Monday, September 19, 2016

Born Today September 19: Ben Turpin


Bernard Turpin was born today in New Orleans, LA the child of a candy store owner.  Having been born long before the invention of the moving picture, he obviously got his start on the stage; which in  his case came in the form of various traveling shows.  He possessed a body type and face that lent itself to comedic work, with one of his eyes permanently crossed (later in his life, he famously--and comically--took out an insurance policy with Lloyd's of London in case his eyes straightened out), and an oversized handle bar mustache.  In the early days of his career, he found work in circuses, vaudeville and burlesque.  He developed an exaggerated form of physical comedy that laid the ground work for what we now call "slapstick;" and was this talent that eventually got him into the motion picture business.  He made his film debut in 1907 in a comedic short that he was specifically cast for:  An Awful Skate, or, The Hobo On Roller Skates.  From this point onward, he starred in a series of slapstick comedy shorts, making him a huge star of the silent cinema, even playing roles such a "The Tramp" long before one Charlie Chaplin would take up that comedic identity. In fact, the company that introduced Turpin to the moving image was Essanay, who would later employ Chaplin, who became their biggest star until his departure bankrupted the studio.  This is when things began to deteriorate between Turpin and Essanay.  As soon has they hired Chaplin, they made Turpin his comedic side-kick, setting up his characters as mere foils for which Chaplin could play off of.  Turpin was naturally insulted by this.   In 1917 he went to work for the king of comedy Mack Sennett. Turpin signed a very lucrative contract the the Mack Sennett Studios.   Much to Turpin's delight, he quickly became one of their biggest stars; so much so, that he began to introduce himself as "I'm Ben Turpin, I make $3000 a week!"  He worked steadily up through the invention of talkies, at which time--owed to good investments--he chose to retire from the industry, rather than attempt to make the transition to talking cinema.  Still, he was sought out for cameo comedy appearances in films regularly.  In 1935 he, and other stars from the silent comedy era (including Chester Conklin and Ford Sterling), starred in Keystone Hotel; it was his only starring role in the sound era.  The last film that he appeared in, very briefly, was Laurel and Hardy's Saps At Sea (1940).  He was set to make a cameo appearance in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), but Turpin died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 70 on the first of July before filming started.  He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA.  

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