Back when I first started watching Keystones, one thing that threw me right away was the over-the-top “mugging” of some of the actors. Seeing adults hop around like cartoon characters and make faces that toddlers would consider beneath them was startling, to say the least. While the sheer old-timey-ness of it was admittedly glorious, it sure took some getting used to.
Probably the worst offender for me at first was the energetic young Al St. John. His grimaces and hyperactivity drove me crazy…
…until I started getting more acquainted with him. After awhile I started to see that hey, he was a great acrobat and had a nice screen presence. And heck, his crazy style could be darn funny. Almost in spite of myself, I became a fan. And at one point I thought to myself, “Past Me wouldn’t have expected this, but I really like Al St. John now…however, if there’s anything on God’s green earth I do know…
“…it’s that I’ll never like that friggin’ Ford Sterling.”
Time passed. And you know what?
…I like Ford Sterling now.
Here’s the story of Ford, and why I’ve come to realize that the man who planted the flag atop the Summit of Overacting is truly one of the early (early) comedic greats.
Ford Sterling was born George Ford Stich, Jr. in Lacrosse, Wisconsin on November 3, 1882. Parents George and Mary Kirby Stich soon moved with their infant son to Texas, and then to Chicago, where he was raised in one of the more “fashionable” neighborhoods. When Sterling was a teenager he was sent to the Notre Dame boarding school in South Bend, Indiana. This was in part because George Sr. had developed a kidney ailment and wanted his son to finish high school while he and Mary traveled for medical treatments. Although homesick at first, Sterling eventually warmed up to the school, particularly once he began appearing in plays. One of his roles (in that Victorian time when roles were played by anyone handy), was of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
George Sr.’s health would continue to decline, and he would pass away in 1899. Sterling continued his studies until an illness caused him to leave school in 1901. When he recovered the family money was growing tight, so he decided to start earning a living–by becoming an actor. (I’m sure his mother was delighted.)
Dubbing himself “Ford Sterling” rather than going by the undistinguished “George Stich,” he got his first job with a company that put on Shakespeare plays–mainly as a property man. He then joined John Robinson’s Circus, working his way up to being Keno the Boy Clown of the Flying Lees trapeze artists. In this hair-raising act Sterling would be literally flung from acrobat to acrobat–sometimes even purposely dropped and then caught just in the nick of time. Both Sterling’s natural acrobatic skills and fondness for danger had to have been remarkable.
He also performed in other circuses, as a part of stock companies, on the vaudeville stage (where he specialized in funny “Dutch,” or German, characters), tried out for professional baseball teams, took acting classes at nothing less than the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, sculpted, painted, and, just to keep from getting lazy, worked as a cartoonist and illustrator. In 1911 Sterling added yet another career to the list: motion picture actor.
He joined none other than Biograph, home of D.W. Griffith, his incredible stock company, and talented assistant directors like one named Mack Sennett. When Sennett was offered his own comedy studio in 1912 he jumped at the chance and took several Biograph actors with him–including Ford.
Sterling took to the farcical, fast-paced world of Sennett’s new Keystone Film Company like a fish takes to water. There his stage training, his acrobatic experience, and penchant for silly faces that only a cartoonist could perfect would not only come in handy, but make him famous.
He starred in many of Keystone’s earliest releases, including the very first one that was likely filmed, At Coney Island (1912) and the first one Sennett released, Cohen Collects a Debt (1912). Mabel Normand and Fred Mace were frequent co-stars. Sterling seems to have portrayed a comical Jewish character for some of these films, although in a short time he would be identified–perhaps forever–with his “Dutch” character.
This character, often called “Schintzel” or other German-sounding names, had a frock coat, a battered top hat, round wire frame glasses and a chin beard. This was merely his look; what made the characterization pure Ford was a hammy, cartoony, go-for-broke performance style complete with his crowning glory: goofy faces. These were his “trademarks” in a sense, even used to advertise his talents.
Sterling’s grimacing, inept villains were the sort to hit on annoyed young ladies and plot to do away with rivals by attempting to blow them up (no one was ever hurt). His talents were showcased in dozens of one- and two-reel Keystones.
You’re probably suspecting that Sterling’s style hasn’t worn well with age. And, to put it mildly…it hasn’t. Even many film historians have been baffled by Sterling’s popularity back in the 1910s. Of all the silent comedians, he’s one of the hardest to introduce to people today. But we can learn to appreciate him by recognizing several things:
- First, at least some of his manic style is a holdover from the stage. It wasn’t unusual for some actors to still “play to the back row” while on camera in those early days.
- Second, much of Sterling’s acting was meant caricature the stereotypical Victorian villain, which by that time was an out-of-date but very familiar character to movie audiences (the 1910s were the Edwardian era, remember). He was considered the expert at this type of satire. His Schnitzel wasn’t a villain in every film, but he was often at least a rascal.
- Third, some of his acting is actually much subtler than we realize. The frantic “gesturing” is Sterling’s masterful use of pantomime–watch him carefully, and you pick up on how his character is developed and get clues as to different plot points.
Another important thing to remember is that Edwardian audiences loved him. By 1914 Sterling was the most popular comedian on the Sennett lot, and thus the top comedian in the nation. Magazines called him “The Funniest Man in Moving Pictures.” Actors in other studios were told to imitate the “Sterling style.” Even Charlie Chaplin, when he joined Keystone, would do obvious and spot-on impersonations of Sterling in films like Mabel at the Wheel (1914).
In fact, while talking about his first days at Keystone in his book My Autobiography, Chaplin mentioned “the great Ford Sterling” and gave some interesting insights into the man’s huge stature at the Fun Factory:
Mr. Sennett introduced me to him…He was immensely popular with the public and with everyone in the studio. They surrounded his set and were laughing eagerly at him…
That day I went from set to set watching the companies at work. They all seemed to be imitating Ford Sterling. This worried me, because his style did not suit me. He played a harassed Dutchman, ad-libbing through the scene with a Dutch accent, which was funny but was lost in silent pictures…every story and situation conceived in the studio was consciously or unconsciously made for Sterling; even Roscoe Arbuckle was imitating Sterling.
Chaplin mentioned that during his own anxiety over making a good impression at Keystone, Sterling took it upon himself to cheer him up and take him to downtown Los Angeles for a drink at the end of tense days.
For Sterling was, without dispute, a “swell guy” that everyone adored. Whenever he performed his set was sure to be packed with workers, fellow actors, and visitors. He acted as much for onlookers’ benefits as for the camera’s, ad-libbing a hundred miles a minute and leaving everyone in stitches.
Sterling was also multi-talented. Not only was he well-educated and able to paint, sculpt and draw cartoons, but he was a skilled photographer who spent much of his spare time taking pictures. His specialty was the complicated bromoil technique, which produced prints that had a soft, oil-painted look. He joined the Camera Pictorialists of Los Angeles and had his own top-of-the-line studio, laboratory, and darkroom in the backyard of his home. Over the years he would win numerous awards in both national and international competitions. His artistic eye served him well in the Keystones he personally directed, which show his knack for careful compositions.
In late 1914 he married actress Teddy Sampson. This began a long on-again, off-again relationship, mainly because of Sampson’s penchant for leaving for years at a time. Sterling initiated divorce proceedings against her in the mid-’20s, even though he was unable to track down her address. Tragically, Sterling’s mother would collapse and die of a stroke during one of the courtroom proceedings.
Sampson would then file for divorce in 1928, hoping to get alimony. However, they never finalized the divorce and, surprisingly, reconciled in 1931.
Sterling’s career was long and profitable. He left Keystone twice to try his hand at other studios (including making his own series at Universal) but returned to the fold when the ventures didn’t work out. By the late 1910s the broad ethnic characterizations that he himself had popularized were growing unfashionable. Accordingly, he toned down his style and adopted a more gentlemanly look.
The served him well at other comedy companies throughout the ’20s and ’30s and throughout freelance work in features like He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and The Showoff (1926). (Some of these were even straight roles.) In all, Sterling’s career was lengthy and successful, and he remained a familiar face in the “cinematic firmament.”
By the 1930s Sterling’s luck began to change. He would start losing his money and begin suffering from heart disease. He appeared in the Keystone reunion comedy Keystone Hotel (1935), donning his old familiar chin beard and spectacles and looking hardly any different, if stouter. Only a couple years later he would look much older.
In 1938 he suffered a heart attack; his weakened health lead to thrombosis so severe that his left leg had to be amputated above the knee.
Sterling ended up spending the majority of 16 months in the Good Samaritan Hospital, dependent on financial help from his friends, mainly the generous Jed Prouty. Amazingly, he did not grow depressed or morose–one friend told the press “You’d think with all the hard luck he’s been having, Ford would become embittered, but he’s still his humorous self.”
The gallant Sterling would suffer another heart attack on October 13, 1939, which would claim his life. Dozens of Keystone veterans and other movie folk attended his funeral, including Sennett, Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks.
The Actors’ Fund paid for Sterling’s cremation and a small niche in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. For decades this water-damaged niche would go unmarked. But happily for Sterling, over 70 years later thoughtful fans and historians paid for a marker bearing his name and other inscriptions–including “Keystone Kop.” He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Watching Ford Sterling today, I can’t help noticing his effortless charisma with the camera. His more “gentlemanly” roles, such as the one in The Showoff, are all too easy for him. If his Keystone acting style had been more toned down, it’s not hard to imagine that Sterling would probably be much more familiar to people today–perhaps on the same plane as W.C. Fields or Edgar Kennedy.
Still, Sterling deserves to be be appreciated for who he was: a fearless talent whose zaniness was a big influence in the early days of comedy and whose influence can still be faintly felt today (the Loony Tunes sure owe a lot to Ford!). And he’s still waiting to make you laugh today, if you just give him a chance.
My main source for this article was Wendy Warwick White’s biography Ford Sterling: The Life and Films. This meticulously researched book is stuffed with information that you won’t be able to find anywhere else. It also corrects many misconceptions about Sterling’s career.
King, Rob. The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2009.
Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.
White, Wendy Warwick. Ford Sterling: The Life and Films. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2007.