Tuesday, July 30, 2013

An interview with "For Art's Sake: A Biography and Filmography of Ben Turpin" author Steve Rydzewski

Hello Plan9Crunch readers, on Sunday, July 28, 2013, I had the opportunity to have published in the Standard-Examiner a review of two biographies, "Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon” by Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde, and "For Art's Sake: The Biography and Filmography of Ben Turpin," by Steve Rydzewski. Both books are from Bear Manor Media. Over this next week, Plan9Crunch will supplant the review, found here, with interviews with the authors. The first was with Hayde and Harter of "Little Elf ..." Tonight, we post the interview with Rydzewski of "For Art's Sake ..."
1) Turpin lived the life of a hobo for years and even while married, lived what was often a nomadic, low pay, paycheck to paycheck life. How did that affect his outlook on stardom. Do you think that might be a reason he stayed loyal to Sennett?

Rydzewski: "Ah yes, the nomadic and sporadic life of an actor. At 17, Ben left home and for the next five years traveled the country as a hobo, hopping in, on, or under trains, and, when hungry, panhandled.

"The acting bug bit him in the early 1890’s and he was soon earning a living playing stages across the country in his little rough-and-tumble tramp specialty. About 1901 Ben started touring as the popular cartoon character Happy Hooligan and was a hit. Never an overnight success, Ben played Hooligan for eleven years doing multiple shows a day.

"By 1907, nearing forty, and recently remarried, Turpin was tired of nomadic traveling and sporadic trouping when he joined the newly formed Essanay Film Company early that year for a steadier income. What at first seemed like an easy job to Ben quickly turned into a madhouse as soon as Essanay got rolling.

"After two years in movies Turpin was let go and he returned to the stage which, by then, had changed. Bookings were harder to come by and Turpin couldn’t wait to get back to the movies. He was happy to return to Essanay in 1913.

"So, yes, Turpin experienced some hard times before Mack Sennett found him. And I do believe all Ben’s previous hard and lean years had much to do with Ben’s happiness under Sennett. At last he found respect, world wide fame, and fortune. And don’t forget if Charlie Chaplin didn’t use Turpin in his first two Essanay comedies, His New Job and A Night Out, Ben’s film fate might have been something entirely different."
2) Turpin was treated badly by his early film producers (paid a pittance) and bullied by peers (I think of Wallace Beery) as he slowly moved up to fame? How personally do you think he took that abuse? How did it affect his love of his profession?
Rydzewski: "Ben did take a lot of abuse in the early, pre-Sennett years. He was still taking it under Sennett but not as badly. Ben was a small, frail, and sensitive man but a strong man of body and mind. He had grown accustomed to all the hard knocks over the years. Turpin was just doing his job, wanted to do it right, and to the best of his ability. He had always loved his work, and loved making people laugh. 

"Once he was in a groove and a success at Sennett, he commanded everyone's respect; Ben had reached the top. He made them laugh, he made them roar. He made Sennett rich. And when he had reached the top, Ben wanted nothing more than to give a lot of it back (in his own charitable ways) to the generous public who had put him there. He loved making movies and he loved his fans."
3) I found the media reports of Turpin’s efforts to save his wife’s life and his retirement to care for her very interesting? How involved with the journalists was the Sennett Company? Did Ben just stay out of it?
Rydzewski: "Turpin loved his second wife, Carrie. His first marriage didn’t work out so well. But with Carrie there seems to have been a true and solid bond and a marriage that endured for just over eighteen years until her tragic death in 1925.
"After spending so much money on advertising, Mack Sennett would surely take any free publicity they could get. Journalists had often wanted to get into the studio to interview Mack’s various stars, and permission was granted if the time was right. Sennett even kept his own publicity department to flood the media with hype when necessary.
"Under Sennett with success and better confidence, Turpin was still a modest man. He was a top comedian from 1917 to 1927, and there were a lot of comedians also striving for media attention, many never getting a drop of ink."
4) Why do you think Ben Turpin more or less retired from film as the silent era ended? Was he just tired of it, financially secure, or hurt that his demand has ceased?
Rydzewski: "When the talkies were new, Ben was nearly sixty years old. He had been an entertainer for almost forty years and perhaps had been growing weary of show biz. Shrewd investments in real estate provided him with an income, and occasional bits in movies kept him happy. He had a nice home, a good wife, and many friends. 
"Ben may have felt left out of movies during the 1930’s, and it’s hard for me to visualize him in anything other than a cock-eyed role. You can’t help but raise a smile at that face. Back in the day there were excuses that Ben’s voice was unfit for talkies, too garbled for microphones. He sounded fine to me! He was great in the small things he did with Laurel and Hardy (Our Wife and Saps at Sea), W.C. Fields (Million Dollar Legs), Make Me A Star with Joan Blondell, Cracked Nuts with Wheeler and Woolsey, The Love Parade, and others, but perhaps his all-too familiar face put him in a special niche.

"Ben did miss working in the movie industry he grew up with and helped to create. Surely he’d rather still be making movies. But by the sound era there were changes, many new faces and it was a whole new industry. In the thirties, Ben was a relic, but to a new generation he was a hit."
5) Turpin’s face is iconic today. I polled friends. Most were aware of the face even if they could not name the actor? Do you see a revitalized respect for Turpin’s work emerging in the era of YouTube, Netflix and Turner Classic Movies?
Rydzewski: "When I was a kid of twelve and having grown up on cartoons, I “discovered” the animated Turpin on TV. I never saw him before nor did I know his name; it took me a while to figure out who he was! Then I was hooked! I began collecting films, photos, newspaper and magazine articles, anything and everything and it’s been going on for almost 45 years.
"I’d love to see more public interest in Ben Turpin. He was a great clown, a great man, and one of the first of the American movie comedians. He deserves to be remembered for administering our greatest medicine, laughter."
Thanks Steve for taking the time to answer these questions.
Again, here is a link to my Standard-Examiner review of both books. Thanks for reading, Doug Gibson.

Headline: Books on silent stars Turpin, Langdon, an example of small-press thoroughness

By Doug Gibson, Standard-Examiner, July 28, 2013

Silent film comedy stars Harry Langdon and Ben Turpin inhabit the middle tier of fame. They’re not among the silents’ A-list — Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd — but they’re above Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan, Larry Semon and a host of others. Turpin, by virtue of his crossed-eyes, is an iconic character, even if many who recognize the face can’t place the name. Langdon, who rivaled Chaplin in his ability to produce emotion, pathos and laughs with a mere shifting of his eyes, was directed by Frank Capra, and co-starred with a very young Joan Crawford in his salad days. ...

The entire review is here.

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