Henry Lehrman

Active - 1909 - 1935  |   Born - Mar 30, 1886   |   Died - Nov 7, 1946   |   Genres - Comedy, Romance

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Biography by Janiss Garza

Although Henry Lehrman is little remembered today, he was as much of a comedy film pioneer as his associate Mack Sennett. During his time working for Sennett's Keystone studios, Lehrman helped mold an enduring, albeit crude, brand of slapstick that made the transition into the sound era, even if Lehrman's career had already faltered by then. Like many of his contemporaries, Lehrman frequently seemed to change the story of his early life. Facts about his beginnings in Vienna, Austria, and even the year of his birth are sketchy. Obituaries state he was born on March 30, 1886, but judging from his early press, it may have been 1883. Lehrman claimed he was educated at Vienna's Commercial University and served as a Lieutenant in the Austrian army, both questionable assertions. He came to the United States sometime between 1905 and 1908, and most likely worked as a trolley conductor. When he arrived at the Biograph studios in search of a job, he told director D.W. Griffith that he was an agent for the prestigious Pathe Freres. Griffith saw through the pose and christened him with the snide nickname "Pathe" Lehrman. But he also gave the gutsy Austrian work as an extra. Lehrman made more of an impression on Mack Sennett who was also employed at Biograph at the time. When Sennett left the company in 1912 to form Keystone he brought Lehrman with him as his staff director. The biggest comedy names of the 1910s -- Mabel Normand, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Ford Sterling among them -- were directed in dozens upon dozens of films by Lehrman. He also directed film great Charles Chaplin in his first few featured roles at Keystone including Making a Living and Kid Auto Races at Venice.

Lehrman, however, didn't win many friends at Keystone. He earned yet another nickname, "Suicide," because of the dangerous stunts he would goad his actors into performing. Arbuckle refused to work with him after a while and the animosity between the two men would explode a few years later. In 1914, Lehrman and Sterling both left Keystone for Universal, to found Sterling Comedies. The director was there only a few months before forming his own production company L-KO, short for Lehrman Knock-Outs. He spent the next several years filming competently-made shorts and in 1917 he joined Fox where he was in charge of their Sunshine Comedy division. While they never equaled his work at Sennett's and didn't endure like Hal Roach's comedies, Lehrman's films were well-made and quite funny. Beginning in 1921, he began directing features for various studios, which he continued doing throughout most of the 1920s. Comedy producer Jack White learned about the business from Lehrman and he passed this knowledge along to his brother Jules White who later became head of Columbia's shorts department. Thus, the comedies of the Three Stooges owe something to Lehrman's influence. In September 1921, Lehrman's fiancée, starlet Virginia Rappe, died under mysterious circumstances after attending a San Francisco Labor Day party held by Roscoe Arbuckle. Although he had no proof Lehrman blamed Arbuckle for Rappe's death and vilified him in the press. However, less than nine months later Lehrman wed another actress, Jocelyn Leigh. This, and one other marriage, both ended in divorce. After the 1920s, Lehrman's career went downhill. He worked at Fox throughout the 1930s and early '40s in various capacities, mostly as a writer and gagman. But his personal life was a mess and he declared bankruptcy in 1941. Lehrman died in 1946, of either a heart attack or a stroke (both were reported as his cause of death). He is buried next to his erstwhile fiancée, Virginia Rappe.

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