While many people are familiar with only a handful of big names, the world of silent comedy was a vast, dizzying hurricane of one- and two-reelers starring folk of every conceivable size, shape, and level of talent. A great many tried and a great many failed to win themselves a coveted spot on the “Beloved Performers Who Will Be Immortal” list.
If you are a fan of silent comedy, you already know all those big names: Charlie, Buster, Harold, Mabel, Roscoe (not “Fatty,” mind you), and so on. If you are a buff, you probably also know Max, Lupino, Snub, Ford, and so on. And you also never to call Roscoe “Fatty.”
But what of all those other names? Who were some of the really obscure comedians from those far-off days when automobiles were finally catching on? Many of them are lucky if a handful of their shorts survive. But while the Immortals such as Charlie and Buster were certainly very popular back in the day, at one time these forgotten people had fanbases of their own (some smaller than others).
We might all know the debonair Max Linder, and if you’re in the SilCom loop you might’ve heard of the rediscovered Marcel Perez, but overlooked fellow Frenchman André Deed was also a big comedy star…at practically the same time. Deed’s heyday was the 1900s and 1910s, and his chaos-creating dope “Foolshead” was the prototype for many comedians to come. He also had the honor of having been directed by Georges Méliès, which came in handy when he wanted to make trick shots for his own films.
A notable later work was The Mechanical Man (1921), one of my top “Please let a more complete, pristine print of this be found one day, O Lord” films.
If you were living in the 1900s and someone asked you to name a comedian, you could yell “John R. Cumpson, of course!” (Who wouldn’t, really?) He played the character “Mr. Jones” to Florence Lawrence’s “Mrs. Jones” in a series of Biograph comedies, and later created a popular character known as “Bumptious” for Edison before passing away at the early date of 1913.
Another early name was Josie Sadler, a popular stage comedienne in the 1900s who specialized in comic songs, and–in those Ellis Island days–“naive immigrant” characters. She starred in a brief series of “Josie the German household drudge” comedies in 1914, and while those films aren’t available today, several recording of her goofy songs are available on YouTube.
One of our early comedy duos was Waddy and Arty, created during the Great Comedy Duo Explosion of 1914 (it was a thing). As “Waddy,” William Wadsworth was the star of the “Wood B. Wed” series, with Arthur “Arty” Housman as his partner in crime. Their shorts were generally goofy slapstick farces.
And yes, Laurel and Hardy fans, he was that Arthur Housman–now known as one of the most memorable comic drunks in the Golden Age of movies. Arthur proved popular enough to feature in a few stand-alone roles, and I’ve even seen him ranked #12 in the “Comedian (Male)” section of a 1915 fan magazine poll.
Another Edwardian comedy duo was Pokes and Jabbs, a team of Bob Burns and Walter Stull who churned out releases for the short-lived Vim Comedy Company. While not the most original or unique slapstick comedians in the world, they did share the same studio with the Plump and Runt duo of Billy Ruge and…Oliver Hardy!
Lillian Walker was another popular 1910s comedienne. A former Follies showgirl, she was soon nicknamed “Dimples” (for the obvious reason) and had her own series of “Dimples” shorts. She also apparently portrayed a character called “Miss Tomboy” in an earlier series, all for the genteel Vitagraph company. And speaking of cutesy nicknames, allow me to introduce you to “Cutey.” No, this was not a saucer-eyed little brunette who was constantly having bumbling gents try to win her affection–“Cutey” was actually 30-something Wally Van. Another Vitagraph actor, Wally often co-starred with Lillian Walker. His comedies were called “gems of refined comedy production” by Motion Picture Magazine.
A name that once rivalled that of John Bunny and Max Linder was Augustus Carney, generally known by his character name “Alkali Ike.” After starring in “Hank and Lank” comedies, Carney was given his own series by Essanay, which was among the earliest to use a single location and recurring cast. His character was an ornery little cowboy living in the small Western town of Snakeville, and he was often teamed with the also-popular Margaret Joslin, a curvy gal whose character was named Sophie Clutts. Sadly, Carney developed a reputation for being hard to work with, and he was reduced to supporting roles by 1915. Joslin went on to appear in a large number of Harold Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke shorts.
A familiar face in many smaller theaters was little George Ovey, who had over 200 credits to his name, most of them one-reelers that came out every week like clockwork. At one point he had a costume of spats, checkered pants, a little round hat and a single lock plastered across his forehead, like a distant cousin of Harry Langdon and Lupino Lane.
Ovey comedies were a mixture of laughs and drama with some excitement thrown in, and they were popular B-level entertainment until about 1918.
Big-eyed Billie Rhodes had her heyday from about 1915 until 1919. She not only had a delightful personality, but seemed refreshingly natural onscreen–or “arch, chic and spontaneous,” in the words of the Los Angeles Express. She portrayed an adventurous young gal in films that were more on the light comedy side than the slapstick.
From 1919 until 1923 there was a series of Hallroom Boys comedies. Based on the popular comic strip by Harold A. McGill, the Boys–Percy and Ferdy–were high society playboys who ended up penniless and were always on the lookout for Miss Millionbucks. Played at first by Edward Flanagan and Neely Edwards, the Boys were unique in that they were well-known characters that ended up being played by a variety of actors, from Sid Smith to Harry McCoy.
Throughout the Twenties Lige Conley starred in shorts that were full of hair-raising stunts à la Larry Semon or Monty Banks. With his dark curly hair parted in the middle and surprised-looking eyes, Conley looked a great deal like Charlie Chaplin out of makeup, and at certain angles I swear he resembled Keaton or Lloyd too. Even Stan Laurel, for good measure. Looking like a vague mixture of every major comedian didn’t quite mark Conley for posterity, but at least he had an exciting two-reel career.
For a time Conley was teamed with Spencer Bell, who was one of the earliest black comedians to receive a Hollywood contract. Bell had a background in vaudeville and minstrel shows, and was noted for his energetic pratfalls and athleticism. Although he was always a supporting player and tended to be given nicknames like “Snowball,” he received steady work throughout the Twenties (especially from Larry Semon) and up until his untimely death in 1935 due to stomach surgery complications.
In the mid-1920s Wanda Wiley was a comedienne for Century Comedies, and was called the “Cute Little Devil” (at least in ads). She was promoted for her “pep,” good looks, and willingness to do stuntwork (this resulted in at least two reported injuries, one by being thrown from a horse and one by having her skirt caught on a motorcycle she was riding). Her films had titles like Snappy Eyes and Some Tomboy. She was the sort of comedienne who represented a bridge between two-reel knockabout comedies and flapper flicks, similar to Colleen Moore or Constance Talmadge.
Alright, you’ve all been very patient–now I’ll finally tell you who this “Pimple” person was. This was the talented British comedian Fred Evans, a descendant of clowns and veteran of music halls and burlesque theater. He was a man whose popularity once rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin–over in Great Britain, that is. As “Pimple,” Evans starred in over 200 shorts throughout the 1910s–200! And here he is–I apologize in advance for any nightmares you may have tonight:
With whitened face and blackened teeth and all, Evans was famous for satirizing the popular plays, films, and so forth of the day. (In 1915 Elinor Glyn apparently sued him for burlesquing her beloved steamy novel Three Weeks. I’m a little scared by the thought of what Pimple burlesquing Three Weeks entailed.) Some of the titles of his shorts include: Pimple Gets a Quid, Pimple’s Zeppelin Scare, How Lieutenant Pimple Captured the Kaiser, and Slippery Pimple (ew).
And those, my friends, are just a few of the uber obscure comedy names I could mention (I didn’t even get to Lyons and Moran…yes, I’m a slacker). Some of these forgotten people, like Alice Howell, Fay Tincher and Charley Bowers, are slowly starting to gain some recognition. Others, like Marcel Perez or Al St. John, just need some more exposure.
While I loudly applaud anyone who falls in love with the work of masters like Keaton or Lloyd–and will come over with some cheesy popcorn to watch them over and over with you–I strongly urge you to step outside of the comfort zone now and then and see what the other funny folk have to offer. You never know who might become one of your favorite performers…and you never know whose legacy you’ll help preserve for future generations.
I’m very pleased to have a little bit of Forgotten Comedians Month coincide with The Classic Movie History Project, an annual blogathon hosted by Aurora’s Gin Joint, Movies, Silently and Silver Screenings! This is one of the biggest film blogathons of the year, and 2016 has a virtual smorgasbord of topics and informative posts–it’s definitely worth checking out, folks! And as always, thank you so much for stopping by, blogathon readers–feel free to explore, and maybe leave a comment or two. I love comments like Theda Bara loved black eyeliner (very, very much).
Many–although not all–of these comedians have at least a short or two available on YouTube (finding them can involve some creative search terms). Silent film accompanist and historian Ben Model has a channel with a number of very rare films, and the EYE Filmmuseum’s channel is a treasure trove–although intertitles are in Dutch. No one said exploring the silent era couldn’t be an adventure!
Numerous searches on Lantern were essential for this article. Also very helpful was Anthony Balducci’s Journal, a great resource for some very obscure comedians (including excellent pictures!), as well as Ben Model and Steve Massa’s Cruel and Unusual Comedy notes on little-seen silent shorts. My other top sources for this article, as well as all the articles for Forgotten Comedians Month, are:
Massa, Steve. Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2013.
Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.
Lahue, Kalton C. and Gill, Sam. Clown Princes and Court Jesters. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1970.