Monday, November 10, 2014

The Case of the Laughing Flappers

Too often we find that lying behind a comedian's benignly silly grin is a deeply troubled and unhappy individual.  News accounts indicate that goofy, rubber-legged comedian Billy Dooley had problems with anger and anxiety.

In 1922, Variety reported on a lawsuit filed against Cincinnati's Palace Theatre because Dooley became enraged by three teenage girls in the audience and had ushers eject them from the theatre.  The reporter wrote, "Dooley said the girls were 'flappers' and insisted on laughing at the wrong times."  The young women claimed to have been humiliated by the experience.  One of the young women, Margaret Plucker, said that she became distressed when an usher threatened to have her arrested.  Reportedly, she fainted before they reached the exit and remained unconscious for a half hour.  It was alleged in her lawsuit that she had been made exceedingly nervous by the incident, which had caused permanent damage to her reputation.  Many theatre patrons stepped forward in support of the young women.  The theatre immediately terminated Dooley's engagement.  The young ladies may have exaggerated their trauma, but it is more than likely that Dooley overreacted.

Stronger evidence of Dooley's emotional problems can be drawn from the fact that, in 1929, the comedian was admitted to the Sylvan Hospital in Hollywood to recover from a nervous breakdown. 

Dooley did not come back to work for a time.  In 1931, he had a starring role in a two-reel comedy, Smart Work (1931), but this role represented his only film work for more than 3 years.  He did not return before the cameras in full vigor until the end of 1932, when he appeared as a drunk swell in the tart office comedy Manhattan Tower.

This began a new career for Dooley, who proved adept at playing character roles in feature films.  He acted in 54 more feature films from 1933 to his death in 1938.

Let's look at a few of his character roles. 

The comedian was prominently featured in a running gag included in the climax of Joe E. Brown's 6 Day Bike Rider (1934).

Dooley is the tall reporter in this scene from Harold Lloyd's The Cat's-Paw (1934).

Hospital Painter in Young and Beautiful (1934)

Shoeshine Customer in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936)

Ship's Photographer in Anything Goes (1936)

Film Crewman with Spray Gun in A Star is Born (1937)

Postman in You're Only Young Once (1937)

Patient Drinking from Bottle in Between Two Women (1937)

Fritz in Live, Love, and Learn (1937)



 Racetrack Bugler in A Day at the Races (1937)


Watchman in Call of the Yukon (1938)

You can read more about Dooley in Eighteen Comedians Comedians of Silent Film.

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