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OLD-TIME FILM COMEDIANS
To honor the anniversary of W.C. Fields’ birth on January 29, Tidbits takes a look back at some of the folks that made us laugh in the good ol’ days.
• W.C. Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Philadelphia in 1880. So much of his childhood had been exaggerated and fabricated by the comedian himself that no one knows for sure which parts of the story are true. What is known, however, that his entrance into show business came via his skills as a juggler. He’d learned to juggle as a child, and often performed at his father’s produce business, entertaining the customers by juggling various combinations of vegetables.
• At age 14, Fields took his act to the boardwalk of Atlantic City, where he supplemented his income by becoming a professional “drowner.” Local food and drink peddlers had learned that nothing attracted a crowd like a dramatic rescue, so every now and then they gave Fields $10 to go and pretend to struggle for life in the water. A lifeguard would rescue him, and the merchants would start hawking their goods to the crowds that gathered.
• Fields eventually became known as a comedian, and his quips and wry observations (given in his trademark drawl) are still often quoted today. But when he was juggling, he remained silent for the most part, as he wanted the audience to concentrate on his amazing skills. One of his more dazzling stunts was to balance a top hat, cigar and whisk broom on his foot. With a deft kick, he’d toss the items in the air and catch the cigar in his mouth, the top hat on top of his head, and the broom in his back pocket.
• Ninety plus years after Charles Chaplin introduced the world to the Little Tramp, the character is still instantly recognizable. Chaplin was working at Keystone studios when he created the character from borrowed pieces of wardrobe. He wore a pair of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s oversized pants paired with a tiny suit jacket. He added a pair of huge size 14 shoes, a bowler hat, a toothbrush mustache and a wide-eyed innocence that made for an irresistible combination.
• Like many stars, Chaplin was a workaholic. Beginning in 1915, he not only starred in movies, he also wrote, produced, directed and scored the music for them. In the span of a few years he went from being a contract player at Keystone to co-owner (with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford) of United Artists studios.
• Chaplin later reflected on why audiences had so embraced the Little Tramp. People always root for the underdog, he believed. They identified with the loveable vagabond and figured if he could emerge a hero, so could they. Chaplin was a master of body language, and would add subtle touches – an inward turn of the shoulder, a sly twitch of the mustache – that let the audience know he wasn’t as naive as his onscreen adversaries believed. But the actor still maintained an almost child-like innocence, so that even when he won the girl, he wasn’t threatening to male viewers.
• Joseph Frank Keaton was given his nickname by family friend Harry Houdini. Young Joe was six months old when he tumbled down a flight of stairs and emerged unharmed. Houdini, who’d seen the accident, cried out, “What a buster your kid took!” Buster Keaton made his official stage debut at the age of nine months, when he crawled out from the wings while his Vaudevillian parents were performing.
• The Keaton family’s act became known as the “Most Dangerous in Vaudeville.” The comedy focused on how to discipline an unruly child, and culminated with Buster’s dad throwing the child into the scenery or out into the audience. No matter what bumps and bruises he received, young Buster always remained poker-faced, which only added to the audience’s roars of laughter. Child welfare authorities examined the child after every performance, to make sure he wasn’t being abused.
• Buster Keaton broke into movies after a chance meeting with Fatty Arbuckle. His ability to perform death-defying stunts (while always remaining straight-faced) garnered him several starring roles in silent films, and in less than two years, he was famous throughout the world. His acrobatic abilities made him perfect for slapstick humor, and he starred in a dozen feature films from 1920 to 1928.
• Keaton’s insistence on performing his own stunts led to the occasional disaster. His foot was crushed by an escalator while filming The Electric House, he broke his nose playing baseball during Steamboat Bill, Jr., and actually fractured his neck while performing a daredevil scene in Sherlock, Jr.
• The Buster Keaton film modern audiences are most familiar with is 1927’s The General, a story set during the Civil War. It was the very first film that the Library of Congress added to the National Film Registry as part of the National Film Preservation Act.
• Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, and arrived in the U.S. from England on the same ship with Charlie Chaplin. The slender, long-faced comedian worked as Chaplin’s understudy for a time before he was offered his own movie contract in 1917. While he was working on a film called Duck Soup (no relation to the Marx Brothers film), he teamed up with Oliver Hardy, a portly Georgia-born law student-turned-actor.
• The duo hit it off right away, and accomplished something many of their contemporaries failed to do – they made the transition from silent films to talkies. They were well-prepared to tackle the new medium of television when disaster struck. Stan Laurel suffered a debilitating stroke in 1955 which required a lengthy convalescence. As he recovered, Oliver Hardy went on a crash diet and went from over 300 lbs. to only 150 lbs. in just a few months. Sadly, the sudden weight loss was too much of a shock to his body, and he passed away after suffering several strokes in 1957.
• Like many stars of her era, Mae West started performing in vaudeville when she was just five years old. West was to the 1920s what Madonna was to the 1990s – she loved to shock and outrage her audience. West wrote and starred in a 1926 play called Sex, which landed her in jail for 10 days on obscenity charges. In one of her many famous quotes, the bawdy comedienne bragged, “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”
• Mae West made her film debut in 1932’s Night after Night, and audiences quickly fell in love with the platinum blonde and her racy remarks. Later that year, the actress starred in She Done Him Wrong, which also launched the career of Cary Grant. The Motion Picture Production Code was launched shortly afterward, in response to the “questionable morality” that some felt was creeping into movies of the era.