Sam Bernard was an important comedian of his day. He originated what Variety called the "pansy Dutch [act]," which was successfully copied for decades by other well-known comedians.
|The "Five Corners" neighborhood|
Bernard partnered with his brother Dick at the age of 12 to form a comedy and music act. The two boys made their show business bow in 1876 at New York's Grand Duke Theatre, which was part of the notorious "Five Points" neighborhood. The theatre was tucked away in a smoky, dark cellar under a saloon. The brothers copied popular comedy teams, including Harrigan and Hart, Favor and Shields, and the Dockstader Brothers. They did an Irish act, a Dutch act, and a blackface act. After working with his brother for two seasons, Bernard created a solo act, which he performed at Morris & Hickman's New York Museum and the Herzog Museums in Washington and Baltimore. When summer came, he worked at a theatre owned by master showman George C. Tilyou in Coney Island.
In 1885, Bernard toured the British music hall circuit. He had an engagement at London's Middlesex Music Hall for six weeks in the summer of 1886. It was during this time that he refined his act, doing a "Dutch" song and dance, a monologue, and imitations. Variety reported that, by the time that he returned to America, he was "dressed in the tight-fitting clothes of the English type, with buttons and cap." The outfit was designed to give him a foppish look.
Bernard's reputation increased when, in 1893, he partnered with Robert Manchester to create the "The French Folly" company, which toured in various burlesque houses. The troupe specialized in using funny Dutch dialects in the burlesque of popular shows.
Throughout the balance of the decade, Bernard mostly worked with Weber and Fields, who were the premier comedians of their day. Variety wrote, "[Bernard] went to Weber & Fields' Music Hall as stage manager when the place was first opened by that firm. He held this position for two seasons, acting in all the burlesques and staging all of the productions."
Marie Dressler, a grand dame of comedy and tragedy, wrote in her 1924 autobiography The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling, "Bernard was, I think, the funniest comedian I ever worked with unless I except Harry Watson. Bernard's stuff, or much of it, was impromptu and was so unctuous that it was side splitting." She spoke of Bernard once stretching a two-minute act into twenty minutes. She said, "We never knew where it would come from nor where it would go, but people used to rock in their chairs and we enjoyed it as much as they did."
|Sam Bernard as Juliet and Marie Dressler as Romeo.|
Chaplin, himself, described Bernard as "a fine artist." He ranked the comedian along with Al Jolson and Frank Tinney ("A Revelation in Burnt Cork") as one of his favorite actors on the American stage.
Bernard was a key inspiration to two popular comedians. The first was Solly Ward. Ward established himself working as the featured comedian for the Gayety Theatre from 1913 to 1919.
Ward's comic influences were not lost on critics. In January, 1919, Variety's burlesque critic wrote, "Occasionally Ward reminds one of Sam Bernard, and more often of Leon Errol, especially in his staggering scenes, where he almost duplicated the 'souse' actions of Errol. . ." In the 1920s, Ward appeared in various revue shows, including "The Music Box Revue" and "Babies." A Pathé newsreel company was allowed to film scenes from "the Music Box Revue." This scene features Ward and Renie Riano presenting a satire of modern dancing.
In 1931, Ward took time away from his theatre commitments to appear in a Paramount short, Coffee and Aspirin. He found that he liked film acting.
In the late 1930s, Ward went to Hollywood and played character roles at RKO.
This is Ward in a scene from RKO's Living on Love (1939).
Ward, in turn, became an inspiration to a number of young comedians. I found one Variety review in which it was noted that Max Field "occasionally suggest[ed] Solly Ward" (Variety, October 8, 1915). And then we have Bert Lahr. Lahr dropped out of school at the age of 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act. John Lahr wrote of his father, "Lahr had no idea at fifteen what his comic image was or would be." Lahr was able to learn much about the comedy craft by observing Ward. He introduced his own version of the pansy Dutch character in a 1920 show, "Folly Town." "I guess I did copy Solly Ward," said Lahr. "All German comedians copied someone when they were young. I learned ways of working and delivery. Maybe I copied a few of their mannerisms, not to a great extent, though. I copied ways of carrying the body, maybe a catch line here and there. Finally, I found my own method and threw all those other mannerisms away."
At another time, Lahr said that it was Ward and Sam Sidman who were his greatest influences. Sidman, another pansy Dutch comedian, happened to be the other significant comedian that Bernard inspired. Sidman also garnered mention in Eddie Cantor's autobiography, in which both he and Junie McCree were cited as Cantor's earliest influences.
|Notice that Sidman's catchphrase is included in this advertisement.|
Sidman had his first big success in 1908 with a burlesque revue called "Follies of the Day." Variety reported, "Sam Sidman gives a remarkably eccentric German and is legitimate. It is a pleasure to see a comedian striving to win the plaudits with unassuming and sincere methods." A follow-up review in Variety was even more enthusiastic. The critic wrote, "For the pure comedy hit of the performance Sam Sidman as a 'Dutchman' walked away with the honors. In the first act his catch line 'That makes me so mad,' uttered in a little squeaky falsetto, brought the laughs every time. Mr. Sidman was consistently amusing. . . Sidman gave a letter delivery of [David] Warfield's much-imitated 'You Don't Want Her' speech than anyone else has succeeded in doing and going further with it." The Shuberts tried to lure Sidman away from "Follies of the Day," but the "Follies" producer was unwilling to release his profitable star from his contract. Sidman remained in demand for the next twenty years. He did burlesque, he did vaudeville, and he did Broadway. For this entire time, he remained influential in his field. An unnamed Variety writer noted that his newspaper's files included many references to young comedians who had copied Sidman's mannerisms and expressions. After he retired from the stage in 1929, the show business veteran briefly operated an actors' school.
Here is a scene of Eddie Cantor and Joan Davis in If You Knew Susie (1948).
The great Sam Bernard influenced a long line of talented comedians. Bernard begat Solly Ward and Sid Sidman, who begat Eddie Cantor and Bert Lahr. But a thin line exists between influence and plagiarism. This is where our story turns ugly. It's all fun and games until somebody gets poked in the eye with a film contract.
Lahr was a big success in the play "Hold Everything." Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the play in late 1929. The studio wanted to produce a screen version of the property with Lahr, but the play's producer Vinton Freedley was attracting large audiences with Lahr on tour and he refused to release the actor from his contract. It upset Lahr greatly that he was unable to star in the film.
Comedian Joe E. Brown said that, while he was in Detroit, he went to see Lahr in the play. He wrote:
After the first act I went backstage to meet the gang, many of whom I had known for years, and one of them jokingly said, "Hey, what's this I hear about you doing a picture of Hold Everything?" Of course, he was just ribbing Lahr because Bert was an easy man to rib.A few days later, Brown' agent Ivan Kahn was contacted by Warner Brothers' Jack Warner about Brown starring in the film version of "Hold Everything." Lahr was sure now that Brown's ribbing at the Detroit theatre had been serious.
"What's that?" yelled Lahr, immediately on the defensive.
I fell in with the gag and said, "Well, you know, Bert, it's a pretty fair show. I don't know what it would be like in pictures. It's a good stage play and you've been pretty successful in it. Of course, if I did it for pictures I'd make a lot of changes in it." And I picked out Bert's big laugh scene in the act and said they'd probably cut that out.
Bert went for the gag hook, line and reel. I didn't know that he had already been ribbed about it quite a lot. Everyone knew he wanted more than anything to do the picture.
The year before, Warner Brothers had specifically designed the short film Faint Heart to showcase Lahr's talents. At the time, Warner Brothers was not a studio known for comedy. Their top actors were serious folk, including John Barrymore, George Arliss, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Walter Pidgeon. The studio looked to lighten up their fare with comedians and hoped to find a comic flag bearer for the studio. They developed vehicles for Winnie Lightner, Smith and Dale, and Frank Fay. It is conceivable that the studio had big plans for Lahr and used the short as a way to test Lahr's ability as a film actor. But, due to the circumstances of the "Hold Everything" film adaptation, this association was not to be.
Hold Everything was released on March 20, 1930. Brown received favorable reviews for his performance. A Variety critic wrote, "[T]he basic point of the picture is Brown. . . What [Brown's] work in this film is going to do to Lahr when he goes on the road with his show is a big problem — for Lahr. Brown is doing everything Lahr did in the same show unto the 'gong, gong, gong,' voice inflections on lines and mannerisms. Brown must have seen 'Hold Everything' on the stage 18 times to lift as minutely as he screens here. . . Brown is plenty funny and the public will think that Lahr is doing a Brown when they see him. . . It's practically a cinch that this picture is going to ruin Lahr's golf for the summer."
Lahr was too upset to see Warners' Hold Everything for himself. Brown later said that, if Lahr had seen the film, he would have seen that what the Variety critic said was not true. The film is lost today, which makes it impossible for us to judge for ourselves.
Lahr shot off an angry letter to Variety.
March 28, 1930Lahr continued to be so bothered by the matter that, in April, he consulted an attorney, M. L. Malevinsky of O'Brien, Malevonsky and Driscoll.
I have read the criticism of the picture, "Hold Everything," in this week's Variety.
I am greatly surprised and amazed to find that Joe E. Brown boldly lifted my original business, mannerisms, methods and unique phrases, which I have been identified with for years, and which I interpolated in the part of Gink Shiner in the New York stage production of "Hold Everything."
It seems an outrage that a comedian can gain profit and recognition by deliberately lifting another comedian's style of work. This is hurting my reputation, livelihood and future in talking pictures.
Surely there must be some redress for an artist who has worked these many years as hard as I have to establish and attain the reputation and recognition I have as an original comedian, gained by my creative and original style of work.
I am writing this in self-protection, to let the profession, the exhibitors and executives of the picture world understand that I am the originator of all business methods, mannerisms and unique phrases used by Joe E. Brown in the taking picture version of "Hold Everything."
His son wrote, "Lahr was obsessed with the injustice. . . Lahr wanted to sue for defamation of character. His lawyers advised him not to add weight to such absurd accusations by replying. Inaction may have been wise, but it did not assuage Lahr’s temper. He stewed over the situation for months. . ."
Lahr's letter received much attention in the press. The following reaction from Motion Picture Classic was typical:
The first shot of another Broadway-vs.-Hollywood battle was fired when Bert Lahr, comedian of the stage version of "Hold Everything," threatened to throw eggs at the Warner Brothers' screen version of the same play. And he didn't make any secret of the fact that his particular target would be Joe E. Brown, who essays his role on the screen. Bert says that Joe copped his stuff. He further says one comedian copping another comedian's "line" is in the same class as "lifting" plots and melodies. He says that Joe traveled to New York to see his show and deliberately made use of his personal brand of humor, which includes "Some fun, some fun, eh, kid?" and other goof expressions.I question if a film studio has the right to anything other than the words that the playwright set down in writing. This is the official book of the play, which has nothing to do with the nightly adlibs and other embellishments of the star. It certainly has nothing to do with an actor's individual stage persona. Let's say that, when Paramount purchased the rights to Kaufman and Ryskind's "Animal Crackers," they were unable to get the Marx Brothers for the film. Would Paramount have had the right to have four other comedians adopt the Marx Brothers' costume, make-up and mannerisms? Would it have been acceptable for Ben Blue to adopt a curly blonde wig and chase women around while honking a horn? Lahr shouldn't have lost ownership of his personal catchphrases just because he interweaved them into the scripted dialogue of the play.
Out in Hollywood Joe says "phooey," or something to that effect, and calls attention to the fact that when a producer buys the rights to a stage play he is privileged to make use of the laugh lines.
This thoroughly reasonable explanation has in no way appeased the enraged Mr. Lahr. He's out gunning with eggs!
Still, most people don't care about a comedian's influence. They only want to know if the comedian could make them laugh. A critic with Screenland wrote, "[Mr. Brown] works hard and fast; and if there are those on the Broadway Rialto who claim that he has imitated a certain other comedian named Bert Lahr, their contentions don't make Mr. Brown less funny."
A Variety critic dismissed any claims that Lahr might have to the ownership of his comedy character. The man knew his stage history. He wrote, "Lahr started doing pansy Dutch after watching Ward, who, in turn, had based his work on the late Sam Bernard. Lahr is still really doing the same character today with variations. . ."
Sidman, who was by this time retired from the stage, read Lahr's letter and became irate. He sent a letter to Variety from his home in Cleveland, Ohio. He wrote, in part:
I consider Mr. Lahr's letter regarding Joe E. Brown's performance in the picture "Hold Everything," outrageously presumptive, wholly without warrant, and it rather suggests the upstart.It is interesting to have an actor say that "any interpolation by a performer in any production remained in the property of the producer." Sidman, himself, had the experience of leaving the "Follies of the Day" revue in 1909 and having his replacement, Harry Lester Mason, use his catchphrases. It is hard to believe that this was not something that bothered him.
To me it savors too much of the fellow, who caught in the act, joins in the hue and cry of "stop thief."
Evidently Lahr has forgotten his past, and what he did to me, and as he gave me this opportunity, I am going to remind him, during his earlier career he took me for his copy. He took all I had, my trick of voice, my style of work, my mannerism and my personality. Lahr aped me in everything and yet he refers to himself as an original comedian, having gained his present position by his "creative" style of work.
Well, he's wrong. He stripped me stark naked and stole all I had, yet through all those intervening years I did not even whimper or complain, nor did I seek recourse to a court of law as I read he is resorting to, regarding Mr. Brown.
By the way, Mr. Lahr (ceny), will you please look up "Sid" of Variety who reviewed the picture, and make this correction, tell him it was not Solly Ward whom you copied, but me. You'll do that for me, won't you?
Unjustly, you feel yourself aggrieved, Mr. Lahr. Long before you took up this line of business there was a mutual agreement between producer and actor that any interpolation by a performer in any production remained in the property of the producer. Now try and get that through your thick skull. What did you think Warner Bros. bought? The title? And that they would have their staff writers supply a new book?
You may say this letter is poison. How else could it be? You have with deadly poison put poison into me.
My fame will not be served much by the publication of this letter, but some one had to make an example of you, and I waited from the publication of your letter to now. As no one else has replied I feel it my duty to do so and to show the theatre world that you are guilty of an act you so unjustly accused Joe E. Brown of.
You may resent any part, or all of this letter, and may want to take legal steps. My address is 1044 East 123d Street, Cleveland, Ohio. I shall be pleased to accept service.
I have left Broadway with an indifferent and light heart, still I may return - who can tell?
Looking forward to your repentant future, I subscribe myself.
The controversy would not die easily. In February, 1931, Lahr was on stage in Pittsburgh performing in the stage show "Flying High." It was reported by Variety that an old friend, Ed Lowry, concealed a microphone in the back of a radio in Lahr's dressing room. He then went into an adjoining room and transmitted a fake radio announcement through the microphone. He started out, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Tattler. He Sees All, Knows All." He remarked that he saw no reason to go to the Alvin Theatre to see Bert Lahr at $3.85 when one could see Joe E. Brown on the screen for 25 cents. He claimed that Lahr had "lifted" Brown's stuff entirely and it was the most obvious case of imitation that he had ever run across. Variety noted that, in response, Lahr "hit the ceiling" and "snorted about the dressing room, threatening lawsuits."
A similar story turned up in Lahr's biography. John Lahr wrote,
His friends never failed to infuriate him at the mention of Joe E. Brown. When Lahr was playing Baltimore on a personal-appearance tour in 1933, Victor Moore and Bill Gaxton were appearing in the same town with "Of Thee I Sing," in which they both starred with Lois Moran. When Lahr read the reviews of his opening night, he could not believe the print in front of him: "Bert Lahr, a comedian who is obviously making a living impersonating Joe E. Brown. . . It seems appalling that one comedian should be allowed to take material from another and make his livelihood …" As my father explains it, "I went over to their theater and talked to Gaxton and Moore. I was furious. I said, 'How do you like this son-of-a-bitch doing this to me.' And they were steaming me up, saying 'It’s awful when you see this guy why don’t you punch him in the nose.' And I said, 'Why I’m going down there and. . .' His face shrivels up like a prune and his nostrils gape at me in mock defiance. "Finally Lois Moran came to me and said, ‘Bert, this is a frame-up. This reporter is a friend of mine and we were out one night with the boys— Gaxton and Moore — and they framed you. He never even saw the show."The news got far worse for Lahr. Brown was signed by Warner Brothers to star in a series of films. Variety reported, "On the strength of this effort, he of the wide grin grabbed himself a long and sweet starring contract with Warners." Brown became the studio's resident comedian, which is role that could have and probably should have gone to Lahr.
It is likely that this incident caused some Hollywood executives to look warily on Lahr. But Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to Lahr's next stage hit, "Flying High," and they contracted the comedian to recreate his role for their adaptation. John Lahr wrote, "[Lahr] gave virtually his stage performance on screen; but to the disappointment of the moguls and himself, it failed to come across as richly as it did on stage. He did not care about films at that time."
Here is one of Lahr's early film appearances in Henry The Ache (1930).
In time, Lahr toned down his screen persona for films. He later became famous for his role as the Cowardly Lion, which made great use of the many "pansy" mannerisms and speech that he had perfected throughout the years.
Know that somewhere in the Cowardly Lion's DNA is Sam Bernard.
Variety's Artists' Forum was often a place where entertainers went to express their various grievances. Let's take, for example, a letter posted to the forum on December 3, 1915. Fred Whitfield of Whitfield and Ireland accused Raymond and Caverly of plagiarism. Plagiarism claims were common in the forum, but the nature of this particular claim was somewhat new. Whitfield argued that he and his partner had copyrighted their scenery, which included a "comedy curtain." He wrote, "We played in the same western city with R. and C. in 1913. At that time they were not using any comedy scenery in their act. They beat us east and some months later introduced a comedy curtain and were given credit by press and public for a new idea. . . George Perry, of Perry and Heath, will attest to the above statement. I am not the originator of comedy curtains, but I did originate the one we use and will protect same. "
Sidman, who so fervently expressed his grievances against Lahr in the Artists' Forum, may have been hot-tongued by nature. He once made derogatory remark to a fireman who was making a customary inspection of the backstage dressing rooms at a theatre. Variety reported, "The fireman went back to the fire chief, and as a result Sidman was yanked off the stage in the middle of the matinee Monday."
In 1914, Sidman traded barbs in Artists' Forum with comic acrobat Archie Royer, who had asserted that English entertainers were superior to American entertainers. Royer wrote, "I never knew until now how far ahead of American performers English artistes were. Why, America has nothing but ragtime singers, graduates from the kitchens and iron mills. . . As far as general show business is concerned, England is years ahead of America in everything. The picture houses in England are better than the 'best time' over here. My advice to all English performers is — stay in England. Three shows a day is quite common in the best houses and five a day in the west. I will always take off my hat to England. Another important thing I want to tell Englishmen: Keep away from Canada. In this town, Medicine Hat, beer is 15 cents a glass and one can't get a meal under a dollar, or rooms under $1.50 a night. Railroad fares average 34 cents a mile and often 44 cents. I have met eight or ten English boys that saw me in England and they all are sorry they came over. These Canadians' are all right in their way, but they do not like a real Englishman. I made it my special business to get to the bottom of this, and I had to 'slap' several of them for insulting England and Englishmen."
Sidman was not too pleased. He began, "I believe it was the late Robert G. Ingersoll who said 'As soon as I reply to one who attacks me, I raise him to my level' and for that reason I feel rather reluctant to reply to the article headed, 'A Loyal American' in Variety May 1. I have been in England now for one year and have seen nearly all the good comedians as well as some of the bad ones, and played on the same bills with a great many, but as comparisons are odious shall pass this subject, as the English artist does not enter into this discussion at all." Sidman's reluctance to attack Royer did not stop or slow the discussion from turning into an ugly evisceration of Royer. The man could not help himself. He noted, "[T]his American (?). . . arouses in me the spirit of antagonism." He knew that Royer was American. The question mark was meant to signify his doubt of Royer's dedication as an American citizen. Throughout the letter, he repeatedly referred to Royer in this manner. He accused Royer of being a failure as an entertainer, pointing out that Royer's recent act "Our Cellar Door" could only get bookings in small towns. He accused Royer of being a liar on the scale of Baron Munchausen. He said in closing, "[T]he most manly thing [Royer] can do is to offer his most abject and humble apology to the American artists." That is what you call a scathing attack.
|Ben Welch in costume and make-up|
An example of a Welch joke: "How do you like my suit? A fine piece of merchandise. I got it in a restaurant. The fellow is still eating!"
Well-established stage actors like Sam Bernard and Harry Watson found film acting to be boring and frustrating. Bernard worked briefly for the Keystone company in 1915. Journalist Gene Fowler wrote of the comedian's Keystone stint, "Sam Bernard suffered the agonies of an overlooked actor. Delay drove him crazy. Finally, he discovered a bed on one of the sets. He made a practice of reporting each morning, then retiring to the property bed. . ."
Brown, Joe E., and Hancock, Ralph. Laughter is a Wonderful Thing. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1956.
Cantor, Eddie. Take My Life. New York: Doubleday, 1957. p. 21.
Chaplin, Charlie. My Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964. p. 256.
Dressler, Marie. The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling. New York: Robert M. McBride & Company 1924. p. 77.
Dressler, M., and Harrington, M. My Own Story. Boston: Little Brown, and Company 1934. p. 121.
Fowler, Gene. Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett. Rahway, NJ: Quinn and Boden Company, 1934. p. 374.
Lahr, John. Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr. New York, Knopf, 1969.