Ben Turpin

Active - 1909 - 2003  |   Born - Sep 17, 1869   |   Died - Jul 1, 1940   |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Probably no silent comedian has had so much biographical misinformation gathered about him than scrawny, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. This much we know for sure: Turpin was the son of a New Orleans candy store owner, who moved his family all over the country depending on his financial state. We'd like to believe that, having squandered the hundred dollars his father gave him to make a start in the world, he hopped a freight and went on the bum rather than face his dad's wrath. Whether or not Turpin really did live a hobo's existence during his late teens is lost to history; his early career as a comedian in vaudeville, burlesque and stock is only hazily chronicled. Somewhere along the line, he did learn how to take spectacular falls without breaking every bone in his body. Even in his sixties, Turpin was able to perform his specialty, a backwards tumble called the "108," and would do so whenever the spirit moved him, both on camera and off. No one quite knows how Turpin's eyes became crossed, nor did he help future movie historians by giving different accounts of the origin of his ocular affliction to different interviewers. It is quite true that, once he became a star, he took out a Lloyd's of London insurance policy against his eyes ever becoming un-crossed--a wise move, since, in the words of critic Leonard Maltin, "To the end, Ben Turpin's face was his fortune." His movie career commenced in 1907 when he was hired by the Essanay studios in Chicago as both utility comedian and studio janitor. Oddly, his early Essanay films did nothing to capitalize upon the comic potential of his facial appearance. His fortunes improved (and his close-ups increased) when, in 1915, Turpin was teamed with Essanay's newest comedian Charlie Chaplin. Gaining a following thanks to his appearances with Chaplin, Turpin was signed to his own series at Vogue studios in 1917, then began a long association with Mack Sennett. Though he turned out fewer films than Sennett's other top comedians, Turpin rapidly became the studio's most popular star. In addition to headlining such 2-reel gems as The Daredevil (1924), he was starred in several Sennett features, including A Small Town Idol (1921) and the legendary Rudolph Valentino spoof The Shriek of Araby (1923). Because Turpin regularly lampooned such personalities as Valentino and Erich Von Stroheim, some historians have lauded Turpin as a satirist of the highest order. In truth, Turpin was merely performing the routines written for him by such ace Sennett gagsters as Mal St. Clair and Frank Capra; though his comedies were surefire laughgetters, he himself was only as good as his material. In 1924, Turpin announced that he was retiring to care for his ailing wife. After her death in 1925, he made several comeback attempts at both Sennett and the lesser Weiss-Artcraft outfit, but his time was past. During the talkie era, Ben more or less confined his filmmaking activities to bit roles, usually spot gags utilizing his crossed eyes as a punchline (e.g. Lubitsch's The Love Parade [1929] and Wheeler & Woolsey's Cracked Nuts [1931]). He was co-starred along with several other Sennett veterans in the memorable 1935 Vitaphone 2-reeler Keystone Hotel, then went into semiretirement. In his twilight years, Ben was far too wealthy to care that the parade had passed him by; in his heyday, he'd made $3000 a week (a fact that he enjoyed trumpeting to complete strangers on the street), and what he didn't squirrel away in banks he wisely invested in real estate and property. It is said that he personally worked as a janitor in the posh Los Angeles apartment houses that he owned, just to save an extra few bucks per week. Appropriately enough, Ben Turpins last film appearance was as a myopic apartment-house plumber, whose crossed wires and pipes result in music-playing refrigerators and ice-covered radios, in Laurel & Hardy's Saps at Sea (1940).

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