Don't forget to refer to my Contents page for a more convenient reference to past articles.

For More L.A. La Land, visit my writing/art/film appreciation site on Facebook at Quoth the Maven and follow me on Twitter @ Blahlaland. :)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

THE REEL REALS: Chester Conklin

Chester Conklin
Chester Conklin did not attain the lasting marketability of many of his contemporaries, but he is no less a comic legend. Creating for himself a recognizable character with a large, bushy, "walrus" mustache and round spectacles, he definitely stood out from the pack as movies began to hit their stride at the turn of the century. Everyone had a schtick in those days: Fatty had his weight, Keaton had his stone face and pork pie hat, Chaplin had his tramp suit and mini 'stache. Later, Groucho Marx would adapt and lampoon this token comic commodity by giving himself a grease mustache. Yet, a comedian needs more to recommend him than his makeup and wardrobe, and it was Chester's innate instinct for comic timing, absurd improvisation, and lovable mugging that helped him edge his way to the front of the gag pack. 

After leaving his home state of Iowa, where he had only a bleak future in the church to look forward to, Chester started traveling on the vaudeville circuit, learning the ropes, and improving upon them. The character he developed-- the one audiences would become most familiar with-- was in fact based upon a former boss. A baker. By exaggerating the crazed nuances of this man's personality, Chester was able to build a bumbling, pompous, and forever foiled buffoon. His wide eyes, forever shocked at the chaotic world around him, and his contorted and often curmudgeonly faces were at once reassuring and cathartic to audiences-- who shared his befuddled assessments that modern life was ridiculous. 

Chester had no shame in making himself the butt of the joke. His films were never as much about unlikely heroism-- like Keaton-- or the triumph of social consciousness-- like Chaplin. He was purely about side-splitting pranks. This is perhaps why he would later lose some of his leading man stature to become the just as important, reliable, supporting gaff guy in other pictures. He was more of a contributory piece of the puzzle than the maestro putting it all together. Nonetheless, his enjoyable performances remain timeless.

While many know him only as the unfortunate co-worker whom the Tramp accidentally sucks into the mad machine of Modern Times, Chester was better known at his zenith as a partner in crime with fellow performer Mack Swain. He also has the prestige of being one of Mack Sennett's infamous "Keystone Cops" and performing alongside Mabel Normand in many of her own comic capers. He additionally bandied up onscreen with surly funnyman W.C. Fields, appeared in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (though his scenes were some of the many eventually cut), and kept himself busy in the talkies thanks to Preston Sturges, who cast him in many of his features. 

However, times were tough for an old hat comedian as the motion picture industry grew, and Chester soon found himself edged out of the game. Yet, in looking back at the early world of cinematic comedy, he seems to be everywhere. He may not have been the biggest name but he always pops up, often unexpectedly. This makes him, I suppose, an alternative to the old adage, "Wherever you go, there you are." With Chester, it's "Wherever you look, there he is!" As such, he is an important piece of the funny fabric of moviedom, where audiences can still rest assured that whenever he's around, it won't be dull.

No comments:

Post a Comment