Thursday, January 11, 2018

Born Today January 11: Chester Conklin


Born Chester Cooper Conklin in Okaloosa, Iowa; he got his first taste of live vaudeville in St. Louis, Missouri seeing the team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields.  It's not clear what age he was, because he had run away from an extremely violent household sometime after the age of eight, when his father probably murdered his mother in a horrific manner.  He vowed never to return, which he didn't; finding work instead in various mid-western cities, before landing in St. Louis.  He developed th comedic character that he would be associated with for the rest of his life at this time and it was based on his current boss:  a man with a pronounced foreign accent and a huge unruly mustache.  With the character he was able to break into vaudeville.  He traveled with minstrel shows and even did stints as clowns in traveling circuses.  This character development made it's way into his early roles in film fromt he start.  This was by way of him viewing a Mack Sennett film (creator of the Keystone Cops)  and actually going to Keystone Studios and applying for a job.  He was hired at a reputed payment of $3 a day.  The first film that he appeared in was Hubby's Job in 1913--directed by Sennett--a bit part that he was not credited for--it starred one the recognized greats of the silent cinema Mabel Norman.  The next year, Conklin was a bit player in Making A Living, the film debut of one Charles Chaplin (he would appear in possibly the studio's most famous Chaplin short as the Singing Waiter/Mr. Whoozis in Tillie's Punctured Romance).  Also during 1914, Conklin appeared in a number of Mabel Normand films for the Keystone Studio; and he appeared in films by the company with Harold Lloyd.  By 1915, Conklin had become a money making comedic star for Sennett and Co. in his own right; teaming up with Mack Swain, the two formed the movie duo of Ambrose and Mr. Walrus, with Conklin in the role of Walrus; one of their first films featuring the act was Love, Speed and Thrills (1915).  The duo made close to thirty films together as both those characters and others before Conklin left in 1920.  Before this, he had made a few films for Famous Players-Lasky (one of which was the J. Searle Dawley directed feature Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1918), and his star was bankable enough that he had offers from other studios--one of them Fox. During the year of 1919, he was the star of a series of films produced by Mack Sennett Comedies in which he played bubbling characters in different lines of work such as a blacksmith, police chief, school teacher, etc.  Conklin rightly figured that he deserved a raise as a condition to renewing his contract with Sennett's company, when Sennett refused (and reportedly spoke of him in disparaging way), Conklin left for Fox.  The first film that he made with them was Chicken à la Cabaret in 1920.  He continued to be the star of shorts at Fox, though he did take second billing to Australian comic actor Clyde Cook in the feature length (and partially animated) Skirts in 1921. Conklin made a rare appearance in a drama in the 1923 Thomas Ince production Anna Christie, and by 1924, he was appearing in more features than shorts (the market for comedy shorts had grown thin by that time).  He appeared in 4 features in 1924 before taking on the role he is most "known" for in the history books of cinema and outside of the world of slapstick fandom: 'Popper' Sieppe in Erich von Stroheim's bloated production that was Greed (his part was cut from film and thought to have been part of the film that was burned for the silver nitrate).  He immediately returned to comedy with Battling Bunyan (1924), a poverty row affair produced on the cheap by Encore.  Conklin continued to be a major player in films, most of them comedies, throughout the rest of 1920's.  Most films were lesser known and not by major studios, though a few, like Where Was I? were made by "majors" like Universal.  One Conklin film from 1927, produced at Paramount that is now lost, is of historical import to fans of comedy the world over due to it's being the film debut of Ed Wynn; that film Rubber Heels also featured Thelma Todd.  In 1928, Conklin appeared in two films that have titles instantly recognizable today, one was a remake of a famous silent, the other the first version of a film famously remade in in the 1950's.  The first is Tillie's Punctured Romance (1928) starring the immutable W. C. Fields and bears little resemblance to the film from 1914 in which he also appeared; the second is Gentlemen Prefer Blonde (1928) which was famously remade with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in 1953. Both of the films from 1928 are now lost.  His first film with sound comedy horror House of Horror, which had two versions: a silent version and a Vitagraph all sound version.  Conklin appeared in one additional all silent film after this; Stairs of Sand (1929) was a western romance based on a Zane Grey novel--Wallace Beer took top billing.  After this, all the rest of his film appearances in 1929 were in sound films, with his appearance in the extravaganza The Show Of Shows rounding out the decade.  For someone so acutely associated with silent slapstick, Conklin's transition to talkies was as seamless as they come (of course, he had been a vaudevillian).  His first film of the new decade was Swing Time, which featured a number of older former silent actors: Ben Turpin, Stepin' Fetchit and Robert Edeson.  In 1931, he appeared with several "old timers" from the Sennett days in Stout Hearts and Willing Hands, a short comedy that amongst the "original Keystone Cop" players, also included all three of the Moore brothers as lookalike bartenders.  Given his background in comedic film shorts, it is hardly surprising that he wound up in Three Stooges shorts.  As time went on, however, his roles became smaller and smaller, often going uncredited; this did not stop him from working steadily all the way up through the 1950's.  In 1947 he had a very small role in the Pearl White biopic The Perils of Pauline; White, of course, being a silent star herself.  Conklin, it seemed, would have been a shoe-in for television, yet that was not to be (and, in fact, he wound up taking job like department store Santa to make ends meet in the 1950's, instead of being hired for broadcast--a real lose!).  He did appear on television but not often.  In fact, the first series that he appeared on was Ed Wynn's show in 1950 as himself.  Additionally, he appeared on the Make Room For Daddy and Doc Corkle and General Electric Theater.  He also made a small appearance the Roger Corman production The Beast With A Million Eyes in 1955.  This was the same year that his acting visibly slowed, after decades of appearing in films his acting career was coming to an end.  He appeared in three films after this: one in 1958, one in 1962 and one in 1966, which was the last acting job of his life (the film was A Big Hand For The Little Lady the Henry Fonda western). Conklin died on the 11th of October in 1971 at the age of 85.  He was cremated and his ashes were eventually scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

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