Clowns of the Century: These Were the Top Comedians of 1918

Any fan of older cinema knows that yesterdays superstars can easily be forgotten. Today, we are going to take a look at Motion Picture Magazine’s “1918 revue of filmdom’s clowns” and test our cinematic knowledge. How many of these 14 talents do you recognize?

If you’re feeling shy about sharing which stars you haven’t seen, I will start things off by marking stars I have seen with a ♥ and stars I have NOT seen with a ☆.

Remember, you should never feel embarrassed about what you have not yet seen. It just means that you get to look forward to enjoying a new star or new film for the first time.

♥ In a place of honor, the wonderful Marie Dressler.

♥ It would be surprising if Chaplin WASN’T included here, let’s face it.

♥ Billy West was a Chaplin imitator at this point and it’s interesting to see him featured so close to the genuine article.

♥ A star now overshadowed by the scandal that derailed his career, I highly recommend giving Arbuckle’s films with Mabel Normand a shot.

I am actually surprised not to find Normand here given that Mickey was doing boffo box office numbers. But remember that this was the April issue and Normand had been absent from the screen for all of 1917.

♥ I’ve only seen one of Howell’s comedies but Undercrank Productions is releases a collection of her work very soon. I am so looking forward to getting to know her better.

♥ I’ve only seen Murray in The Boob, a painfully unfunny comedy featuring a then-unknown Joan Crawford. Apparently, he was an absolute dear to the nervous newcomer.

♥ I am rather fond of Chester Conklin, though I did not recognize him without his signature cookie duster mustache.

☆ I’ve not yet seen a Moore film but he appeared in two early DeMille pictures as the “Chimmie Fadden” character.

☆ I have not seen a single Wilna Wilde picture. Have you?

♥ I enjoy a bit of Slim Summerville comedy now and again.

♥ Louise Fazenda is another favorite. I wonder if it’s true that they called her husband the Prisoner of Fazenda? In any case, she was supposed to be a sweet woman and she certainly was funny.

By the way, you may have noticed quite a few ladies in these entries. It’s almost like the notion that silent comedy was a man’s business is just a myth.

☆ I only know two Totos: one is a Cairn Terrier with a penchant for biting Margaret Hamilton and the other sings about the rains in Africa. Have you seen this Toto?

♥ But barely as I saw Ovey in a supporting role in The Yankee Clipper and don’t really remember him. Ovey was making the “Jerry” series around this time, which I have not seen at all. Let me know if you have.

♥ Awww! My old friend Ben! 

All clippings are courtesy of Media History Digital Library and you can check out their swell collection here.

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19 Replies to “Clowns of the Century: These Were the Top Comedians of 1918”

  1. Wilna Wilde! I just wrote about her in SOUTHERN BELLE TO HOLLYWOOD HELL! She was Eleanor Brewster’s half-sister and best known for her work on the “Toonerville Trolley” series. She was “The Powerful Katrinka.” She’s also in the Three Stooges’ “A Pain in the Pullman” (1936).

  2. My score is 12 out of 14, but only if I can include Victor Moore. I don’t think I’ve seen him in any silents, just many of his sound films. I was never quite a fan of his, until I saw ‘It Happened on Fifth Avenue’ and the heartbreaking ‘Make Way for Tomorrow.’

  3. Glad to see four ladies on the list (agree, La Normand belongs there too, but understand that timing precluded it). Marie Dressler, on the other hand, completely deserves that place of honor! She has a permanent place of honor in Canadian hearts and in her hometown of Cobourg (also Port Hope) Ontario:

    Marie Dressler Foundation Vintage Film Festival

    https://www.vintagefilmfestival.ca

  4. For Mr West, that was a curious spelling of Billie, usually reserved for females. Checking it out on Wikipedia and IMDB, sure enough there WAS a Billie West, who appeared in over 80 films from 1912 to 1917, primarily with tiny production companies. Born in 1891, one year earlier than the comedic BillY West, she was in movies it seems only until 1917, but lived on until 1967..

    1. I think it’s probably a typo, especially since the spelling is not repeated in the article.

      P.S. Oops, I do see a repeat. So maybe the author had a crush on Billie Burke. 😉

  5. There was also an Italian comedian named Totò, born in 1898, but it appears that he didn’t make his first film until 1937, so (presumably) this isn’t him.

  6. Well, my score is just the five most familiar names (Dressler, Chaplin, Arbuckle, Conklin and Turpin). I’m particularly interested in the comediennes mentioned here.

  7. Yes: Dressler, Chaplin, Arbuckle, Conklin, Moore, Summerville, Turpin.
    No: Toto, Ovey, Fazenda, Wilde, Murray, Howell, West.
    I have reviewed one of Victor Moore’s films, “The Wrong Mr. Fox.” on my site. It inspired a commenter to assert that, “to anyone who watches films from the first half of the Twentieth Century, he’s far from obscure.” Well, OK then!

    1. Ha! There’s always one. I had a rather amusing “How VERY dare you!” email from someone who got mad at me for describing Ronald Colman as generally bland in the silent era. (Dudes, he really was sans Lubitsch.)

  8. There is a Toto the Clown who was active in the 1920s in something called the Greenwich Village Follies. Photos online look somewhat similar to this Toto.

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