Annnnd it’s blogathon time again! A hearty welcome to all readers of the What a Character! Blogathon, hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club, and Once Upon a Screen. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post–there’s plenty more great articles to enjoy over at the host sites, and I hope you also take a peek at a few of my other articles. As always, feel free to leave comments!
Back in the old days, there were some actors who weren’t exactly leading men or leading ladies and never made it to the threshold of major stardom. But they made their mark on Hollywood–and pop culture–all the same.
These were the character actors, people who were so good at playing certain “types” that they made careers out of it. Cartoon-ish types in particular were staples of early Hollywood comedy, where anything and everything was up for laughs. There were country bumpkins, old maids, bumbling fat men, Irish policemen, female impersonators, “Dutch” or German comics, fearsome matrons, French boulevardiers–and, of course, funny drunks.
The funniest drunk of them all? I think it’s no contest–Arthur Housman
Housman’s slender, weaving, slow-blinking inebriate popped up in dozens of films throughout the ’30s. Having facial features that would be aristocratic if they didn’t look perpetually hungover, Housman’s congenial character often seemed like he was at least trying to be dignified–even while wearing pajamas in the middle of the day with an ice pack on his head. Like many people who had swell childhoods I grew up with Laurel and Hardy films like Scram! (1932) and The Live Ghost (1934), both featuring Housman’s talents. He’s never failed to crack me up and is one of my favorite bit players to this day.
So how the heck does a guy find his life’s calling playing comical alcoholics?
Not too much is known about Arthur Housman, but old magazines reveal a few interesting tidbits. Like so many of the bit players sprinkled throughout Hollywood he had a lengthy career–stretching back to the 1900s.
He was born in New York City on Oct. 10, 1889, and was raised and educated there. He considered himself a proud New Yorker. Exactly where he went to school is hard to say, but once he graduated he quickly “took a position” to escape the dismal fate of going to college as his mother had fondly hoped. He wound up acting on the stage in musical comedies such as “Queen of the Moulin Rouge,” and then performed in vaudeville as part of a pantomime act with Signor G. Malasso (details about Malasso seem to be lost in the mists of time). He would be a part of the vaudeville circuit for four years. Lord knows what his mother thought of all of this.
Around 1912, when the “picture-plays” were getting closer to being respectable, Housman left the stage and joined Edison Studios (owned by Edison himself) to act in one-reel films. He started appearing in Edison’s “Wood B. Wed” series, starring established comedian William Wadsworth. By 1914 “Waddy” and “Arty” were an official comedy team.
They appeared in dozens of shorts with titles like The Courtship of the Cooks, Wood B. Wedd Goes Snipe Hunting, A Superfluous Baby (waah?) and my personal favorite, Wood B. Wedd and the Microbes.
Housman was even featured in some magazine interviews. In a 1914 issue of Motion Picture Magazine he gave his thoughts on film acting:
“I have been with the Edison Company for four years, and like it much better than stage work, for it is, in a way, easier; there’s no night work, and it’s more interesting, for on the stage you play the same part for a whole season, and sometimes more, when in ‘movies’ you have a new part handed you every week, and sometimes two…My favorite parts? Don’t ask me to name the characters, for I can’t remember them, I like ‘boob’ parts pretty well. I’ve had a lot of them to play, and I like them. I like any comedy part, though.”
In “Arty’s” opinion the greatest “photoplays” were the famous Italian epic Quo Vadis? (1913) and the Biograph short The Last Drop of Water (1911). He paid scant attention to politics and didn’t care for reading, and his hobbies were hunting and enjoying the New York nightlife. He claimed that his greatest ambition was to have a million dollars and a chicken-farm. “I mean a regular chicken farm like the Kimballville, there in Atlanta,” he insisted. When asked “if life were worth living,” he responded, “in New York it is.”
In another interview, published under the great title of “Arthur Housman, Gloom Dispeller” (hey, that’s the title of this post!), he cheekily gave this explanation for becoming an actor:
“I came to the stage by the star route…I read, when I was 17 years old, that any one born on October 10–my birthday–was, astrologically, destined to be a great actor. I foolishly believed the stars, and here I am.”
In 1915 some attention was given to his apparent makeup talents, maybe to gain a bit of extra publicity. This photo of Housman in character as an elderly man made the rounds:
In 1915 the Wood B. Wed series ended and Housman left Edison. For the next few years he kept busy working for Selig, Lubin, Van Dyke, Goldwyn, Selznick, and more, in shorts and features. He was a supporting player in both comedic and “straight” roles. In 1919 he married Ellen Grubley. Their marriage would last until his death (they did not have children as far as I could find out).
By the early ’20s Housman decided to create his own company, Housman Comedies, and launch a comedy series. These weren’t shorts as you might assume, but five-reel comedies and comedy-dramas, the first of the which was the well-received The Snitching Hour (1922). Housman’s character? “A good-natured ‘souse,’ one in that dress-suited variety, we hasten to add” (as an old review said). A glimpse of his future calling.
Which makes you wonder–when exactly did his drunk act first appear in a film? We’ll probably never know (heck, he could’ve started doing “souse bits” in vaudeville), but while he wouldn’t adopt the drunk act consistently until the ’30s he had definitely portrayed one as early as Why Announce Your Marriage? (1922), released before The Snitching Hour.
Sadly, Housman Comedies ran into legal difficulties almost instantly, and the company was disbanded after having made only one more film–Man Wanted (1922). The problems involved re-leases of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies that were packaged with The Snitching Hour, big chunks of money, and–well, it’s complicated.
Housman continued acting throughout the ’20s, mostly as a supporting actor. He briefly starred in a comedy series for Fox Films called “Helen and Warren,” co-starring Katherine Perry. You may have seen him in a bit part in Murnau’s acclaimed Sunrise (1927).
Then came the ’30s, and with it his first officially recognized “drunk role” (well, at least as noted in IMDb). This was a part in Harold Lloyd’s talkie Feet First (1930). From there, roles labeled “Tippler,” “Party Guest,” “Barfly,” and plain old “Drunk” became more and more frequent until Housman’s niche was firmly in place. He would cheerfully slur his way through much of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Although Housman was in films with everyone from Mabel Normand to The Marx Brothers, his appearances in five Laurel and Hardy films are probably the best remembered today–especially his top-hat wearing gentleman in Scram! I’m not the first viewer to notice that he could steal scenes even from Stan and Ollie themselves.
Stan Laurel later recalled a decidedly sober detail about Housman. Apparently he had a drinking problem in real life, revolving mostly around gin. This, ironically enough, never impeded his ability to show up on the set on time or complete his scenes. This begs the question–was Housman actually intoxicated during much of his onscreen acting?
I’m going to guess “possibly,” but maybe not “probably,” at least until the early ’40s. Chalking his drunk act solely up to real-life drinking experience denies Housman’s wonderful comedic talent. Besides, actors’ oncreen and offscreen personalities aren’t always closely related. Just to drive this point home, Jack Norton, Housman’s only real rival for the title of “Top Comic Drunk,” was a teetotaler.
There’s very little info on Housman’s life during the talkie period, but Stan’s memories must’ve been accurate. Since heavy drinking weakens the immune system, it’s fairly clear what must’ve contributed to Housman’s death by pneumonia on April 8, 1942…at age 52.
Well, life can turn lemons into lemonade, and in this case that lemonade included a generous dash of vodka and a twist. Arthur Housman remains the screen’s most familiar comic drunk, an irreplaceable character from a less politically-correct age.
For a glimpse of Housman’s talents, here’s a great clip from The Fixer Uppers:
Two incomplete prints of the five-reel Man Wanted still survive, although the most intact print is labelled Male Wanted and dated 1923. This is probably an alternate title given to the film when it was reissued. Although Housman of course is the star, the main title card only lists his costars Diana Allen and Huntley Gordon. Why? My guess is that the reissue of this film was capitalizing on the growing popularity of one of Housman’s costars, probably Diana Allen. IMDb lists Male Wanted separately as a short, which it is not.
“Arthur Housman, of the Edison Company.” Motion Picture Magazine, May 1914.
“Arthur Housman, Gloom Dispeller.” Moving Picture World, Feb. 13,1915.
“Housman Comedies’ ‘Snitching Hour’ Is Light and Mirthful.” Exhibitor’s Trade Review, June 14, 1922.
The Film Daily, May 29, 1923, page 3.
The Film Daily, July 31, 1923, page 6.
Variety, January 12, 1923, page 38.
Massa, Steve. Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2013.
Mitchell, Glenn. A-Z of Silent Film Comedy. London: Batsford, 1998.