Arty, Lyons and Moran, and Plump and Runt (“Plump,” by the way, was played by Oliver Hardy). Female duos were rarer, one example being Anita Garvin and Marion Byron in a short-lived 1928-29 series for Hal Roach.

The circus was a perfect training ground for silent comedy, so naturally, more than one circus performer ended up in films. One was the Hippodrome clown Toto, who starred in a series of shorts for Pathe in the late 1910s (not the same Totò from Italy who was famous from the 1940s-60s). Clown and daredevil trick rider “Poodles” Hanneford acted steadily in shorts throughout the 1920s, and British music hall veteran Fred Evans starred as his character “Pimple” in dozens and dozens of 1910s shorts.

Hippodrome clown TOTO Pathé Shorts (1910) Coming Soon PosterMoving Picture World, 1917.

The 1920s had its share of colorful or just plain unusual comics. Monty Banks specialized in comedy-thrillers, which often featured leaps from cars onto trains and other neck-breaking stunts. Charley Bowers made shorts to showcase his quirky stop-motion animation, which is still impressive today. The Ton of Fun was a rare comedy trio, composed of Hilliard “Fats” Carr, Kewpie Ross, and Frank “Fat” Alexander (the logic being that three heavy gentlemen would be thrice as funny as one). And let’s not forget the animal stars, from Snooky the Chimpanzee (or “Humanzee”) to Teddy the Sennett dog to the many stars of the surreal Dippy-Do-Dads series, where all the parts were played by animals.

Snooky the Chimpanzee in Snooky's Twin Troubles (1921) Animal Stars in ComedySnooky’s Twin Troubles (1921). Image credit: FilmPreservation.org

This, of course, is only a brief sampling of the many, many obscure or just plain forgotten faces of silent comedy. For a “niche” area of film history that’s so often overlooked, there’s a startlingly large world of unpretentious fun to explore–and if you ask me, that’s a wonderful thing.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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