Hello everyone, and happy spring! This is an extra special post I’m putting up today, because it’s in memory of a very special gal: Patricia Nolan-Hall, aka Caftan Woman to you fellow film bloggers (and readers!).
When the news broke back in March that Patricia had passed away, we knew the classic film blogasphere had lost one of its best and most enthusiastic talents. Patricia was a delightful writer with a vast knowledge of cinema and she was an equally delightful member of the community. If you were hosting a blogathon, Caftan Woman was sure to sign up–and comment on every single blogathon entry! How she found the time I’ll never know, but she clearly had a passion for film that just had to be shared.
It took some thought to pick my blogathon topic, because Patricia loved such a wide variety of films. So I figured: in honor of someone so knowledgeable who was so generous to her fellow bloggers, why not list some of the most prolific silent film stars in Hollywood? I’m talking about the hardworking people who managed to show up in dozens–no, hundreds of films, and who were basically the backbone of Hollywoodland. Some are well known, others obscure. And maybe we can try to guess just who had the longest filmography of all.
This list surprisingly tough to figure out. Many silent film actors appeared in a staggering number of films, stretching from the 1900s and well into the television era. It’s a piece of cake to find folks who appeared in 100, 150, or even 200 films, especially if they got their start early on (think around 1910 or so). Heck, Mary Pickford alone appeared onscreen 246 times! I resorted to using IMDb much of the time, not always the most ironclad source, and I’m still positive I’m overlooking someone obvious. Keep in mind that more well-known actors have the most thorough filmographies, and doubtless many obscure players appeared in small or uncredited roles that are lost to the mists of time.
Now, these vast filmographies were possible for a few reasons. The earliest films were short, fairly simple and could be made very quickly. Comedies in particular were churned out like mad–some comedians could act in two shorts a week and still have time left over to work as an extra. With the right contract and enough energy you could rack up dozens of film credits in less than a year. Which brings me to: work ethic! Some actors were tireless, working in film after film for years and jumping from studio to studio. As the years stretched into decades they eventually had innumerable film roles under their belts. And once TV came along, the work simply never stopped–unless they wanted it to. Types of careers in Hollywood could vary: some actors rose to fame, others became supporting players, some became character actors, and others simply did bit roles and extra work. But even a lifetime of tiny roles was certainly a fulfilling career to those who enjoyed it. So let’s take a look at performers who were no stranger to an honest day’s work:
10. Chester Conklin
Film count: 306
A familiar mustachioed presence in many a Keystone short, Conklin started working for the studio in 1913, starting a film career that didn’t end until 1966. Thanks to the aforementioned mustache he was nicknamed “Walrus” in a lot of his early films, usually at odds with Mack Swain’s “Ambrose.” He became a dependable comedian in shorts and features throughout the ’20s and ’30s, and from the ’40s until the ’60s kept busy with mainly bit parts and extra work until retiring only a few years shy of his death.
9. King Baggot
Film count: 361
This once-familiar leading man started acting for the early studio IMP in Fort Lee, New Jersey way back in 1909. His costar was the famed Florence Lawrence and they subsequently acted in dozens of films together. One of the first film actors to be granted billing, he became one of the biggest names in 1910s films and was even advertised as “The Man Whose Face Is As Familiar As The Man In The Moon.” He also directed and wrote screenplays, once playing ten different charaacters in his 1914 two-reeler Shadows. By the ’20s he was focusing more on directing, but by the talkie era alcoholism and studio issues effectively ended that part of his career. He started doing bit parts and extra work and would pop up in countless films until retiring in 1947.
8. Dot Farley
Film count: 370
Getting her start on stage at only three years old, Farley debuted in films in 1910 and would work for a bewildering amount of studios. Her departure from the stage had to do with recovering from a botched throat operation, so silent pictures were certainly a godsend. She gamely specialized in being a character actress, appearing as various country rubes, old maids, daffy sweethearts, or whatever the current studio required (at Keystone she was frequently a cross-eyed “ugly girl”). In the ’20s she would also have character roles in feature films. She kept working steadily until the ’50s in shorts and features, and even today it’s hard to keep track of all the studios in her filmography.
7. Oliver Hardy
Film count: 418
Perhaps the most beloved name on this list, “Ollie” is known worldwide for his Laurel and Hardy shorts, but few people know the full extent of his amazingly prolific career. He joined his first film studio in 1913, acting in comedy right from the get-go. He appeared in the “Pokes and Jabbs” and “Plump and Runt” slapstick series and frequently worked at Larry Semon’s frenetic studio. Due to his large frame he was often typecast as a villain, too. By the time he started his partnership with Stan Laurel in the late 1920s he had already appeared in a mind-boggling number of short comedies, around 60 in 1916 alone, and his busy career lasted until he and Laurel’s final feature Utopia (1950).
6. Edgar Kennedy
Film count: 448
Another tireless comedian, Kennedy got his start as a singer in musical comedies and as a boxer and began appearing in Selig films in 1911. Soon he was at Keystone, as many fine comedians were, and Sennett himself credited Kennedy as being one of the “original” Keystone Kops. He would then work for L-KO, Fox Sunshine, Educational, and would freelance in comedy features. His burly frame meant he was frequently cast as villains, grumpy blue-collar workers, cops or exasperated husbands, giving him ample opportunities to perfect his famed “slow burn.” He worked steadily up until his death from throat cancer in 1948.
5. Vernon Dent
Film count: 448
Much like Kennedy, Dent was often cast as a villain but could also play harried businessmen, scheming pals, and various character roles with ease (he also somehow has the exact same amount of film credits, at least as far as I’ve seen!). He started his film career in 1919, later than many actors on this list, making his filmography all the more impressive. He’s best known for his partnership with the babyfaced Harry Langdon in the ’20s and his appearances with countless famed comedians at Columbia Pictures in the ’30s–especially his many appearances with the Three Stooges. Sadly, he would suffer from diabetes which caused him to go blind, and he had to retire from films in the ’50s with over 400 credits under his belt.
4. Leo White
Film count: 482
Now we’re really getting up there! White was a British music hall veteran who started acting in films in 1910. He’s probably best known for his roles in Essanay and Mutual comedies opposite Charlie Chaplin, where he created a unique “dapper villain” or “excitable Frenchman” persona with a waxed mustache, goatee and silk hat. He also appeared in major features The Lost World and Ben-Hur (both 1925). Frequently taking bit parts, during the talkie era he also did tons of work as an extra, making his ultimate filmography hard to pin down. We safely say he was in a bewildering amount of films until 1949.
3. Francis Ford
Film count: 496
Director John Ford’s older brother, Francis’s earliest film credit is from 1911 and it’s possible a number of other early credits are lost. Most of his early films were westerns, Civil war pictures, and other short dramas. He was also directing for Thomas Ince as early as 1912, and apparently he left the studio when Ince started taking credit for his work. He and his brother would collaborate on each other’s projects but also compete with each other, and soon it was clear John was the director on the rise. Francis kept busy in character roles and extra work until the ’50s, often specialized as grizzled old prospectors and the like.
2. Irving Bacon
Film count: 542
Now we’re really climbing! Irving Bacon is known more for his endless movie appearances as various comical barbers, waiters, soda jerks, drivers, grocers, paper hangers, and other average Joes that stretched from the ’30s until the ’50s, but in the silent era he was also in numbers of Sennett comedies. You can see him pop up in Golden Age classics like It Happened One Night (1934) and Gone with the Wind (1939), and TV appearances also added even more credits to his impressive filmography.
Ah, and now we come to the #1 film credit champ–who started in silent films–that I know of so far. Are you ready for it?!
1. Bess Flowers
Film count: 972 (!)
Known today as “The Queen of Hollywood Extras,” Flowers got her start in Hollywood (1923) and worked steadily for 41 years. If there was a classic Hollywood star, Flowers almost certainly appeared in several of their films. One writer put together an impressive sample: “…The list includes A Woman of Paris with Charlie Chaplin (1923), Meet John Doe with Gary Cooper (1941), Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray (1944), Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford (1945), The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (1946), A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift (1951), and The Manchurian Candidate with Frank Sinatra (1962).” Television appearances also added a ton of credits, making her the one performer many sources regard as the most prolific in early Hollywood.
Possible contender to the max-credits throne: Leo White
Now, there might be another record holder. According to IMDb trivia, Leo White had a personal log indicated he had actually appeared in 2,000 films by 1940, most appearances being uncredited. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but in all honesty, I wouldn’t be too surprised. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if Bess Flowers has a few rivals out there that simply flew under the radar most of the time.
I hope you enjoyed this post in honor of Patricia! Please visit Lady’s Reel Life and Another Old Movie Blog to read the rest of the blogathon posts–and in the spirit of Caftan Woman, consider leaving a few comments! Patricia most certainly would. 🙂