By Doug Gibson
It's a pleasant surprise to see that BearManor Media has provided cinema genre fans a biography of that most famous supporting character of slapstick comedy shorts, Vernon Denton (here). Mentored by Keystone cop Hank Mann, his career started about 100 years ago and never really ceased, moving smoothly through the heydays of Mack Sennett, Educational shorts and the Columbia comedy shorts.
Dent (1895-1963) was fated to have a face often recognized but a name that would come slow to the lips of the average theater-goer. He's best associated with the Three Stooges. (In fact, just a few days I was watching The O'Reilly Factor have a segment that was highlighted with old film clips. Although it lasted a mere five seconds one of the blackouts was Dent -- in some old Stooges short -- getting a pie in the face. I hope I'm not the only viewer who snapped his fingers and said, "THAT'S VERNON DENT!"
But enough of my chatter, I need to get to reviewing "Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy: Second Banana to the Three Stooges and other Film Comedy Greats," by Bill Cassara, BearManorMedia, 2013. To be very frank, if you're looking for a personal biography of Dent's life, and his impact on the times, you'll be disappointed. This is not really a biography. It can't claim that status when major events such as the death of Dent's mother, Fannie, or his first marriage, are captured in a passage or two.
Instead, what Cassara presents is the equivalent of a well-researched, in-depth, entertaining long magazine piece on the times of Dent's life, with major focus on the entertainer's career. Cassara provides scores of newspaper, school and publicity accounts to traverse Dent's interesting life and times. One personal note that does include extensive reference is the 1909 murder of Dent's father, William, a saloon keeper. William was murdered by the boyfriend of a woman he was having an adulterous affair with. Not unlike today, such an unsavory scandal attracted the media; an added incentive was that William Dent was a nephew of former U.S. President U.S. Grant.
The scandal caused Fannie to move her family from San Jose, California to Oakland, and Vernon grew up in northern California. He seems to have been stagestruck since about the age of nine, and received his share of local publicity as a teen. Fannie Dent died in 1915; by that year the young Dent was married and a professional musician performing in San Francisco and he later Southern California in a nightclub in 1916.
As mentioned, Hank Mann, who had a young Charley Chase directing films, started using Vernon as a supporting player in a series of one- and two-reelers. By 1920 The Pacific Film Company attempted to make a star of Vernon by having him basically do a Fatty Arbuckle takeoff in a series of shorts. As Cassara notes, that ended with Arbuckle's scandal involving the death of actress Virginia Rappe. In these early comedies, Vernon also starred with a beautiful, petite actress with the odd name of Duane Thompson, although in the comedies she went by Violet Joy. Some of these films still exist.
At this juncture of his career, Dent had roles in some features, including "Hail the Woman," but he caught the eye of Mack Sennett and that solidified him as a comedy shorts player. He had a natural rapport with star Harry Langdon, and the pair would work together in films for two decades. Late in the 1920s, during the evolution from silent to sound films, there were two attempts to pair Vernon with co-stars Monty Collins and later Lou Archer. Both attempts could not generate the fan interest to keep them competitive with popular teams such as Laurel and Hardy.
That Dent failed to click as a comedy shorts star is likely because he didn't generate the pathos or likability that Oliver Hardy, for example, could muster with his screen presence. Or maybe he had weak scripts too often? Dent was a splendid actor and talented comedian. That made him very valuable to the comedy shorts producers, who could essentially plug him into any part, star, supporting or bit player. He was always on the payroll of Sennett, Educational and Columbia and often made the equivalent of a $100,000 a year salary today.
Perhaps the last chance Dent had to develop a team was with Langdon in the Educational shorts of the early to mid 1930s. They have some great rapport in shorts, particularly "The Hitchhiker," "The Big Flash," and "Hooks and Jabs," but the death of director Arvid Gillstrom, and later Educational studios, moved both stars to the more slapsticky, Stooge-comedy Columbia, with its shorts head Jules White. As Cassara writes of the Stooges, "The humor of The Three Stooges was physical, lowbrow and 'vulgar.' It was anything for a laugh. The Stooges were a curious combination of surrealism and exaggerated sound effects."
And it worked. Audiences loved the Stooges and their act kept at least two dozen more comedians busy working at Columbia in its many different shorts series. Vernon worked for everyone, but in popular culture, he's attached to the Stooges. In fact, the final 40 percent of the book is a compendium of Vernon's 400-plus film appearances, including his roles with the Stooges.
As the reader gets closer to the appendix, more of the personal life of Vernon is noted. This is mostly thanks to interviews with Vernon's third wife, Eunice, conducted by film historian Ed Watz. (Vernon's second wife had died in the 1930s). He met Eunice at a party thrown by his good friend Langdon, and his wife, Mabel. According to the book, Eunice says he proposed that very night. Their marriage lasted until Dent's death.
As Dent settled into life as a Columbia comedy shorts player, he contracted diabetes in the mid 1940s. It was no surprise as the very heavy Dent loved eating sweets. The condition worsened and by the mid 1950s Vernon was blind. According to Cassara's book, he became blind after refusing to submit to more painful insulin shots.
The strength of Cassara's book is that casual, and even genre fans, will learn many new things about Dent. One was his participation in a "keep-up-the-moral" feature from the World War II era, "San Diego, I Love You," a Universal offering. I have embedded a scene from the film that includes Vernon at the end of this review. Other interesting tidbits is Dent's appearances on TV, including "I Love Lucy."
The details of Watz' interviews with Eunice provide fantastic ancedotes into the lives of the husband and wife, as well as a glimpse into the Hollywood of that era. She notes that Vernon was a favorite of Frank Capra, who used him in bit parts in some of his films. She also expounds more on the close friendship between the Langdons and Dents.
Dent died of a heart attack in 1963, having survived long enough to witness the rejuvenation of the Three Stooges' careers after the Columbia shorts ended. It would be very interesting to read similar accounts of other Columbia shorts supporting players, such as Christine McIntyre or Dick Curtis.
(Also embedded below is a clip from a 1924 Sennet short with Vernon and Andy Clyde, "Black Oxfords").
One more note: This Dent biography can be purchased for under $10 via Kindle.