Raymond Griffith

This is en edited, expanded version of an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Raymond Griffith (23 January 1895-25 November 1957) was born into a theatrical family in the great city of Boston. He made his stage début at just fifteen months old. At age seven, he played the lead in Little Lord Fauntleroy, and at age eight, he played a female role in Ten Nights in a Barroom.

His stage career was cut short by two calamities: respiratory diphtheria and going mute. He stated the latter happened during rehearsals for The Witching Hour, when he screamed at the top of his lungs every night. However, other sources believe a childhood disease was the culprit. (You know, one of those diseases anti-vaxxers giggle off as no big deal, and an awesome way to “boost the immune system.”)

When Raymond’s voice finally returned, it was a hoarse whisper. His career as a stage actor was completely shot. After this setback, he joined the circus, worked in vaudeville, was a dancer and dance teacher, went on a European vaudeville tour with a group of French mimes, and joined the Navy for two years.

He broke into films in 1915, first with serious roles; then characters who weren’t presented as funny but involved in situations that often bordered on or ventured into slapstick and comedy; and finally out-and-out comedies.

Unfortunately, most of his surviving films aren’t widely available. Many people lucky enough to be familiar with his entire body of work feel he’d be much more highly-regarded if the public were able to see his films. In 2005, Hands Up! was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

He married actor Bertha Mann in early 1928, after which they took a six-month honeymoon tour of Europe. (Awesomely, Bertha was two years older than Raymond!) Sadly, their first child, Raymond, Jr., was a stillborn. Their next child, Michael, was born in 1931. They adopted a daughter, Patricia, in 1933.

When Raymond returned to the screen, the sound revolution was in full swing. He was one of the rare few actors whose career truly was ruined by sound. However, Raymond went out with a final bang.

In the 1930 screen adaptation of the classic anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, he plays the small but unforgettable role of a dying French soldier whose injuries render him unable to speak above a whisper.

After this memorable performance, Raymond became a writer and producer at 20th Century Fox. All along, he’d co-written far more films than he was credited for. His daughter Patricia remembered him as a voracious reader of classic literature, and believed this provided much inspiration for his screenplays.

At age 62, during a dinner with his wife at the private Masquers Club in L.A., Raymond began choking on his food and died of asphyxia.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.

Classic silent and early sound comedians, Part VI

The conclusion of my 2005 essay on classic comedy clowns, many of whom are forgotten today. This section includes spotlights on Max Davidson, Raymond Griffith, and cross-eyed Ben Turpin.

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18. Max Davidson was born in Germany in 1875 and entered film in 1912. He transitioned to sound, but just about all of his sound work consists of uncredited roles. One of his silent roles was in the only lost Laurel and Hardy film, 1927’s Hats Off (which was later remade in 1932 as The Music Box, only in the remake the object they’re struggling to lug up that massive flight of stairs is of course a piano and not a washing machine). He was also in their 1927 short Call of the Cuckoo, the 1926 Charley Chase short Long Fliv the King, uncredited in the 1927 Mary Pickford-Buddy Rogers flick My Best Girl, the 1925 Jackie Coogan film The Rag Man, and the 1915 version of Don Quixote. He was also an NJB, though unfortunately he was frequently put in stereotyped roles.

19. Raymond Griffith also only has a small number of surviving films, though he’s on the Walk of Fame. He was on the stage from 15 months of age, and took to performing as a clown and trapeze artist in a circus, and a dance instructor, after losing most of his voice as a boy. He permanently damaged his vocal chords after continuous loud screaming during rehearsals for a stage show called The Witching Hour. Though his voice eventually returned, it went no higher than about a whisper; thus his career in acting seemed about over, since he’d lost the gift and ability of vocal projection. Later on he joined the Navy, but was turned down for service in WWI due to his damaged voice.

In 1915 he started out in minor comedies but quickly became a big-name comedy star, working for many different people and studios, acting as well writing scenarios and scripts. His trademark was a tall dapper silk hat. Even though he knew his ability as an actor would be seriously impaired and negatively impacted when sound came along, due to his very low voice that was no higher than a whisper, you’ve gotta give him credit for having the balls to at least try. His final film was a small but memorable role in 1931’s screen adaptation of the classic Erich Maria Remarque novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

He married fellow actor Bertha Mann in 1928, and they had a very happy and successful marriage which lasted until his sudden, shocking, tragic death in 1957, when he choked and asphyxiated on his food at the Masquers Club in LA.

20. Lige Conley too has fallen into rather relative obscurity, though there are films of his still yet out there (albeit hard to find and rare, but Grapevine Video and A-1 Video’s online store offer some of them). He also plays supporting or bit roles in other commercially available films, as in Are Crooks Dishonest? (on The Harold Lloyd Slapstick Symposium). One IMDB reviewer of his 1924 flick The Fast and the Furious points out that Lige is indeed so damn obscure today that only about a third of his actual movie credits are listed at IMDB.

21. Chester Conklin started out as a circus clown and vaudevillian and began working in films in 1913, an unassuming mischievous little fellow with a big walrus-like moustache. One of his many many roles was in the very first Chaplin short, 1914’s Making a Living; according to legend, he helped Charlie develop the Tramp character (though he doesn’t appear as the Tramp in Making a Living). Chester worked with a number of different studios (including Keystone, where he was for a time a Keystone Kop) and transitioned very successfully to sound. He made his final film in 1966 and died in 1971.

22. Sidney Drew, Gladys Rankin, and Lucille McVey Drew (typically billed as “Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew”) were in a series of very popular comedies. Sidney was also the uncle of John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore. Gladys was Sidney’s first wife, with whom he was in vaudeville and later marital film comedies. Gladys would often rewrite bad material or come up with a new script entirely. Sidney also became a director when they later went to Hollywood.

When Gladys died in 1914, he remarried to Lucille, more than half his age, who also billed herself as “Mrs. Sidney Drew.” The comedies they made, written by Lucille and directed by Sidney, were said to be subtler and more wholesome than the ones he’d done with Gladys. They were all quite popular and said to be very funny; it’s a shame more aren’t available or commercially out there.

Being as modern as I am, I find it hard to imagine how once most women actually wanted to be known as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name instead of at least Mrs. Her Own Name. I’m told older women even nowadays “correct” people who refer to them without the Mrs. or the Mrs. Man’s Name in the front, saying they like their “titles.” Hard to believe there are still plenty of people out there who don’t see why there should be any objection at all to a woman being identified through her husband only. If you choose to take your spouse’s surname, great for you, but it seems much less patriarchal and offensive if you’re not identified by putting the word Mrs. in front of your husband’s name.

23. Ben Turpin was a cross-eyed comic you can’t help but laugh at, even though in the modern era some people find it incredibly cruel that a condition like being cross-eyed was once deliberately used for laughs (even though it wasn’t mockery or suspicion; we’re not talking the 15th century here). He even had his eyes insured by Lloyd’s of London in case they ever uncrossed themselves.

He was in burlesque, vaudeville, and the stage before entering films in 1907. He was in some early Chaplin shorts, though most of his work was done for the legendary Mack Sennett, and during the Twenties for Hal Roach. In the sound era he mostly did cameo and character work, such as in the 1940 Laurel and Hardy feature Saps at Sea and as the cross-eyed justice of the peace in their 1931 short Our Wife, when he accidentally marries Stan to Ollie. I was always a bit creeped-out and unsettled looking at those eyes. He also starred in the 1923 spoof The Shriek of Araby, one of many movies (spoof or serious) capitalising on the Sheik craze of the era.

24. Al Alt lived quite a long time, from 1897 till 1992, though he’s just about as obscure today as any of these bottom-rung comedians listed herein. He began working in film in 1924, making his last in 1932. He only made 36 films (that IMDB lists at least), but he was a minor star for a time, and all true comedians are to be blessed, beloved, and thanked for how they live only to bring delight, joy, and gladness to the world, be they destined to live on forever as comedic legends and icons, lesser stars who develop a cult following, huge stars who have fallen into obscurity today, or comedians who always were at the bottom of the celebrity food chain and were obscure and ultra-minor even back then.

25. Billy Franey, like many of the other obscure comics listed herein, did transition to sound, but almost always in bit or uncredited roles. Some of his films from the days when he was a name star (even though never one of the biggest-name comedians around) are She’s a Sheik (of which the lovely Bebe Daniels was the star), A Western Demon, The Fear Fighter, Aflame in the Sky, Billy’s Weekend, and The False Alarm. The bulk of his comedies were done between 1914-32; after that he largely went in uncredited roles.

26. Glenn Tryon was one of the many people Hal Roach went through trying to find his next big star, but for whatever reason (below-par material, just not very funny, overshadowed by larger talents like Charley Chase, didn’t have the right comedic personality or presence), he just didn’t make it long-term.

There are a few Glenn shorts on the nine-volume serial The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy45 Minutes from Hollywood (the boys’ first film appearance together since The Lucky Dog [1919?], though they were far from a team at that early date) and Along Came Auntie (which also featured Ollie, from 1925), and they just come across as very weak in comparison with the other great shorts presented on those respective discs.

Glenn was alright as a comedian, but he just couldn’t cut it. Some people you like right away or almost right away, even if you’ve only seen a few of their shorts (like how I was bowled over by Charley Chase’s comedic gifts and talents), and some you take a little while to warm up to even while sensing you’re in the presence of someone truly great, but I’m afraid I have to say that Glenn was just a mediocre C comedian in his own day and age, never amounting to anything much.

Given how much sheer talent Hal Roach was working with, what a great judge of funnyness he was, it’s baffling as to why he thought Glenn had the potential to turn from an average leading man into the next Harold Lloyd. Based on the evidence I’ve seen so far, and on what other people who’ve seen more of Glenn’s canon have to say, I don’t think this is like how I had the misfortune to see two of the worst, most unrepresentative, Marx Brothers’ films as my first films by them and got the wrong impression. Glenn just was not anything special.

27. Clyde Cook was another minor comedian Hal Roach was trying to launch the career of and make his next big thing. Clyde was quite popular in his native Australia, but fell flat when he arrived in America; like Glenn Tryon, you could say he’s deservedly obscure. He was in a ton of movies and shorts, both silent and talking, but most of his roles after the initial period of hype were uncredited or just mere bit parts. The two films he’s on on the nine-volume serial, Wandering Papas and Should Sailors Marry? (both also starring Ollie), are just as weak overall as Glenn’s films are. A few laughs and funny situations here and there, but nothing really special or unforgettable.

28. Bud Duncan was the other half of the Bud and Ham team in the aforementioned comedy series Lloyd Hamilton had appeared in; obviously Bud played the role of Bud. Almost all of his film credits are from the Teens, though he also appeared in five films in the late Twenties, one in 1931, and two in 1942.

29. Lupino Lane was an extremely physical comedian, taking full advantage of how lithe, graceful, limber, and athletic he was. His brother Wallace often starred in his films, in the various capacities of pal, rival, and villain, frequently kicking Lupino in the ass.