Sunday, September 10, 2017

Born Today September 10: Al St. John


Actor and stunt man (comic side kick) Al St. John was born on this day in Santa Ana, California.  He was the nephew of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who was his mother's brother.  In all likelihood his uncle helped secure him jobs at Mack Sennett's early studio, however his multi-talent in both acting and in stunt type slapstick work is what got him noticed quite on his own.  He was known for being a very able acrobat as a young man and he also possessed great comedic timing.  St. John became a foil for some of Arbuckle's "clueless" roles--he was the trickster character that tumbled (literally) around Arbuckle's characters lack of understanding of surroundings.  St. John was also an original member of the Keystone Kops

A still from the 1919 Love. A good example of his mad-cap approach to character mischief.

He became in demand for these types of roles providing both comic relief and character tension, pretty quickly after he started acting, but exactly when he got his start is still a bit of a mystery.  It is thought that his first film was The Jealous Waiter in 1913--a Mack Sennett film that starred Fred Mace.  While working for Sennett, St. John also got to work with the up and coming Charlie Chaplin.  When Arbuckle left Sennett's studio to start his own production company, he took his nephew with him.  At the company, Arbuckle began to make films with another up and comer Buster Keaton.  Both St. John and Keaton were played off of one another as a vehicle for "Fatty" to slapstick his way through to the film's climax.  St. John also possessed talent for writing, he wrote some 8 film scenarios that were actually produced, the first of which was Speed, a film that he also directed.

Keaton (left) and St. John (right) in Out West (1918); Fatty weilds the preverbial break-away bottle.

St. John actually turned out to be as important to Arbuckle as his uncle likely was for him.  When Arbuckle was basically framed for a death he nothing to do with, he was blacklisted from business (despite his multiple acquittals), he secretly was able to direct his nephew under a pseudo-name through out much of the 1920's and even into the 1930's before his untimely death.  St. John himself, though not having any real live stage experience was able to make the transition to talking films with relative ease.  In the late 1920's he would find himself working with the likes of Tom Mix at Fox.  His first sound film was She Goes To War in 1929, a Henry King world war drama with a mono version and silent version.  His next film, The Dance Of Life (1929) was presented with full sound by MovieTone and had one sequence in the 2-Strip Technicolor process.  The first film he made in the 1930's--Hell Harbor--was another King film featuring the tragic Lupe Velez in the leading role, with St. John forming one part of a comic duo of Bunion and Blinky (played by Paul Burns).  St. John continued to play comedic rube types, increasingly with a western bent (it should be noted that he was a very capable stunt man!).  He took on the character of "Fuzzy" in Billy the Kid films (he was often credited as "Fuzzy St. John" after this) and created the character of Stoney (which was much more well known as a character played by other actors).  It would be Fuzzy, however, that would be his movie fate, even after the Billy the Kid movies had run their gambit.  Though St. John acted on film until the early 1950's, he never did make a television debut.  The last film that he appeared in was The Frontier Phantom, a Lash La Rue film in which he played Fuzzy Q. Jones in the film and was billed Fuzzy St. John in the credits.  He did not stop entertaining however.  For the next ten years or so, he appeared in various Wild West shows, finally ending up in a regional show in the southeast.  He suffered a major heart attack while waiting to take the stage in Lyons, Georgia; he was 70 years old.  His remains were cremated at Vidalia, GA and his urn was reportedly sent to the Double F. Ranch (a horse farm) in Homossasa Springs, Florida.  In 2006, the Museum of Modern Art showcased many of St. John's films in a 56 film retrospective on his ill-fated uncle Roscoe.  


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