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Chester Conklin

Chester Conklin

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Chester Cooper Conklin was an American comedian and actor. He appeared in over 280 films, about half of them in the silent
Silent film
A silent film is a film with no synchronized recorded sound, especially with no spoken dialogue. In silent films for entertainment the dialogue is transmitted through muted gestures, pantomime and title cards...


Early life

Born in Oskaloosa
Oskaloosa, Iowa
Oskaloosa is the county seat of Mahaska County, Iowa, United States. The population was 11,463 in the 2010 census, an increase from 10,938 in the 2000 census. -History:...

, Iowa, Conklin was one of three children who grew up in a violent household. When he was eight, his mother was found burned to death in the family garden. Although first judged a suicide, his father, a devoutly religious man who hoped his son would be a minister, was eventually charged with murder, but found not guilty at trial.

Conklin won first prize when he gave a recitation at a community festival. A few years later, he ran away from home after vowing to a friend he would never return, a promise he kept. Heading to Des Moines he found employment as a hotel bellhop
A bellhop, also bellboy or bellman, is a hotel porter, who helps patrons with their luggage while checking in or out. Bellhops often wear a uniform , like certain other page boys or doormen...

, but then moved to Omaha
Omaha, Nebraska
Omaha is the largest city in the state of Nebraska, United States, and is the county seat of Douglas County. It is located in the Midwestern United States on the Missouri River, about 20 miles north of the mouth of the Platte River...

, Nebraska where his interest in theatre led to a career in comedic acting. In St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis is an independent city on the eastern border of Missouri, United States. With a population of 319,294, it was the 58th-largest U.S. city at the 2010 U.S. Census. The Greater St...

, Missouri, he saw a performance by the vaudeville
Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill...

 team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields
Lew Fields
Lew Fields , born as Moses Schoenfeld, was an American actor, comedian, vaudeville star, theatre manager and producer....

, which prompted Conklin to develop a character based on his boss at the time, a man with a thick accent and a bushy walrus
The walrus is a large flippered marine mammal with a discontinuous circumpolar distribution in the Arctic Ocean and sub-Arctic seas of the Northern Hemisphere. The walrus is the only living species in the Odobenidae family and Odobenus genus. It is subdivided into three subspecies: the Atlantic...

 moustache. With this character, Conklin broke into vaudeville, and spent several years touring with various stock companies, doing vaudeville shows, minstrel shows, as well as clown
Clowns are comic performers stereotypically characterized by the grotesque image of the circus clown's colored wigs, stylistic makeup, outlandish costumes, unusually large footwear, and red nose, which evolved to project their actions to large audiences. Other less grotesque styles have also...

 work with a travelling circus
A circus is commonly a travelling company of performers that may include clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, unicyclists and other stunt-oriented artists...



After seeing several Mack Sennett
Mack Sennett
Mack Sennett was a Canadian-born American director and was known as the innovator of slapstick comedy in film. During his lifetime he was known at times as the "King of Comedy"...

 comedies while in Venice, California during the 1913 winter break, the 27-year-old Conklin went to Keystone Studios
Keystone Studios
Keystone Studios was an early movie studio founded in Edendale, California in 1912 as the Keystone Pictures Studio by Mack Sennett with backing from Adam Kessel and Charles O. Bauman, owners of the New York Motion Picture Company...

, applied for a job and was hired as a Keystone Kop with a salary of $3 a day. Sennett directed him in his first film, a comedy short titled Hubby's Job.

In 1914, Conklin co-starred with Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand was an American silent film comedienne and actress. She was a popular star of Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios and is noted as one of the film industry's first female screenwriters, producers and directors...

 in a series of films: Mabel's Strange Predicament
Mabel's Strange Predicament
Mabel's Strange Predicament is a 1914 American-made motion picture starring Mabel Normand and Charles Chaplin, notable for being the first film for which Chaplin donned the Tramp costume.-First "Tramp" appearance filmed:...

, Mabel's New Job
Mabel's New Job
Mabel's New Job is a 1914 film starring Mabel Normand and co-directed by Normand and George Nichols.-Cast: Mabel Normand Chester Conklin Charley Chase Listed alphabetically: Dave Anderson Cecile Arnold Dixie Chene Alice Davenport...

, Mabel's Busy Day
Mabel's Busy Day
Mabel's Busy Day is a 1914 short comedy film starring Mabel Normand and Charles Chaplin; the film was also written and directed by Mabel Normand. The supporting cast includes Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, Edgar Kennedy, Al St. John, Charley Chase, and Mack Sennett.-Synopsis:Mabel tries to...

and Mabel at the Wheel
Mabel at the Wheel
Mabel at the Wheel is a 1914 American-made motion picture starring Charles Chaplin and Mabel Normand, and directed by Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett.-Synopsis:...

. In that same year he appeared in Making a Living
Making a Living
Making a Living is the first film starring Charlie Chaplin. It premiered on February 2, 1914. Chaplin plays Edgar English, a lady-charming swindler who runs afoul of the Keystone Kops....

, in which Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin
Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE was an English comic actor, film director and composer best known for his work during the silent film era. He became the most famous film star in the world before the end of World War I...

 made his film debut. He would go on to make more than a dozen films with Chaplin while at Keystone and the two became lifelong friends. Years later, Conklin would perform with Chaplin in two more feature-length films, first in 1936 in Modern Times
Modern Times (film)
Modern Times is a 1936 comedy film by Charlie Chaplin that has his iconic Little Tramp character struggling to survive in the modern, industrialized world. The film is a comment on the desperate employment and fiscal conditions many people faced during the Great Depression, conditions created, in...

and in 1940's The Great Dictator
The Great Dictator
The Great Dictator is a comedy film by Charlie Chaplin released in October 1940. Like most Chaplin films, he wrote, produced, and directed, in addition to starring as the lead. Having been the only Hollywood film maker to continue to make silent films well into the period of sound films, this was...

. During this time, Chaplin kept Conklin on year-round salary.

While at Keystone, Conklin became most famous when he was teamed up with the robust comic Mack Swain
Mack Swain
Mack Swain was an American actor and vaudevillian, prolific throughout the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.-Film career:...

 to make a series of comedies. With Swain as "Ambrose" and Conklin as the grand mustachioed "Walrus", they performed these roles in several films including The Battle of Ambrose and Walrus and Love, Speed and Thrills
Love, Speed and Thrills
- Plot summary :Love, Speed and Thrills is about a loving husband and a wife-stealing wolf, both after the same woman.- Cast :*Mack Swain as Ambrose*Minta Durfee as Ambrose's Wife*Chester Conklin as Mr. Walrus*Billy Gilbert...

, both made in 1915. Beyond these "Ambrose & Walrus" comedies, the two appeared together in twenty-six different films.

In 1920, when Sennett refused to discuss a contract renewal with Conklin and insisted on referring him to an underling, Conklin quit and went to Fox Film Corporation, which had earlier approached him about doing a series of comedy shorts. He also worked at the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation studio. In between, he had a significant role as ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, transitioning to comedy sound films.-Early life:ZaSu Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas to Rulandus and Nellie Pitts; she was the third of four children...

' father in director Erich von Stroheim
Erich von Stroheim
Erich von Stroheim was an Austrian-born film star of the silent era, subsequently noted as an auteur for his directorial work.-Background:...

's acclaimed 1924 MGM production, Greed
Greed (film)
Greed is a 1924 American dramatic silent film. It was directed by Erich von Stroheim and starring Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Pigott, Sylvia Ashton, Chester Conklin, Joan Standing and Jack Curtis....

, although the part was cut from the film and the footage is now lost, and in 1928 in the Christie Film Company
Christie Film Company
Christie Film Company was an American pioneer motion picture company founded in Hollywood, California by Al Christie and Charles Christie, two brothers from London, Ontario, Canada....

 version of Tillie's Punctured Romance
Tillie's Punctured Romance (1928 film)
Tillie's Punctured Romance is a 1928 circus comedy starring W. C. Fields as a ringmaster and Louise Fazenda as a runaway. Written by Monte Brice and Keene Thompson and directed by A. Edward Sutherland, this movie has nothing to do with the revered 1914 Charles Chaplin film aside from sharing the...

with W.C. Fields (which had nothing to do with the 1914 Chaplin version, which Conklin had also appeared in, aside from the title). Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures Corporation is an American film production and distribution company, located at 5555 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. Founded in 1912 and currently owned by media conglomerate Viacom, it is America's oldest existing film studio; it is also the last major film studio still...

 teamed up Conklin and Fields for a series of comic films between 1927 and 1931.

Conklin made the transition to talkies and, although he would continue to act for another thirty years, age and the shift in moviegoing tastes to more sophisticated comedy saw his roles limited to secondary or smaller parts in shorts, including the Three Stooges
Three Stooges
The Three Stooges were an American vaudeville and comedy act of the early to mid–20th century best known for their numerous short subject films. Their hallmark was physical farce and extreme slapstick. In films, the Stooges were commonly known by their first names: "Moe, Larry, and Curly" and "Moe,...

 shorts Dutiful But Dumb
Dutiful But Dumb
Dutiful but Dumb is the 54th short subject starring American slapstick comedy team the Three Stooges. The trio made a total of 190 shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959.-Plot:...

(as a bartender), Flat Foot Stooges
Flat Foot Stooges
Flat Foot Stooges is the 35th short subject starring American slapstick comedy team the Three Stooges. The trio made a total of 190 shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959.-Plot:...

(as a fire chief), Three Little Twirps
Three Little Twirps
Three Little Twirps is the 71st short subject starring American slapstick comedy team the Three Stooges. The trio made a total of 190 shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959.-Plot:...

(as a Circus butcher), and Micro-Phonies
Micro-Phonies is the 87th short subject starring American slapstick comedy team the Three Stooges. The trio made a total of 190 shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959.-Plot:...

(as a drunken pianist who answers a song request with "Know it? I wrote it!"). Conklin also appeared in films which appealed to nostalgia for the silent era, such as Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) and The Perils of Pauline
The Perils of Pauline
The Perils of Pauline may refer to:* The Perils of Pauline , a 1914 silent film serial* The Perils of Pauline , a 1933 film serial from Universal Studios...

(1947). In Soundies
Soundies were an early version of the music video: three-minute musical films, produced in New York City, Chicago, and Hollywood between 1940 and 1946, often including short dance sequences. The completed Soundies were generally released within a few months of their filming; the last group was...

 musicals, he appeared with other silent-comedy alumni as The Keystone Kops, as well as on the televised This Is Your Life
This Is Your Life
This Is Your Life is an American television documentary series broadcast on NBC, originally hosted by its producer, Ralph Edwards from 1952 to 1961. In the show, the host surprises a guest, and proceeds to take them through their life in front of an audience including friends and family.Edwards...

tribute to Mack Sennett. Conklin was part of Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges , originally Edmund Preston Biden, was a celebrated playwright, screenwriter and film director born in Chicago, Illinois...

' unofficial "stock company" of character actors
Preston Sturges Unofficial Stock Company Actors
Actors who frequently worked with film director Preston Sturges: !! Christmas in July !! The Lady Eve !! Sullivan's Travels !! The Palm Beach Story !! The Miracle of Morgan's Creek !! Hail the Conquering Hero !! The Great Moment !! The Sin of Harold Diddlebock !! Unfaithfully Yours !! The...

 in the 1940s, appearing in cameo parts in six films written by Sturges. In 1957, he was a guest challenger on the TV panel show "To Tell The Truth".

Decline and death

Conklin's career hit bottom in the 1950s, and he took work as a department-store Santa Claus to make ends meet. In the 1960s, Conklin was living at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital when he fell in love with another patient there, June Gunther. The two got married in Las Vegas
Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas is the most populous city in the U.S. state of Nevada and is also the county seat of Clark County, Nevada. Las Vegas is an internationally renowned major resort city for gambling, shopping, and fine dining. The city bills itself as The Entertainment Capital of the World, and is famous...

 in 1965, his fourth marriage and her fourth, and set up housekeeping in Van Nuys, California; the groom was seventy-nine and the bride sixty-five. Conklin made one last film after that, a Western comedy, A Big Hand for the Little Lady
A Big Hand for the Little Lady
A Big Hand for the Little Lady is a 1966 western film, made by Eden Productions Inc. and released by Warner Bros...

, released in 1966.

Chester Conklin died on October 11, 1971 in Van Nuys, California at the age of 85. He was cremated and his ashes were given to his family. Following his death, his great nephew, Robert Stoltz, along with his sisters rested his ashes at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Chester Conklin has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Hollywood Walk of Fame
The Hollywood Walk of Fame consists of more than 2,400 five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars embedded in the sidewalks along fifteen blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and three blocks of Vine Street in Hollywood, California...

 at 1560 Vine Street.

External links