There was once a time when Ben Turpin had one of the most famous faces in all of Hollywood. It was so famous that it continued to give the silent comedian short, easy work even when many faltered with the advent of talkies. Now his name is little mentioned, but Turpin had one of the more successful careers of any silent film comedian.
Turpin’s journey into film followed the path of so many others at the time: he was first a vaudeville performer. It was here that Turpin’s eyes became crossed. As Turpin would always claim, after forcefully crossing his eyes that way for so long, the right eye became stuck that way. Other variations that sound less like old wive’s tales just say that the right eye became crossed due an injury onstage. This isn’t the only gray area in Turpin’s history–even at his death in 1940 his real age varied from newspaper to newspaper. What we do is that his left eye was not crossed, and was forced into place to match the other.
What did make Turpin’s journey from the stage to the screen unique was his age. By the time he made his film debut for Essanay in 1907, he was already 38 years old. In his time with Essanay, he didn’t have many roles and all of those were mostly quite minor. His most regular work didn’t come until 1914, as a regular secondary cast member in the Wallace Beery series of Sweedie shorts.
As 1915 began he appeared in more Sweedie shorts as well as several Chaplin shorts, again in secondary roles. It also appears that this was the first year he starred in shorts of his own, often as a henpecked husband. A Coat Tale looks to be earliest instance of him starring that year. 1916 saw him star in a series of shorts as a character named Bloggie.
The following year was when things took a major turn for him, as he joined Mack Sennett. Although he still spent a good deal of time the rest of the decade, Turpin came into his own as a star and was a huge deal by the time 1920 rolled around.
By that time, Turpin was already entering into his 50s. Even though he was older than most of his contemporaries, Turpin didn’t just rely on his face to get by. He was known, even as he got older, for his great acrobatic abilities. Most notable was his tumbling flipping fall he referred to as the 108. Throwing himself around without harming himself was something he started in vaudeville and continued in his films.
The combination of cross eyes and pratfalls had Turpin often in a buffoon type position, which was only accentuated by the positions he got put in. Sometimes he was parodying popular films of the day, like playing a bumbling sheik or an inept cowboy. Other times it was an ill-fitting profession like a lifeguard.
The formula worked. Turpin was so popular in the early 20s the shorts he starred in previously, like the Bloggie ones, were re-released to capitalize on his fame. Turpin would often proudly proclaim that he was making $3,000 a week at the height of his fame.
But some things, some by his own choice and others by unfortunate circumstance didn’t help him with continued success as the decade wore on. For one, Turpin simply didn’t make many features. This was allegedly due to him not liking the great deal of time it took to complete one feature, as opposed to many shorts. By the mid 20s, this was clearly against the grain as most other other major starts made the transition to features at some point or another. Turpin resisted and rarely did it. Married Life was the first he starred in in 1920, followed by A Small Town Idol in 1921. Following that, he starred in one more feature, The Shriek of Araby in 1923, and then would not star in another until 1928. (Note: Turpin did appear often in small roles in features during this time. This only refers to starring vehicles).
The other circumstance was the illness and later death of his wife, which came about in 1925. Most accounts state that Turpin retired at this point to take care of her, only to return after her death. It is true that Turpin announced his retirement from the screen at this time. But in actuality, Turpin films were still released. The illness only meant Turpin’s output went down–he released three starring shorts in the early half of 1925, and four in the latter part of 1926. Still, this personal tragedy did lessen the amount of work he put out.
1927 and 28 saw Turpin get back to producing a heavy amount of work, although it also meant the end of him in starring roles. Turpin never even made an attempt to star in talkie films, and in some ways that fits. By that point, he was hitting the age of 60, and he never much an interest in producing features anyway, which is what the vast majority of the films had become.
Despite retiring from starring roles, Turpin found himself a nice niche in the talkies, one which he would continue for the next decade up and until his death. As a star from days past with a distinct look, he was able to get regular work in parts or cameos in dozens of films. Sometimes it was only a quick seconds long gag, but Turpin commanded a $1,000 flat fee no matter what the length of the appearance. Already wealthy from his time as a star, this helped Turpin live even more comfortably, all the while keeping him in the public eye in fun roles.
Turpin was not only very talented and funny, but he is also one of the better stories from this era. In a period where so many struggled with sound, Turpin avoided all that. The huge star with great physical ability went out gracefully, finding a good place for himself in a changing cinematic world.
For those interested in watching Turpin, or reading more about him, there is some material. His shorts appear on some collections featuring many stars, and there’s also two dedicated just to him: Turpin Time and Ben Turpin Comedy Classics. There is also a biography titled For Art’s Sake by Steve Rydzewski.
Watch Ben Turpin in Ten Dollars or Ten Days: