Directed by Nicholas T. Barrows, USA, 1928.
With Ruth Dwyer, Josephine Crowell, and Aileen Manning
Directed by Jay A. Howe, USA, 1928.
With Nita Cavalier, Bruce Covington, and William Gillespie
Directed by Nicholas T. Barrows, USA, 1928.
With Duane Thompson, Aileen Manning, and Billy “Red” Jones
Classic movie buffs know Edward Everett Horton as a most welcome effete and persnickety character actor in a long line of films beginning in the 1930s, primarily comedies and musicals. And Boomers may recognize his soothing well-enunciated voice as the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales from the Rocky and His Friends (a.k.a. Rocky and Bullwinkle) television cartoon from 1959 to 1963. So his presence at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival might be a bit of a surprise. Indeed, that he even had a career in silent films is revelatory.
Horton was born in Brooklyn on March 18, 1886, the son of a New York Times compositor. When young Eddie developed an interest in the theater, his father was encouraging, but his sterner churchgoing mother was not. He enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he was expelled for the ghastly prank of throwing a lifelike dummy off a tall building. He then attended Columbia but dropped out when the theater bug bit. “I was an ambitious lad, smitten with the smell of greasepaint and Minnie Maddern Fiske,” he said in looking back. He toured in vaudeville, performed Gilbert and Sullivan, and made his Broadway debut in the melodrama The Man Who Stood Still in 1908.
When he played a hysterically distraught husband to great effect in A Fool There Was, the 1909 Broadway production later adapted into Theda Bara’s film vamp showcase in 1915, his career was set toward comedy. In 1919, he left New York and joined the Majestic Theatre’s resident stock company in Los Angeles, which further boosted his credentials and visibility. Horton made his film debut in 1922 at thirty-six in the comedy Too Much Business as part of a three-film deal at Vitagraph. He began in pictures as a leading man in comedies, but most of his early films don’t survive, including the 1923 version of Ruggles of Red Gap, in which he had the title role.
The film and stage community adored Horton. Screenwriter Francis Marion called him “one of the kindest men and most facile performers in the theatrical business.” He was by all accounts a generous and loyal friend. He secured a job for actress-comedienne Marie Dressler when her career stalled, holding no grudges after she left his stage production of Ferenc Molnár’s The Swan to accept a film offer. His acting was admired as well. British actor Reginald Denny said, “To do farce properly, you take an almost impossible situation but you play it legitimately. Eddie Horton was a great farceur. He was sincere and legitimate.”
Beginning in 1927, Horton starred in eight two-reel comedies for Paramount Pictures. They were produced by Harold Lloyd for his Hollywood Productions company and came with high production values, saucy intertitles, and talented personnel, including Lloyd’s ace cameraman Walter Lundin. The three screening as part of the festival reveal Horton as a masterly silent film comedian, with flawless timing and mercurial facial expressions. Most surprising, however, was his gift for physical comedy, throwing his entire body into action as needed.
In No Publicity, Horton is a photographer assigned to cover the engagement of a young society woman. By this time he had perfected his unique style of double take. Something outrageous is said, or an impropriety is committed. Horton’s character looks, nods, and smiles politely, maintaining decorum until reality strikes. Then his face falls, eyes go wide, and he lurches toward some resolution. No Publicity is a tour de force of gags. It features Horton in drag, the “Ford fender shimmy” dance, a gallery of funny matrons ready to have their dignity assailed, and a foreshadowing of the hounding paparazzi phenomenon. It also reveals Horton’s generosity. His costars are given moments to shine, resulting in twenty minutes of delight.
In Horse Shy, Horton is called upon to do some daring stunts. It features nifty camera tricks and is shot largely outside in the bright sunshine, with Horton’s nimble physicality nearly the equal of Lloyd’s. Vacation Waves includes a scene on a city trolley that captures Los Angeles locations of nearly a century ago. Comedy setups look borrowed from Lloyd’s bag of tricks, but that doesn’t reduce their pleasure when executed by Horton. Each gives us a side of him lost with the talkies, as well as glimpses of the urbane and reliably wry actor to come.
Horton was well prepared for sound. By then in his forties, gangly at six feet two inches tall, and dispossessed of leading man handsomeness, he became one of the great character actors of classic Hollywood. Through it all, he kept appearing on stage. His turn as the sybaritic Henry Dewlip in the comedy Springtime for Henry was such a good fit, he played the part off and on for decades. But he focused greater attention on film work—and lots of it. He was soon cast as the quintessential bemused supporting player and best friend-lawyer-butler-confidante to the leading man. Tacitly understood to be gay, his characters enlivened dozens of movies with comic interludes, either commenting on the main action or occasionally having subplots of their own.
In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo’s landmark study of homosexuality in the movies, Horton is catalogued as a “sissy” in the films of the 1930s and ‘40s alongside Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, and Grady Sutton. Frequently caught in predicaments that hinted at gay desire, he has the dubious distinction of being the best remembered of them all. With his thin lips curling into a smile, his eyes narrowing to crescent moons, and his voice frequently exclaiming “My word!” in befuddlement, Horton was a winking superstar of lavender Hollywood. He once claimed to play “thirty-five best friends, twenty-six timid clerks, and thirty-seven ‘frustrated’ men.” His sound credits are impressive and include Reaching for the Moon (1930), The Front Page (1931), Design for Living (1933), The Merry Widow (1934), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Lost Horizon (1937), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), The Gang’s All Here (1943), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
Horton was routinely typecast, but it didn’t embitter him. He acknowledged playing a “mouse” on screen, saying, “It pays to be a mouse, or at least it pays me. And as long as it pays, I’m going on with my mousing, just as long as the producers ask for it.” Though he was very popular, he was never tied to a long-term contract. He built a good life, buying a twenty-one acre estate in what was a rural Encino in 1926. He nicknamed it “Belleigh Acres,” grew fruit trees, kept livestock, and threw big social gatherings. His guest cottage was rented by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Lord, and Vivian Vance. Actor Gavin Gordon and he were longtime companions, though both were as discreet as the era demanded of homosexuals.
Beginning in the 1950s, Horton found more work on television, appearing in guest spots on I Love Lucy, The Real McCoys, Dennis the Menace, F Troop, and Batman. His turn as the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales, a reimagining of “Once upon a time” stories with irreverent modern twists and turns, brought him new fame late in life.
Horton died of cancer at his beloved estate on September 29, 1970, at age eighty-four, his final performance in the comedy Cold Turkey not yet on movie screens. These silent shorts are further proof of how good he was, even before applying his memorable drollery to the talkies.
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model