Ford Sterling — Shifting from Low to High (1926) 🇺🇸
In the days when there was no orchestra to make overtures to boredom, and a nickel was really worth five cents,...
... it was pleasant to step into a nickelodeon where one might watch Charlie Murray hit Chester Conklin over the head with a majolica vase while Ford Sterling marshaled the Keystone Cops, noble fellows, preparatory to effecting a last-minute rescue. Sometimes Mack Swain was hurling Charlie Chaplin into a pail of glue; sometimes the routine became so varied as to permit Mary Thurman to crown Mabel Normand, or even Gloria Swanson, then nothing like a duchess. There were, in fact, any number of variations — about three. But of one thing you were assured: slapstick.
You were safe in anticipating riot and revelry, water chases and collapsible step ladders, apoplectic husbands, acrobatic messenger boys, rubber-legged policemen, symmetrically designed bathing girls, and breakaway sofas. You were safe in anticipating a grand mixture of all these elements. And when Ford Sterling lost his trousers in the excitement you almost fell off your seat… Those were the days!
One must say were, for they are, alas, no longer. Slapstick is not what it used to be. All the good old rough-and-tumblers have reformed. They are now acting.
Seriously. Something should be done about it.
Probably Gloria and Bebe and Betty Compson started it. DeMille elevated the first pair, and George Loane Tucker rescued Betty from the beach chorus. Then Phyllis Haver and Mae Busch and Harriett Hammond followed, growing dramatic overnight, it seemed. And almost before we knew it Charlie Murray had supported Nazimova, Chester Conklin had shaved his walrus mustache for the sake of art, and Lloyd Hamilton had tried a sober feature... The comics all began to sober up. Ford Sterling aided in making Wild Oranges one of the fine things of the year. He played in smart comedy with Florence Vidor. He played in less smart comedy with la Marquise de l' et cetera Swanson.
As one of the most riotous of erstwhile merrymakers and at once one of the best in the new order, Sterling struck me as the man to ask concerning this casting off of slapstick and bladder.
"What makes a comedian yearn to be dramatic?" I inquired, once I had tracked my prey. "Why did you, among others, ditch the ha-ha school for the ah-ha school?"
Mr. Sterling had the answer on the tip, as they say, of his tongue.
"I saw the screen succumbing to subtlety. The obvious was getting the gate. So I decided not to be one of the victims. It was time to strike out in new pastures... So I became a regular dramatic actor in King Vidor's picture of the Hergesheimer story, Wild Oranges."
Meeting Sterling, you would be surprised, I think. Not an egg stain marred his immaculately starched bosom; not so much as a rip flawed the posterior of his trousers. His old trade-mark, chin spinach, was nowhere to be seen; clean shaven he was, large of frame, and affable of manner. When we met, instead of jovially pasting me in the face with a pie, he shook my hand. And let it be anticipated, lest you fear for the happy ending, that at parting he vouchsafed me no boot in the pants. He may have been a low comedian once, but those days are over now!
"Is it hard to be serious?" an innocent bystander asked.
Mr. Sterling knew the answer to that one, too.
"There's only a hair line dividing comedy and tragedy," he pointed out. "Take the most tragic event imaginable, give it a perverse twist, and what have you? The veriest slapstick. Last night I saw The Garrick Gaieties. One skit burlesques the dramatic climax of The Green Hat. Yet little change has been made, few liberties taken. Leslie Howard himself said the other day that by overplaying the love scene just a trifle he could make it into capital travesty. Comedy is based on two sure-fire recipes — making fun of other people, or having other people make fun of you. I have been a goat comedian for years. So is Keaton. So is Chaplin. Raymond Griffith is an excellent example of a comic who gets his laughs at the expense of others. But Chaplin and Keaton suffer."
Sterling further proved his contention that serious acting and comedy were of a kidney by pointing out the fact that such dramatic stars as Mansfield, Sothern, and Barrymore all started as comedians, and retained the comic spark in many of their characterizations.
Even in his Sennett days Ford Sterling was enthusiastically engaged in amateur photography. He has kept up this hobby, and captured highest honors in this country, and abroad, at international exhibitions.
"Why don't you commercialize your fine talent for photography?" he was asked.
"Because it's my favorite hobby, and as soon as I made it a business proposition it would cease to be a hobby. I enjoy it sheerly for its own sake, photograph whom I choose, and putter around the developing room as long as I choose. There's no order to fill, no patron to suit, no hurry about the finishing. Doing it for money would rob the thing of its beauty and spoil it for me entirely."
"Now that I've signed a long-term contract with Paramount, I guess I'm slated to do legitimate comedy for keeps," he said. "I'm not sorry, either. Slapstick is all right. It's great training, and a pie in the eye is a wonderful teacher. But there's a bigger kick in doing a neat bit, and getting it across neatly, than in taking a plaster statue on the nose. Both bring laughs, and, after all, that's what the object of the game is, but the wise chuckle is harder to get than the hollow howl. And when you hear it, it sounds better, if you've tried your hand at getting both.
"I'm shifting from low to high, and I hope the going will continue to be State road all the way!"
Sterling makes one of his most recent appearances in The Trouble with Wives.
Collection: Picture Play Magazine, April 1926