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.
Interesting information. John R. Cumpson—I knew that face looked familiar, then I matched him up with the office worker in the Edison promotional film “The Stenographer’s Friend” (love that little film!). That Pimple Evans—yikes! I did an image search to see more of him (No, I don’t know why), but there isn’t much out there anyway—maybe a good thing. 🙂 Thanks for the links at the bottom. I’d forgotten about Ben Model’s channel and discovered that I’d not subscribed to it. I remedied that!
Ben will appreciate that! Yeah, Pimple is one of those characters who’s very much of his time. VERY MUCH. Of his TIME. 😀
And, by the way, I’ve been watching a lot of old “To Tell the Truth” shows on YouTube (the ones from the ’50’s with Bud Collyer), and was thrilled to see Chester Conklin turn up on one of them. Seen that one?
I haven’t, thanks for the heads up! Chester seems like one of those actors who was very fond of his time at Keystone, he was always game for those Sennett reunions and such.
Thank you for your always interesting and informative blog. Well done.
Thank YOU for stopping by! 🙂
I’m sure you know that Spencer Bell had the ignominy of being credited in films by Larry Semon as “G. Howe Black” – which makes me wish someone misspelled Larry’s surname as “semen” on a billboard to teach him a lesson! 😛
Another fascinating and revelatory post there. I have heard of Andre Deed before – his comedy was quite surreal and visually innovative for the time. This is a great example: https://youtu.be/GT9rBNU9JGs
Keep up the good work! 🙂
Thank you so much, MIB! Yes, when I was trying to look up some info about Spencer “G. Howe Black” got more results than his actual name. Pre-Semon films he worked in Mermaid Comedies, where I guess he was called “Moonlight.” Hrrrm. This is interesting, though–I saw one brief article in a trade paper announcing that he was appearing in 4 Chadwick films and that he was “heralded by critics as the comedy find of the season in Chadwick’s the Wizard of Oz.” That was a nice find–black supporting players rarely seemed to get much recognition back then.
Well, at least I’ve heard of some of these…and I’ve even seen an Alkali Ike and a “Plump and Runt,” so I’m not a complete philistine. Thanks for all the leads!
You’re so welcome! This one took quite a bit of searching and studying. And as every man on the street knows, being ignorant of the wonder that is Pimple definitely marks you as the lowest of philistines. I’m glad I saved you from that fate. 😛
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never heard of many of these talented folks – but thanks to you, I have now! (And thanks for the tips on where to watch some of their shorts.)
I was pleased to see more than one woman on this list, as well as an African American comedian. It’s a shame that so many of these works are lost, which makes essays like yours all the more important.
Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for expanding our (my) silent film knowledge base. 🙂
Nice to see you, Silver Screenings! Don’t be embarrassed, they’re uber obscure for a reason, after all! 😉
Oh yes, there was a wide variety of people in silent comedy, so this list couldn’t help but reflect that. Mind you, I don’t believe in adding “types” of people to a list just to fulfill a quota or something. But there were indeed tons of comediennes at the time (I might argue that slapstick had a few more men in comparison with light comedy), and black actors like Spencer Bell are important since they paved the way for future generations.
I’ve noticed that since the roles played by many black performers were often stereotypes their films are aren’t always watched today. Which, ironically, results in the actors getting overlooked. It’s understandable but unfortunate at the same time.
I don’t think these amazing folks are outside my comfort zone, they are more like denizens of an undiscovered country. I’m going to put on my mukluks and hike on over. Thanks for being such a wonderful trail guide.
You’re welcome, Patricia! Some of their films can be challenging to find, but it’s always worth it to have the “film history worldview” expanded a little bit, I’ve found.
Hi Lea. What a great selection of people who did a lot of hard work and aren’t remembered for it. I was really impressed when I saw my first Lige Conley short, one of many with lions, but I can’t remember the name of the movie or much else about it. I may even look for a Pimple movie. I like your comment about Slippery Pimple.
It’s so gross!! 😀 I’ve seen Lige in FAST AND FURIOUS (1924), and it’s worth a watch not only for the action but to see him clearly “borrow” several of Buster Keaton’s stunts from COPS! (And maybe a couple others, too.) Can’t recall what else I’ve seen him in, but there’s an ad in a trade magazine showing him leaping from a car just as it’s about to get hit by a train so I definitely need more. 😀
I had only heard of André Deed and Marcel Perez, all the others are new to me. Well, there is always something new to learn in film history! I hope I can see these obscure comedians at work soon.
By the way, have you heard about the Slapstick Fall online course TCM is offering? You should take a look!
Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
Thanks for the heads up about the TCM course, Le–I’m going to enroll!! 😀
Great post! There were some I hadn’t heard of. I live not too far from the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (located where the company shot their westerns–and it’s very recognizable still), and Margaret Joslin is a favorite in our family.
For anyone in the UK, or who can figure out some kind of workaround, there’s a terrific Pimple short available here (notable for its humorous use of super-cheap props/sets): http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-lt-pimple-and-the-stolen-submarine-1914/
Awesome, thanks for sharing!
I haven’t been to Niles…YET…because the only times I’ve been in SF is to go to the silent film festival, which is when Niles closes for the weekend so the staff can attend too!
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Great article on SUPER obscure comedians, most of which I hadn’t heard of. Now, what I REALLY want to know is, where can I find Wanda Wiley’s films??
Hi waverboy–Wiley is such an obscure comedienne that her shorts exist almost solely in archives (and I think some are lost as well). As far as I’ve seen the only clip of her work available to the public is this fragment hosted on a Danish archive site: http://www.dfi.dk/faktaomfilm/film/da/42786.aspx?id=42786
But you never know–it wouldn’t surprise me if some comedy historians decided to collaborate with various archives and get some of her films restored. They would be very welcome!!
Thank you! I had forgotten that this clip was posted about on the Nitrateville board a few years ago; I had even participated in the thread. Stuff can fall out of my brain pretty easily, apparently. Anyway, I just watched this clip, and now I’m officially a Wanda Wiley fan. This looks like a great silent comedy two-reeler (except for the extremely unfortunate blackface bit). Wanda deserves to be rediscovered; she’s an absolute doll and a very funny comedienne!
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Old but brilliant essay. But now i am sure you know there is a new book about pimple Author is Brett Anthony.
Yes, have heard rumors!
Barry anthony i meant. Hadnt had coffee yet. Keep up the brilliant writing