Al St. John

Active - 1914 - 1963  |   Born - Sep 10, 1893   |   Died - Jan 21, 1963 in Lyons, GA  |   Genres - Western, Action, Comedy

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Gawky, loose-limbed Al St. John performed from childhood with his family in vaudeville and burlesque around his home state of California, perfecting an athletic bicycle act that would stand him in good stead for the remainder of his career. Despite his parents' misgivings about "the flickers," St. John was persuaded to enter films by the success of his uncle, Mack Sennett star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. St. John became a "Keystone Kop" in that famous congregation's very first film, The Bangville Police (1913), supported Charles Chaplin and Marie Dressler in the feature comedy Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), and then followed Arbuckle to Comique, where he and the young Buster Keaton functioned as "second bananas" to the hefty star. On his own, St. John starred in Educational comedies (one, The Iron Mule [1925], directed by his now disgraced uncle under the pseudonym of William Goodrich), all along developing his patented rube personality complete with oversized overalls and porkpie hat.

St. John himself later claimed that a deal with the Fox company went sour and that he suddenly found himself more or less blacklisted by the major studios. He did appear in one of Roscoe Arbuckle's comeback shorts, Buzzin' Around (1933), but by the mid-'30s he seemed all washed up. To keep food (and, it was rumored, quite a bit of spirits) on the table, St. John switched gears and began pursuing a career in independently produced B-Westerns. He played a variety of characters, both major and minor, before almost accidentally stumbling over the particular role that would sustain him for the rest of his career and make him perhaps the favorite sidekick among kids -- that of the limber, baggy-pants braggart Fuzzy Q. Jones.

Poverty Row company Spectrum had originally intended for Melody of the Plains (1937) to co-star singer Fred Scott with Fuzzy Knight but he proved unavailable and the script was simply never changed. St. John became so popular in the role that, by 1940, he was playing Fuzzy in no less than three Western series simultaneously, PRC's Billy the Kid and Lone Rider programmers and Republic Pictures' Don "Red" Barry vehicles. He remained with the Billy the Kid/Billy Carson Westerns when star Bob Steele was replaced by Larry "Buster" Crabbe and was still Fuzzy Q. Jones in 1947 when Crabbe left in favor of Humphrey Bogart-lookalike Al "Lash" LaRue. In quite a few of these downright poverty-stricken potboilers, St. John provided the only glimmer of entertainment. As LaRue often remarked, "Fuzzy could stumble over a match stick and spend 15 exciting minutes looking for the match." In other words, kids didn't really go to see a Buster Crabbe or Lash LaRue Western, they went to see Fuzzy.

Al St. John was unique among B-Western sidekicks in that he actually carried his films rather than the easily disposable leading men. Both Crabbe and LaRue were well aware of that and remained steadfast in their praise for the diminutive performer. When the LaRue era finally ended with a short-lived television series, Lash of the West (1953), St. John returned to the boards and continued making personal appearances until his death from a heart attack.

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