Friday, August 16, 2019

Billy Bevan: A Genial Character


Billy Bevan is best known today for devoting ten years (1919-1929) to being regularly swept in the lunacy and mayhem at the Mack Sennett studio.

Bevan's best films at Sennett were directed by comedy master Del Lord, who later guided the Three Stooges through their funniest and wildest antics.  Lord was proud enough of his work with Bevan to have the Stooges recreate a number of Bevan's routines.

Bevan in Ice Cold Cocos (1926)


The Three Stooges in An Ache in Every Stake (1941)


While perusing old journals for this article, I found something written about Bevan's Circus Today (1926) that clarifies the sort of work the comedian performed at Sennett.  Path√©scope, who offered a cut-down version of Circus Today for 9.5 mm home projectors, described the film in their 1957 catalogue as follows:
Billy Bevan, the odd job man, takes over the work of the high-diver who, blindfolded, plunges into a small tank of water.  Unfortunately for Billy, an elephant with a long thirst gets to the tank before him and Billy from then onwards plunges head first into trouble.
In 1924, Bevan bought a fifty-acre citrus ranch in Escondido.  Bevan came up with a creative solution to combat the virulent frost that blanketed his fruit and trees during most winters.  He remembered a large machine with airplane propellers that had been used to create a storm scene in one of his films.  He had a similar machine constructed to blow warm air across the grove.  The machine proved to be more effective than the orchard heaters used previously to protect crops from the costly freeze damage.   Bevan was well-regarded for his clever invention in the growers' community.  In time, Bevan became the chairman of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, president of the Escondido Country Club, and the vice president of the Escondido Chamber of Commerce.

By the end of the 1920s, Bevan devoted most of his time to growing avocados.  But, still, he found the time to travel the 100 miles between Escondido and Los Angeles to make brief appearances in feature films.  It was not uncommon for a silent film comedian to have a second career in Hollywood as a character actor.  It proved to be a calmer existence for Bevan.  No more headfirst high dives into an empty water tank.  He now got to play small funny roles as a bartender, or a cabby, or a butler.  In 1930, Bevan told Los Angeles Times reporter Elena Boland that he preferred these amiable, gentle comedy bits to his old large-scale slapstick pranks.

Bevan was in fact a character actor in Hollywood far longer than he was a star at Sennett.  Today, I will be your guide on a tour through Bevan's twenty-three year career as a character actor.

If you have to go the bathroom, I recommend that you take care of that now.

In 1927, Bevan took a brief break from his Sennett series to play a detective in an "old dark house" thriller called Easy Pickings.

Bevan became more and more committed to being a character actor within the next two years.  Boland listed several roles that the comedian played in his transition from comedian to character actor - a Hungarian hussar in The Stolen Bride (1927), a flight commander in Lilac Time (1928), and a press agent in Footlights and Fools (1929).  She also reported that the actor turned up in Her Summer Hero (1928), a romantic comedy about a college swimming team.  But I can find no evidence of these roles - no credits on Internet Movie Database, no production stills, no mention in newspaper or trade journals.  I examined a print of Lilac Time and could find no sign of Bevan among the film's eager squadron of aviators.  A flight commander that appears in the film is played by Cleve Moore.  Could Bevan's scenes have been excised?

Bevan was more prominent in later roles, starting with High Voltage (1929).  At the time, he said:
I discovered that after having been with Sennett for so long no one thought I could do anything but tumble and sling custard.  The comedian in this country is not as important as he is in Europe.  Over there, if he is good, he is classed as an artist; here he is a clown.  People don't realize what he must know in order to do comedy.  In 100 feet of film he must get over what the dramatic actor can take 400 or 500 feet to accomplish.  He has to be a master of tempo.

Google Play provides the following plot summary for High Voltage:
A blizzard forces a busload of passengers to seek refuge in an abandoned church. The group includes Billie (Carole Lombard), a young woman being taken to prison, and her police escort, Detective Dan Egan (Owen Moore). But they're not alone. The mysterious and edgy Bill (William Boyd) is already there and sitting on a supply of food that he's determined to control. Billie and Bill, who have bonded, plan an escape, but in doing so they'll be endangering the lives of the others.
This sounds more than a little like the premise of Quentin Tarantino's 2015 film The Hateful Eight.

The Trespasser (1929)

Role: Reporter


Journey's End (1930)

Role: 2nd Lt. Trotter

David Manners and Billy Bevan in Journey's End (1930)

David Manners, Billy Bevan and Colin Clive in Journey's End (1930)

Bevan said, "Slapstick has not gone out, but it is incorporated now in the dramatic film and it is all the more outstanding because of the contrast. Take Journey's End for instance: in one place I actually fall in the mud just as I used to in the old days. The gags that comedy considered too old and worn for further usage are now thought to be great as relief in the heavier sort of picture."

Monte Carlo (1930)

Role: Train Conductor


Peacock Alley (1930)

Role: Walter, Bell Captain

For The Defense (1930)

Role: Drunk

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Role: Soldier on the Make

Vanity Fair (1932)

Role: Joseph Sedley

Billy Bevan and Myrna Loy in Vanity Fair (1932)

Sky Devils (1932)

Role: The Colonel


 Payment Deferred (1932)

 Role: Hammond


A Study in Scarlet (1933)

Role: Will Swallow


Looking Forward (1933)

Role: Mr. Barker, Night Watchman

Billy Bevan, Colin Clive and Phillips Holmes in Looking Forward (1933)

Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Role: Two of Spades


Midnight Club (1933)

Role: Detective


Luxury Liner (1933)

Role: Schultz

The Way to Love (1933)

Role: M. Prial

Cavalcade (1933)

Role: George Grainger


Stingaree (1934)

Role: Mac


The Lost Patrol (1934)

Role: Hale

Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934)

Role: Man in Hotel Room

The Last Outpost (1935)

Role: Private Foster

Billy Bevan and Cary Grant in The Last Outpost (1935)


A Tale Of Two Cities (1935)

Role: Jerry Cruncher

Bevan plays porter (and sometimes grave robber) Jerry Cruncher, who helps Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman) to defeat a deadly scheme by evil aristocrats.

Here is Jerry in illustrations from the famed Charles Dickens' novel from which the film was adapted.

Messrs. Cruncher and Son by Fred Barnard (1870s)

Here is Bevan's rendition in the film.

Donald Haines and Billy Bevan in A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

Here is an illustration of Cruncher and his wife from a 1867 edition.

Here is Bevan with Mrs. Cruncher (Eily Malyon).

Here are a few other images from the film.


Vanessa, Her Love Story (1935)

Role: House Auctioneer

Private Number (1936)

Role: Frederick


Champagne Charlie (1936)

Role: Mr. Boswick, Ship Bartender


Lloyds of London (1936)

Role: Innkeeper


Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Role: Cabby

In the 1920s, a young gagwriter named Frank Capra co-wrote a number of Bevan's Sennett comedies, including The Iron Nag (1925) and Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies (1925).  Now, more than a decade later, Capra was one of the biggest directors in Hollywood and he turned to Bevan to play a hansom cab driver in his latest opus Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  The cabby testifies in a competency hearing for the eccentric Deeds about an incident in which Deeds fed a generous helping of donuts to the cabby's horse.


Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Role: Albert


Slave Ship (1937)

Role: Atkins

The Wrong Road (1937)

Role: McLean

Another Dawn (1937)

Role: Private Hawkins

Bevan was teamed up with fellow Australian funnyman Clyde Cook in Another Dawn.


Here is Bevan and Cook together in an earlier time.

Personal Property (1937)

Role: Frank the Waiter

Billy Bevan and Robert Taylor in Personal Property (1937)

Blond Cheat (1938)

Role: The Bartender


Shadows Over Shanghai (1938)

Role: Gallicuddy

Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938)

Role: Customs Official


The Girl of the Golden West (1938)

Role: Nick


Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Role: Joe, Bartender


The Young in Heart (1938)

Role: Kennel Man

 Billy Bevan, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Paulette Goddard
Captain Fury (1939)

Role: Duffy

A Christmas Carol (1938)

Role: Street Watch Leader

Bevan, as Street Watch Leader, can't resist laughing when Scrooge claims to have received an unwelcomed visit from ghost.
Street Watch Leader: Your intruder seems to have extruded, if I may say so, sir.

Ebenezer Scrooge: He was here! He was a spirit!

Street Watch Leader: [laughing]  Of course, sir! A fine night for spirits - of one form or another, sir!
Pack Up Your Troubles (1939)

Role: British Sergeant


Tin Pan Alley (1940)

Role: Stage Doorman

The Long Voyage Home (1940)

Role: Joe, Limehouse Barman


The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Role: Jim


The Earl of Chicago (1940)

Role: Castle Guide

Robert Montgomery repeatedly interrupts the tour guide to point out errors in his commentary on the castle's history.  The tour guide becomes increasingly annoyed until he learns that Montgomery is the latest owner of the castle and a descendant of the royal family at the center of the castle's history.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Role: Mr. Weller


Suspicion (1941)

Role: Ticket Taker

Joan Fontaine, Billy Bevan and Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941).

Confirm or Deny (1941)

Role: Mr. Bindle 


Counter Espionage (1942)

Role: George Barrow


Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Role: Bus Conductor

This Above All (1942)

Role: Farmer


I Married a Witch (1942)

Role: Puritan Vendor

Bevan hawks snacks at a Salem witch-burning. 


The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1942)

Role: Phillips, the butler


London Blackout Murders (1943)

Role: Air Raid Warden

The Return of the Vampire (1943)

Role: Civil Defense Worker


Jane Eyre (1943)

Role: Bookie


The Pearl of Death (1944)

Role: Constable


Once Upon a Time (1944)

Role: Police Officer


The Lodger (1944)

Role: Bartender


The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Role: Malvolio Jones, Chairman


Tonight And Every Night (1945)

Role: Cabbie

Terror by Night (1946)

Role: Train Attendant

Cluny Brown (1946)

Role: Uncle Arn

Uncle Arn is upset with the unconventional behavior of his orphaned niece Cluny (Jennifer Jones) and, in hope of making her understand her place in society, he sends her off to be a parlor maid at a country estate.

Billy Bevan and Jennifer Jones in Cluny Brown (1946)
Devotion (1946)

Role: Mr. Ames


It Had To Be You (1947)

Role: Evans, the Butler


Love from a Stranger (1947)

Role: Taxi Driver

The Black Arrow (1948)

Role: Dungeon Keeper


The Swordsman (1948)

Role: Old Andrew

Bevan plays Old Andrew, a faithful servant to Lady Barbara Glowan (Ellen Drew).


Let's Live A Little (1948)

Role: Morton


The Secret Garden (1949)

Role: Barney


That Forsyte Woman (1949)

Role: Porter

Tell It to the Judge (1949)

Role: Winston, Kitty's Butler


Bevan spends most of the film opening the door to guests, removing guests' hats and coats, serving food.  But, later in the film, he shares a funny scene with leading man Bob Cummings.


Three Secrets (1950)

Role: Ed Jackson

Hans Christian Anderson (1952)

Role: Town Councilman


Reference source

Elena Boland, "He Never Threw a Pie!" The Los Angeles Times (May 4, 1930).
The Los Angeles Times (November 26, 1937).


  1. I think the main reason that many silent comedy stars found support work in sound features was that these people were known as old pros and would help the production go smoother. These people showed up on set and knew exactly what to do. Another reason these old comedians found supporting work is that many of the movers and shakers in 1930's and 1940's Hollywood started out in many of the silent comedy studios and remembered how talented most of the silent comedians were. Since comedy is the hardest genre to act in, many of these old comedians could be counted upon to do dramatic turns. Billy Bevan's character in LOST PATROL gets shot in the head.
    No one made more two-reelers for Sennett than Billy Bevan. Bevan must have been exhausted by 1929. I think he found a supporting role career to be more to his liking as he entered middle age instead of trying to get a series at Columbia (there were many at Columbia who would have lobbied for a Bevan Series). Bevan was a ham. He didn't need the money from his sound era acting roles. Bevan was one of those actors who had "more" and made the smallest of roles very interesting. Bevan lived a sort of double life. He would tend to his ag businesses and offices in Escondido as Bill Harris and head north to Hollywood periodically to work in films as Billy Bevan. I don't have much info on Bevan's later life. I am assuming since Bevan was a ham (in the most positive sense), that his last role being in 1952, that Bevan's last five years of his life must have been spent in bad health.
    Thank you Anthony for another Saturday morning of wonderful reading.

    1. Tommie, I agree with everything you said. I can tell you from watching Bevan in these character roles that he knew exactly what he was doing. It's the expressiveness of his face that stands out for me. I tried to show this in the screen captures. This is skill that an actor develops in silent comedy.

    2. A couple of corrections to an otherwise interesting site about my grandfather:
      He was never known as Bill Harris in Escondido, but Billy Bevan both there and in Hollywood. Though I don't think he legally changed his last name, he never used it once he came to the US. Secondly, his last 5 years were not spent in poor health. Our grandmother died in 1952 after a long illness. A couple of years later he married long time family friend Betsy Rees (herself an Ziegfield girl in the 1920s). He died quite suddenly of a heart attack in 1957 at age 70.

    3. I thank you for that information, Bob. It was kind of you to provide it. I plan to post further photos of your grandfather in an upcoming article.