Saturday, September 19, 2015
A review of the definitive Ben Turpin biography, 'For Art's Sake'
Review by Doug Gibson
There's a passage in "For Art's Sake," Steve Rydzewski's biography and compilation of silent film comedy star Ben Turpin's life (BearManor Media), in which actor Wallace Beery roughs up his co-star Turpin while making a comedy short. The somewhat sadistic encounter takes place just before Turpin, a literal pioneer of slapstick silent cinema, becomes a major star for producer Mack Sennett, earning more than $3,000 a week in his heyday.
Now flash 20-plus a few years, the elderly Sennett, getting close to 70, provides a bittersweet rational as to why he is rarely in the "talkies" cinema --no one has asked. Turpin is still active, whether on the stage or for other publicity endeavors. But he's proud of what he has accomplished, and doesn't want to go hat in the hand, begging for screen work.
Rydzewski's book is a dash of biography (much of it in his subject's early years) and a whole lot of research that is shared with readers, mainly in the form of newspaper clipping and press releases. The format works. The subject's life and events flow well and the information, which must have taken thousands of hours to gather, is fascinating.This is a treasure trove of history. (Just the accounts of obscure stage performances are fascinating) It's unlikely that another book will ever improve on detailing Turpin's life. Given that most readers of this genre book will be searching for details of the subject's life, the format is successful
There's a lot of pathos in these life anecdotes, clipping and biography, but Turpin's life was not a tragedy. He was a very successful man, who saved and invested his earnings so he didn't have to work all his life. He enjoyed two successful marriages that were only ended by death. Rydzewski has done an impressive job of detailing the comic performer's life about as well as anyone has done and will be able to do. As for myself, prior to reading "For Art's Sake, " I knew little about Turpin's life, other than recognizing his iconic cross-eyed countenance. Several years ago, I read an enjoyable feature article on Turpin in Cult Movies Magazine, where I learned that Ben as a teen was given a small bounty by his dad and told to seek his fortune. After Ben, born in 1869, lost the bounty gambling, he hit the rails as a hobo. In the book, Rydzewski quotes Turpin as saying that "Mulligan stew was my bread" in those days.
"For Art's Sake" provides lots of information on Turpin's early life. His father managed candy shops in New Orleans and New York City, where Turpin learned the art of taffy pulling, a skill he was paid for as an adult performer. Living a nomadic life for several years after leaving home, Ben gravitated to carnivals and theater work, particularly physical comedy. A brief first marriage hardly slowed him down. Although he traveled widely, working for very low wages, Chicago eventually became an early hub of his career.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Turpin gained notoriety for his "Happy Hooligan" performance. These types of characters required intense physical skill, including throwing one's legs up high in the air and falling on the back and quickly rising. These moves, as well as comedy acts that required climbing and hard knocks, would frequently send Turpin over the years to hospitals. (Although there are many "explanations" as to why Turpin developed crossed-eyes, Rydzeswki's research points toward the cumulative effect of Ben having to intentionally cross his eyes for long stretches to play Happy Hooligan as a likely reason.
In 1907, Ben married Carrie Le Mieux, a fellow performer and they settled in Chicago. It was a happy union that would last until her death in 1925. About this time, Ben started making silent comedy films for Essanay, a Chicago-based company. As Rydzewski explains, film was not as respected as the stage in that period. Scripts were not a part of short comedy films. It was go to the scene, stay away from the cops, and improvise your movie. In fact, as Rydzewski's book notes, Ben was once arrested, and spent several hours in jail shivering, for entering public waters in Chicago while filming. (Here is a look at Ben, a legitimate pioneer of slapstick silent cinema -- he was literally the first -- in a portion of the Essanay 1909 short "Mr. Flip.")
Although he was only paid $20 to $30 a week for several years, Ben stayed with Essanay for a long time, even heading with his wife, Carrie, when Essanay made the move to Hollywood. Most of his early films are lost but enough survive remain to fully appreciate Ben's talent for physical comedy timing as well as his facial expressions and aggressive persistence that demands that viewers pay attention to him. Frankly, Essanay exploited his talent, making a fortune with the peanuts they paid him. As Rydzewski notes, once Ben tried to quit Essanay, but lost, and came back to the same miserable pay.
It was Charlie Chaplin, hired by Essanay, who finally started to move Ben's career into well-paid stardom. Instantly noting Turpin's star power, Chaplin worked with him and then refused to work with him again -- as a compliment -- correctly noting Turpin was a star. When Chaplin left Essanay, it likely helped provide Ben the resolve to find better earnings. He signed with Sennett, amazed that they accepted his demand of $100 a week. (An interesting anecdote in Rydzewski's book is Turpin recounting how his accountant urged him to live on far less and save a lot. That likely underscores his frugal lifestyle, which kept the Turpins financially secure after the top-earning years were over.)
As mentioned, Ben sailed to super-stardom with Sennett, earning $3K-plus a week. Many of his Sennett shorts survive and they are a pleasure to watch. As his wife Carrie's life neared its end, Ben, a very devout Catholic, took her to religious shrines hoping for a cure. He suspended his career to care for her in her final months. After her death, there are several news clipping that capture how big the story was in the mid-1920 entertainment media of star Ben Turpin shucking off his career to care for his loved spouse.
Although very witty in his public appearances, Turpin lived a quiet life with Carrie. There were no children, evidently a life disappointment. (Rydzewski includes an odd tale of Ben and Carrie asking a poor man if they could raise his daughter -- the man declined). In any event, it's not a surprise Ben eventually married Babette Dietz in the summer of 1926. Their union lasted until Ben's death in 1940 at age 70.
Ben went back to comedies but did not make the change to talky comedies. He was financially secure. At age 60 he could still do stage work and add to his secure living. He had invested well. I'm just guessing but he may have looked at the artistic difficulties some of his peers (Langdon, Lloyd, Keaton and even Chaplin) were having making the transition. In the early '30s, comedy cinema was moving toward dialogue comedy, either battle of the sexes or the fast repartee of the Marx Brothers. Slapstick was popular in shorts, but the budgets were tiny, and the films less recognized than in the Sennett era.
The best chance to see Ben in a film is the 1940 Laurel and Hardy film, "Saps at Sea," where he plays -- in a quick cameo -- a cross-eyed plumber. Ben Turpin died of a heart attack on July 1, 1940. Born in 1869, he was a literal first in his class of silent slapstick. Rydzewski has done a tremendous service, both to fans and film historians, with this comprehensive work. The book also includes scores and scores of pages of photos.