Wednesday, June 19, 2013

For Art's Sake: The Biography & Filmography of Ben Turpin

It's here!  Steve Rydzewski's long-awaited biography of Ben Turpin has been released for the pleasure and enlightenment of film comedy enthusiasts everywhere.

The book had me hooked as soon as I got to the first chapter and came upon a 1867 wood engraving of a New Orleans candy shop owned by Turpin's father, Ernest Turpin.  Outside the shop was horse-drawn carriages, men in top hats and frock coats, and ladies in bustles.  The image immediately took me back in time, which is exactly what a book about the past is supposed to do, and it made me trust that Rydzewski (who I personally know as "Steve") did his homework to find every last bit of information available on Turpin's family history.  Without a doubt, the book is a labor of love by Rydzewski, who devoted 40 years to the research of this beloved comedy icon.

Turpin began his film career as the Essanay Studios' comedy front man in 1907.  He became a familiar face on movie screens before the American public got its first look at other homegrown film comedy pioneers, including John Bunny, Billy Quirk and John Cumpson.  He established himself in the infant film industry and, in the next 22 years, he endured every sharp twist and turn that occurred in the rapid-paced evolution of silent film comedy.

Turpin played an important role in the development of gags and routines, which is obviously a subject near and dear to my heart.  He took pies in the face and got sprayed by seltzer bottles years before those gags became standard fare.  In A Case of Seltzer (1909), Turpin appears as an inveterate flirt who gets his comeuppance when the women that he has harassed form a tight circle around him and blast away with seltzer bottles.

I learned from For Art's Sake that Turpin started out playing the sort of highly destructive bumbler that French comedian André Deed had perfected in his films for Pathé Frères.  In The Crazy Barber (1909), Turpin becomes obsessed practicing for a "fastest barber contest."  He moves energetically through town, automatically cutting the hair of every man, woman and dog that dares to cross his path.  As the title character of The Energetic Street Cleaner (1909), Turpin is so intent on giving the street a powerful sweeping that he fails to take notice of the people who get in his way.  He sweeps dirt onto a pair of women, he knocks down a waiter delivering a tray of food, he scatters a traveler's belongings, and he overturns a grocery boy transporting a sack of flour. 

Turpin had his greatest success at the Mack Sennett studio, where he was transformed into a living cartoon for a series of outrageous farces.  At Sennett, Turpin was never affected by the more sophisticated efforts of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.  In 1921, when Chaplin was crying uncontrollably over losing his little boy to child welfare officials, this is what Turpin was doing.

She Sighed by the Sea (1921) 

In 1923, when Harold Lloyd was hanging off a department store clock, this is what Turpin was doing.

Asleep at the Switch (1923)

In 1926, when Buster Keaton was speeding across Tennessee in his prize locomotive, this is what Turpin was doing.

The Prodigal Bridegroom (1926)  

Turpin's Sennett films expertly combined knockabout, lampoonery and surrealism.

At the peak of his Hollywood stardom in the 1920s, Turpin made a habit of standing in the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue to direct traffic.

Try to imagine what would happen if Jim Carrey tried that prank nowadays.  He'd be arrested in less than twenty minutes.  TMZ would be on the scene even faster than the police.  The tabloids would get the word out - either Carrey was as much out of his mind as Amanda Bynes or he was as incapable of handling drink as Reese Witherspoon.

But Hollywood of the 1920s was a carefree and merry place compared to what Hollywood is today, and Turpin's wacky antics on screen and on Santa Monica Boulevard helped to define Hollywood in its infancy.

All in all, I enjoyed the story of Ben Turpin, appropriately called by the author "the world's greatest cock-eyed mirthmaker."

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