Friday, May 12, 2017

All about Vernon Dent; an interview with his biographer Bill Cassara

Interview by Doug Gibson

Vernon Dent is ubiquitous to vintage comedy film. Genre fans and scholars know him well. The more casual film fan, the one who, say, has only sampled the Three Stooges shorts, can't recall his name but they sure do know his face. And, most importantly, Vernon Dent makes them laugh.

Dent's "I know that guy" persona is a lot like, say, the character actor Donald Meek. My wife and I, watching WC Fields and Mae West in "My Little Chickadee," saw Meeks play a faux preacher "marrying" the stars. "I know that guy. What's his name?" my wife said. "He's also in "You Can't Take It With You," I reply. (And several hundred other films ...) ... Vernon, by the way, worked with WC Fields in films.

It's the same with Vernon. Last year, on a Fox News segment, background film was rolling as comic relief. Suddenly, there's Vernon from an old Stooges short. "I know that guy. What's his name," said my son, who loves the Stooges and Harry Langdon shorts. (Dent, of course, is also a veteran of hundreds of films).

Enough preface, let's get to the interview with author and vintage comedy scholar Bill Cassara, writer of "Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy -- Second Banana to the Three Stooges and Other Film Comedy Greats" (2013, BearManor Media). Bill has also written biographies of Edgar Kennedy and Ted Healy. We've reviewed the Dent biography and the Healy biography.

Enjoy the interview.

1)      Vernon Dent is a ubiquitous figure to the casual vintage comedy fan, the one who only watches The Three Stooges. He’s the face without a name they always recognize. Describe how Dent’s talents make him so memorable to fans when other frequent co-stars are less noticeable to casual fans?

CASSARA: In the Three Stooges comedies there had to be an authority figure to play against their humor, it's called "comedy contrast." While there were plenty of actors who could do that, Vernon brought with him a seemingly no-nonsense approach and dealt out the punishment. It helped too that Vernon who was not a tall man, nevertheless physically fit perfectly in the frame with the much shorter Stooges. If one watches the Stooges even casually, he shows up in 56 of their total product. That makes a lasting impression, so if one sees "Vernon Dent" in the opening credits you know that the boys are really going to get it!        
2)      Did the deaths of Vernon Dent’s parents, have an effect on his life, career or personal, in your opinion?

CASSARA: Vernon's father was the owner of a saloon in San Jose, Calif., and was murdered when Vernon was a boy. The local newspaper blamed the circumstance of the murder, not on the suspect but on the "evils of alcohol." Vernon's mother made the boy swear on his father's grave that he would never touch alcohol. Vernon's mother was a non-professional thespian and encouraged her son's budding talents, she died when he was only 20. 
3)      In his pre-Sennett career, what were Vernon Dent’s greatest strengths in the shorts he made? How did these early films, as well as Sennett shorts, set up his career as a foil to the stars of the shorts?

CASSARA: It should be noted that Vernon was influenced by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, while Roscoe sang illustrated songs at the Unique Theater in San Jose. Vernon was a singer first, even a published song writer. Vernon was the emcee while at Seal Beach, Ca. when Hank Mann saw possibilities of him as a comic "heavy" to Mann's comedies. Vernon graduated to his own starring series for "Folly Comedies 1921-1922. His character was very similar to Fatty Arbuckle's film persona to include a similar fitting hat. In those silent days, action was the key. Vernon proved himself adept at physical comedy; making pratfalls and big reactions. The Mack Sennett studios demanded a quick pace and sometimes very dangerous stunts, he was also a "fat" character so necessary to play off of others.     
4)      What are the three best Harry Langdon/Vernon Dent Sennett shorts and why?
CASSARA: 1) HIS FIRST FLAME: This is the sweetest little film full of charm and redemption. Harry is a naive nephew to Vernon's worldly Uncle who works as a fireman. Harry overcomes his physical limitations and wins the girl and his uncle's respect. This film holds up really well to modern audiences, the lessons to be learned are still fresh and humorous. 2). HIS MARRIAGE WOW : Harry almost plays the straight-man to Vernon's maniac character. It's a visual delight as Vernon drives his car crazily and seeing Harry as his captured passenger. 2) SATURDAY AFTERNOON: This short made in 1925 establishes both as buddies, Harry is hen-pecked and Vernon is his "wiser" friend who tries to fix them up with a couple of floozies. Tiny Harry and big Vernon are perfectly contrasted together, this predates Laurel and Hardy by a couple of years and might have been very influential. 

5)      You mention something interesting in your biography, that perhaps Harry Langdon would have had better success at First National had he taken his frequent Sennett co-star Vernon Dent with him. How could Dent have improved, say, “Three’s A Crowd,” if he had played Arthur Thalasso’s part, or the judge in “The Chaser.”

CASSARA: I'd hate to speculate other than saying Vernon would have enhanced any screen appearance.
6)      There was an effort to make Dent a comedy pair team with Monty Collins, and of course many say he and Langdon were teamed often without officially being a team. What were the challenges in the 20s and 30s against succeeding as a comedy team? What were the artistic challenges as well as the logistical challenges, such as exposure, play dates and marketing?

CASSARA: This is an interesting question. Comedy teams were certainly popular in vaudeville but often did not make it in film because one was a talking medium and the other visual (during the silent era. For film teams to emerge there has to be a business sense by the respective studio that the audience will be in demand of said team. The comedians also have to have a strong respect for each other; the typical set up is for a "comedian" and a "second banana" to help set up the gags. Many teams failed because both wanted to be the funny one. Stan Laurel for instance had a chance through the years to establish himself as a solo comedian to lukewarm response. Frankly, he was not ready in the early years to take on a partner. This changed when he was eventually paired with Oliver Hardy, at the Hal Roach Studios. Audience reaction at the two as a true team demanded more. The studio then marketed it to the distributors and the public as such. Vernon and Harry were never a "team" on equal footing, Harry was the star and Vernon was versatile in comic support. While Harry had a defined character, Vernon did not.  More importantly, Harry wasn't ready to be a team in the 20's. On reflection in later years he might have regretted it.         
7)      All of us want so badly to see the lost Arvid Gillstrom Educational/Paramount shorts. Synopses seem to tease us with plots for Vernon and Harry that would be appropriate for a regular comedy team (Laurel and Hardy). Do you believe Paramount was pitching the duo as a team, albeit maybe with a little more press toward Langdon?

CASSARA: Gillstrom is a name not heard of anymore, he was an important director and producer for Paramount in his day. I think he was in line to make Harry Langdon comedies and Vernon would have a big responsibility for the studio. As it was, Gillstrom directed Vernon Dent and Bing Crosby in "Please," a two-reel comedy written by Vernon. He also wrote the screenplays for Langdon/Dent series that are lost now. Gillstrom died suddenly in 1935 and that ended any hopes of bigger fame at Paramount.    

8)      Based on your biography, Vernon seemed to have a wonderful final marriage. He settled into an eventual well-paid character actor supporting role in Columbia shorts, with freedom to do other work. His settling down into that role, was it due to domestic happiness, and perhaps also that his diabetes was a growing concern

CASSARA: Vernon was married three times and his second wife passed away When Vernon was in this 30's. Vernon met his future wife at a party at the Langdon's home and he was so smitten, he proposed to her that night. Vernon was in love and they were both dedicated to each other though Mrs. Dent had no interest in the movie business. Vernon's wife worked at a bank for consistent income, aside from Vernon's acting income he was also vested in real estate and owned a concession stand in Westlake Park in Los Angeles. They both pitched in during the weekends.   
9)      What are Dent’s best dramatic roles?

CASSARA: Thomas Ince hired Vernon for his feature: "Hail the Women" (1921). It is unfortunately this is a lost film, Vernon had a prominent part. Mack Sennett cast Vernon as a sinister and overbearing suitor of Mable Normand in the feature, "The Extra Girl." (1923) He played a mean husband in the rarely seen "Dragnet Patrol" even out bullying screen heavy Walter Long. Vernon's most sensitive portrayal was the feature, "Beast of Berlin" (1939) when Vernon's character is German citizen (a bartender) who is terrorized by the Nazi soldiers. We hear Vernon cry in's heartbreaking.  
10)   What are the best examples of Dent singing in films

CASSARA: In the short Technicolor film, "Good morning, Eve." Vernon (as Nero) sings "Rhythm in the Bow," it's very catchy. He sings "There's No Place Like Home" to a sequestered jury in "The Jury Goes 'Round and Round" (1945). My favorites are when Vernon sings the old songs: "The Waning Honeymoon" (Fainting Lover (1931), "When You and I were Young, Maggie" (with Harry Langdon in Hooks and Jabs), and especially in Bing Crosby's short "Please," Vernon challenges Bing to a singing competition and bellows out "Dear Old Girl."  
11)   Has there ever been a comedian who had a stare as humorously menacing as Dent?

CASSARA: I think Vernon carved this out for himself and sustained it through out his years at Columbia. He forewarned the Stooges many times with his look of intolerance, Charley Chase and Shemp Howard both got those stares in the baseball-themed "The Heckler" and "Mr. Noisy." The audience could witness his many stages of body language, but never the comedians.   

12)   Who did Dent pair best with in films? I imagine the favorites are The Stooges or Langdon, or maybe you have another selection?

CASSARA: For sustained pairing there is no doubt; The Three Stooges for the sheer delicious physical comedy and Harry Langdon for the obvious chemistry between them. 
13)  In your research, how is Dent received by genre fans? Is he recognized for his supporting talents or seen as a comedy star who couldn’t quite reach star status?

CASSARA: Though Vernon appeared in over 400 films, most of them are unavailable for viewing. We'll never know what heights Vernon would have propelled to if Gillstrom had lived, the same could be said about Thomas Ince who also died after casting Vernon in a dramatic feature. Vernon knew everyone at Columbia Studios when he became one of their prized stock-players in 1936, so who wants to change history? I had the pleasure of giving a discourse at the last Three Stooges Convention in 2016, if the knowledgeable audience was any gauge, they held Vernon Dent in highest esteem for his comic support. 

14)   In your research, what more did you learn about the warm personal friendship between Dent and Langdon? (Vernon, Harry, and their spouses seen in above photo.)

CASSARA: In Harry Langdon Jr.'s new book, it is reaffirmed how close Vernon and Harry were. Harry's widow emphasized this to Junior, Vernon even took the boy to baseball games in his father's absence. Vernon never had children but he would have been a great dad.

15)  If someone were to put on a Vernon Dent film festival, what 12 films would you choose to include?
CASSARA: Some titles I have already mentioned, those would have to be included in any list. The rest go to just about any of The Three Stooges: "Slippery Silks," "An Ache in Every Stake,"Idle Roomers," "Half-Wits Holiday," "Three Little Pirates," "Sing a Song of Six Pants," "Squareheads of the Round Table," "Fuelin' Around," Malice in the Palace," (see Vernon above)  "Scrambled Brains," "The Tooth Will Out." 

Is there anything you have discovered since your book was released?

CASSARA: Most definitely. I heard from a woman who was a teenager when Vernon was at home and blind unable to work. She used to check on him while his wife was at work. One day she came in and she caught Vernon at the dinner table with TWO pies in front of him furnished by a buddy. Vernon sensed her presence and slightly panicked (he was on a strict diet). He tried to buy her off with "Keep your mouth shut and the other pie is yours." That's how much he valued his sweets. I also heard from a man who said he was Vernon's lawn mower as a boy. Vernon offered him any of his souvenirs and artifacts. Apparently Vernon collected stills from all his pictures and had them autographed by his co-stars. Where they went nobody knows.

I also found out something unique about Vernon that I'm not sure if he was conscious of himself.  The very uncommon surname of "Mann" seemed to pop up in his life: He went to Horace Mann school, Sam Mann was Vernon's stage idol and who encouraged Vernon to continue impersonating him with his foreign dialects, Gus Mann hired him for the "Jewel City Cafe," Hank Mann hired Vernon as his comic heavy, and Helen Mann played opposite of him in "The Girl Rush" (1931). If I were to ever write a play about Vernon I would start with the temperance movement, Vernon's father's death, and weave it around all the "Mann" coincidences. I can see it now...  

Thanks so much, Bill, for the interview.

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