Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review: For Art’s Sake

My introduction to funnyman Ben Turpin was initially in an overview in Leonard Maltin’s The Great Movie Comedians, in which Len discusses a few “second-string” comedians that did not make the cut in the chapters that follow.  He once had a conversation about Ben with writer-director Tay Garnett: “I have some very definite opinions: Ben lacked a great deal of being a funny man.  He was funny only when placed in a ludicrous position—particularly one of grave danger—then, playing it dead seriously (perhaps a bit overseriously), which was the only thing he could do.”

Now, I would say that I hope author Steve Rydzewksi didn’t come across this quote when he was working on For Art’s Sake: The Biography & Filmography of Ben Turpin—his loving paean to the cockeyed comic who was one of the earliest cinematic mirthmakers, having started his movie career in 1907—but Garnett’s observations are in his book, so you can’t accuse Steve of showing favoritism towards his subject.  Despite Tay’s assertion that Turpin “lacked a great deal of being a funny man,” I have no qualms about calling him a “funnyman.”  At the very least, Ben was one of the hardest working clowns to ever cavort in front of a motion picture camera…and on that basis alone, attention must be paid.

Turpin’s name probably won’t register with anyone outside of silent comedy fans or classic films in general—but I’ll bet dollars to donuts people will recognize his face even if his surname is stuck on the tip of the tongue.  Born in N’awlins in 1869 to a family who operated a successful candy store, Bernard “Ben” Turpin would later strike out on his own (after a series of jobs including shipping clerk and bellhop) at seventeen, and for many years lived the life of a hobo—riding the rails and cadging meals at every opportunity.  Eventually, he drifted into the world of show business, working in traveling medicine shows, circuses, burlesque, and vaudeville.

Turpin’s famous stage act was impersonating Happy Hooligan, the popular comic strip character introduced by cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper in 1900.  Happy was a hobo who got into various scrapes and was distinguished by his crossed eyes and a tin can he wore for a hat; since Ben bore such a strong resemblance to the character, he decided to imitate him (as did a number of other folks in show business) and found great success in doing so.  Crossing his eyes for ten shows a day, however, resulted in Turpin waking up one morning to find that his right orb had decided to stay that way; the comic consulted a doctor, who told him that it could be corrected with an operation…but that he would then have to retire his Hooligan shenanigans.  Till the end of his life, Turpin told himself he would eventually have his eye fixed once he retired from show business…yet he never did, and it was a wise decision on his part.  As Maltin states in Great Movie Comedians: “Turpin’s fortune was his face.”

Ben began his movie clowning in 1907 (while he was still the studio janitor), performing in Essanay (founded by George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson—hence S an’ A) releases to the point where he became that studio’s bread-and-butter in one-reelers like Mr. Flip (1909), the earliest recorded film instance of someone taking a pie in the mush (and that person was, unsurprisingly, Turpin).  (Mr. Flip is included on the DVD set Slapstick Encyclopedia, which I mentioned in last week’s book review.)  Turpin also worked for IMP and American before returning to Essanay; by that time the studio had hired away Charlie Chaplin from Mack Sennett, and Chaplin featured Ben in his first three comedies for his new employer.  Ben always bestowed generous praise on The Little Tramp for giving him his big break in movies; the other recipient of the comedian’s effusive thanks was Chaplin’s old boss Sennett, who hired him in 1917.  With Sennett, Turpin would eventually become a major comedy star with a salary as high as $3,000 a week; the comic departed the studio in 1925 not because of any animosity toward his boss but because he was concerned about his wife, who was in ill health at the time.

After the death of Mrs. Turpin, Ben eventually returned to motion pictures; he made additional two-reelers for Sennett in 1926-27, and also a series of comedies for the Weiss Brothers beginning in 1928 (some of these shorts are featured on the VCI DVD collection Weiss-O-Rama).  But with that pushy upstart known as sound movies crashing the party, the kind of silent slapstick practiced by Turpin was no longer in vogue, and until his death in 1940 he made only sporadic film appearances (a good many cameos in films like The Love Parade and Million Dollar Legs) despite a potential comeback in the 1935 Warner’s two-reel comedy Keystone Hotel.  (WB only agreed to produce one short in this series…and when it proved to be a smash, the studio couldn’t afford to pay the salaries of the actors for further shorts because their agents weren’t stupid.)  Ben’s last film appearance was a hilarious contribution to the Laurel & Hardy feature Saps at Sea (1940); he was going to play a role in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) but his passing nipped his participation in the bud.

In his interview with Leonard Maltin, director Garnett observed: “I guess what I’m trying to say is that in my opinion, Turpin was not a mental giant.”  Well, he who laughs last laughs best; Ben was shrewd enough to manage his money in a number of rental properties throughout the L.A. area, and while other performers in the silent era had frittered away their earnings, Mental Giant Turpin had socked away enough to live comfortably until the Grim Reaper came a-callin’.  Turpin continued to work only because he wanted to.  I’ll confess that Garnett’s assessment of Ben colored my perception of the man for many years…but after reading Rydzewksi’s book I have come away with a brand-new appreciation of the man.  Steve chronicles how Ben Turpin worked harder than many of his fellow funsters to get laughs (his litany of bumps, scrapes, and bruises would make Buster Keaton envious), while lovingly painting a picture of a man who lived without pretense…his only vice seeming to be a need to induce people to forget their troubles through the gift of laughter.

Steve Rydzewski’s For Art’s Sake is profusely illustrated, with a bulging filmography for Turpin (that Steve admits is a work in progress) and over forty years of research collecting clippings from newspapers and trade magazines in addition to anecdotes obtained from people who worked with the movies’ funniest cockeyed clown.  If I had a tiny nitpick with his book, it’s that a lot of its content is a little too voluminous; on a number of occasions Turpin’s narrative comes to a halt to feature a newspaper account or two that essentially repeats what the individual has already read (this treasure trove of information might have been better served in an appendix or two).  Rydzewski would no doubt defend this by asserting: “I chose to make the book a compilation, a chronological documentary, and decided to let Mr. Turpin and his associates tell much of it themselves rather than paraphrase.”  You certainly can’t argue with that.

“Everything I do is wrong, all wrong,” Ben Turpin related in 1924 to Neil M. Clark in an interview for American magazine.  “That's why people laugh.  I don't look right.  I don't do right.  I try to carve a roast and the dog gets most of it.  I wear the wrong kind of tie, and it comes off in the peas.  I try to propose to my best girl, and I say the wrong things.  It isn't only comic looks that make a comedian.  He's got to act comic, too!”  Fans of silent film comedy will want this essential biography of this legendary slapstick clown for their bookshelves, and For Art’s Sake is also available in a Kindle edition (for those of us starved for space).

No comments: