El Brendel — Yust a Fearless Feller (1930) 🇺🇸
Meet El Brendel, the comedian with the riotous Swedish dialect which did not come to him by inheritance. For his father was born in Bavaria and his mother is Irish.
The delightful account of how El Brendel, that rich comedian, won big success because he simply didn’t know enough to be afraid.
by Dallas MacDonnell
Funny, when you come to think of it! If it hadn’t been for the great tragedienne, Sarah Bernhardt, the inimitable El Brendel might not have exhibited more courage than judgment at a crucial moment in his career, and the screen might have lost a delightful comedian.
At least, that’s the way we’ve got it all doped out. We spent practically all last evening adding up important facts in the case, using an adding machine when we ran out of fingers, and it all sums up like this:
After twenty-one years in vaudeville, El Brendel is here in Hollywood, and we’re glad of it; he’s making one picture after another for Fox, as fast as time and production plans permit, and the public is roaring at them. He’s the candy kid with a Swedish accent, and we don’t mean mebbe!
El had to start somewhere in his business of becoming a famous comedian, and it was at the Palace Theater in New York that he turned the trick overnight, after years in small time vaudeville.
Brendel and his wife, Flo Bert, had never played in big time vaudeville and when they saw their chance to play at the Palace it was just too good to turn down. The opportunity came when all of the recognized standard acts refused to follow Madame Bernhardt on the Palace bill during her farewell tour, realizing the hopeless difficulty of holding an audience which had just witnessed Bernhardt’s forty-seven minute act. But the pair made good in a big way. “We didn’t know enough to be afraid to try it, “ confessed El.
At the close of Madame Bernhardt’s act, the audience, which included a large delegation of French people, come to pay homage to their countrywoman, had risen to their feet, applauding. Her death scene had made them weep and now they were showering her with flowers. The actress was forced to take thirty-six curtain calls. El and Flo stood in the wings in awe, their hearts in their mouths.
When the clamor had subsided, El emerged in his Swede makeup, carrying a little flower stiffly in his hand. The audience thought the posy, intended for the “girl friend” who was late to her appointment, was the comedian’s offering to Bernhardt, and burst into laughter, their tension relieved. It broke the ice for Brendel.
For four minutes, minus music entirely, Brendel trotted anxiously up and down the stage, comically pantomiming a rube with a heavy date, striking a sympathetic chord in the audience which saved the act. Every Frenchman in the theater remained for the act which made a huge hit and was given a hearty send-off in the newspapers next day. Flo and El were overjoyed.
The Brendels’ act was the only one Bernhardt would look at on the bill, sitting in her chair to see it, with physicians and nurses at her side. The actress only recently had had her leg amputated and was firm in her belief that she might die at any time.
As a result of their success at the Palace, the Brendels got a big time engagement on the two-a-day and had fifty-six weeks in fifty-two, doubling up in some of the houses, due to their popularity. They had come a long way from $12 a week, the first salary either was paid.
Flo and El worked together for thirteen years on the vaudeville stage and in shows, and as El has been in the show business for twenty-one years, starting at the age of sixteen, and his wife for nineteen — beginning when she was eleven years old — it is plain to see that it took patience and a whole lot of hard work for them to climb the ladder as they did.
El Brendel was one of a family of seven children, and from early childhood learned to shoulder his share of the burden. His people had a little store in their home in Philadelphia and it was El’s duty to peddle milk and fresh bread around to the customers’ homes, arising daily at 4 A. M., rain, snow or shine.
El had only one pair of shoes and when they got wet he had to put them in the oven to dry before he could go to school. After school the boy would bottle milk and at 5 P. M. would start his rounds with the bread.
“I can still remember how warm that bread felt to my cold hands,” mused El.
Every spare moment he could squeeze out of the day or spare from his studying, El worked at his dancing, practicing in the cornet of a room or down cellar.
Père Brendel called it all “damnfoolishness,” but El’s mother believed in him and declared, “He’s good, my Elmer is. He’s better than those in the theater!”
El learned to do German impersonations — his father being a Bavarian — and would work out funny patter along with his dancing, determined on a stage career. The day he put on long trousers, El went to school and told the teacher that he had to go to work and couldn’t attend school any longer. He omitted the formality of notifying his parents of this change in his habits and remained away from home during school hours, going around at that time to amateur theaters to do his dance and patter and magician stunts.
When the family finally learned what the boy was doing, his father told him he must pay board if he was earning money. So at the age of sixteen. El went to work in a nickelodeon, told his crazy jokes and performed at porch parties as well, knocking pictures off the wall with his dancing.
When he was seventeen or eighteen, El went on a vaudeville circuit in the middle west, doing a German impersonation and then went with a big act. The World War was the cause of his turning Swedish in his impersonations and he has continued Swedish ever since. So far, he has been a Swede in all his pictures.
So far as he knows. El hasn’t any Swedish blood and the nearest approach to a Swede that he has ever talked to is an American of Swedish descent. His father was born in Bavaria and his mother was of Irish descent. Strange as it may seem. El looks rather German but closely resembles his blonde mother instead of his dark-complexioned father, even his features being like hers.
When El played in Minneapolis, billed as “The Poor Swede,” a manager who feared El might offend some of the Swedish customers, cautioned him to be careful. But the Swedish folk liked him so well that they called around to see him in great numbers, talking to him in Swedish, which he didn’t understand in the least. They took him for a Swede!
Eventually in his small time vaudeville playing. El met Flo Bert, who was in another act, and when the two acts merged, the two were teamed together. Before long they were teamed for life.
Although Flo is a little too plump for pictures, she did appear with El in “Happy Days,” which followed “Sunny Side Up” and “Hot for Paris.” But she is content to be a homemaker now and when El starts work in “The Oregon Trail,” Flo will be planning delicious dinners for him in their cozy duplex flat, high on a hill far from the Hollywood studios in a part of Los Angeles where you’d never think of looking for motion picture people.
Flo is a pretty brunette, a pleasing foil for her blond husband, and both of them are charming, friendly people. I’ll bet their neighbors like them.
El’s chief dissipations are baseball and prize fights. The couple love to have their friends in, but never go to whoopee parties.
All this talk about having to be a good fellow and mix with people to get along in pictures is not true,” declared El. “If you can do your sniff, that is the point.”
El wants to do better and better work, but has no desire to live in a palace and have a great deal of money, he says.
Flo is busy with piano lessons, for her own enjoyment, and often El dances at home for his own amusement. He let me in on a secret. El has no ear for music!
“Sometimes,” said El, “when I sing in pictures, I just learn the words and sing any tune I happen to think of. It usually fits in all right.”
El’s great joy is in making people laugh, in making them happy. It has always been so with the Brendels. Even when things had become rosy and prosperous with the couple, if their act failed to make an audience laugh as heartily as usual at one performance, they would steal back to their hotel room and have a good cry.
Brendel was in silent pictures for a year, in 1926, but didn’t like them. But so thoroughly have talking pictures weaned him away from the stage, that it would break his heart to have to go back to legitimate.
“Yes,” said El emphatically, “I like the talkies so well, I’d go into news reels before I’d go back to the stage!”
At the right we have Brendel as he looked in his vaudeville act which was the beginning of the road to his talkie fame. His newly acquired talkie fans are even more crazy about his antics than his old vaudevillian supporters.
Here he is at the age of three, no less. Even then he had a twinkle in his eye.
It’s not surprising that El’s act kind a knocked ‘em dead — for when you see these pictures of him as he was on the boards — you begin to realize that no matter what the talkies may be blamed for — they at least performed the great service of bringing El to the screen.
Richard Keene, Marjorie White and Brendel practice for “The Golden Calf.”
Source: Talking Screen Magazine, August 1930