Sparks, Horton, Armetta — The Picture-Savers (1935) 🇺🇸

Henry Armetta |

December 31, 2021

Three merrymen of Hollywood who receive an ovation when they appear on the screen anywhere.

by Patricia Keats

Who shakes you out of the arms of Morpheus? Who rouses you from somnolence just as your head is sinking heavily on the shoulder of a fair female? Who-ooo, I wonder who-ooo? Gee, it’s been many a winter since we used to lilt over the Manhattan night club floors to the strains of the famous who-ooo song and hide our bottles under the tables mercy me, how Pippa passes.) Well, as I was saying before I began to reminisce, who can drag you out of the last stages of beddy-bye slumber and make you go ha-ha-ha?

Of course, I don’t have to tell you, my bright public, you know already. None other than the Messieurs Sparks, Horton and Armetta. As a constant picture-goer, and I am constant in my own vague way, I have seen many a picture simply dying on its feet like a party where the guests won’t mingle, when suddenly in the fifth reel enters Mr. Sparks, or Mr. Horton, or Mr. Armetta and a ripple of joyous expectation sweeps over the entire theatre.

Everybody wakes up and sits up, and another dull picture is saved. The suffocating British in the Black Hole of Calcutta never welcomed those rescuers so much as a bored audience in the black depths of the Roxy welcomes those three picture-savers, Sparks and Horton and Armetta.

After seeing Mr. Horton save “The Biography of a Bachelor Girl’’ one night recently, and Mr. Sparks and Mr. Armetta accomplish similar feats for their current pictures, I began to wonder about picture-savers. What do they do when they’re not saving pictures? What is their home life? Their sex life? Their ambitions? And, incurable fan that I am, are they as funny off the screen as they are on? So, I put my fascinator about my shoulders, and rushed out into the chilled afternoon air to investigate picture-savers.

Ned Sparks I found in his apartment in the Château Something or Other high in the Hollywood hills. Minna Gombell lives above him and Una O’Connor lives next door and he could easily ask the girls in for a round of rummy, but I don’t think Mr. Sparks’ present design for living includes women, no matter how charming. Of course, Mr. Sparks didn’t say so, and of course I didn’t ask him, me being a lady more or less, but I kinda gathered that he had sort of soured on the female race, and I vaguely recalled a picture I had seen of him in a Los Angeles newspaper, a year or so ago, accompanied by a feminine portrait and a little item about alimony. Alimony can sour a man quicker than lemons.

But what Ned Sparks did tell me was that he didn’t see why I was interested in his private life, so I just said, “Oh, Mr. Sparks, I bet you say that to all the girls,” and proceeded to enjoy myself as best I could with a man who didn’t laugh for the entire half hour I spent with him... He looks and talks the very same he does on the screen, the same sourpuss of a pan, the same staccato delivery, and I had but to close my eyes to imagine that we were doing a scene from “Imitation of Life” and he was telling me, “Well, do I get my pancakes? That other guy got a hundred thousand dollars.” But then I realized that I’m not Claudette Colbert, not in my old beaver and my twenty pounds overweight.

Ned Sparks was born in Guelph, Ontario, a devoted son of a devoted mother. He tried all kinds of small town occupations but couldn’t get particularly interested in any of them, so he lit out for Dawson City. Alaska, to make his fortune. But he was bitten by a thespian bug, instead of a gold bug, and he made his way from Dawson City to Colorado playing in every little honkytonk along the route. Then, with a theatrical troupe, he started barnstorming the Middle West and claims that he discovered villages that even the Indians had overlooked. In fact he played in everything from a hayloft to an opery house. Somehow or other he got to New York where he played the lead in “Little Miss Brown” with Madge Kennedy, was acclaimed by critics, and in the next few years appeared in thirteen good Broadway plays. He met Constance Talmadge and was urged by her to take a chance at moving pictures, so he made five pictures in New York with Connie as his leading lady. Ten years ago he came to Hollywood, and as a comedian has been saving pictures ever since.

Ned Sparks’ hobby, in fact his grande passion, is hunting and fishing. Whenever he isn’t working he can be found deep in the woods or high in the mountains hunting and fishing- and roughing it to his heart’s content, He feels very close to the soil and his ambition is to make enough money so he can retire and go back to the soil — but not behind a plough — with a pretty cow and a lot of frisky dogs. He has his eye on a tract of land in Canada, near where he was born, where there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of timber land. So every time you laugh Ned Sparks is getting nearer and nearer to the soil.

He reads a lot, particularly books on government, finance, exploration and mystery stories. He considers acting a business and himself a business man. He doesn’t go to Hollywood parties or night clubs but he does relish a good stag party occasionally. The great love of his life is Betsy Ann, a three-year-old Boston bull, who is about the most intelligent dog I ever met up with. Betsy has a miniature bed with pillows and sheets and blankets right at the foot of her master’s bed. Betsy, he says, is his best friend and severest critic.

I met Edward Everett Horton for cocktails at the Vendome and the hour I spent with him will go down in my own private history as one of the gayest hours of my life. Mr. Horton, unlike Mr. Sparks, laughs continuously and simply explodes with enthusiasm about everything from lamb chops to a Dürer etching he has just purchased. I hadn’t met with such joie de vivre since, well before the Black Watch of October 1929, and I must say it certainly warmed the cockles of my heart to see a person get so much joy out of living. His enthusiasm is so genuine and so infectious that soon I was giggling like an ingenue, and I realized that he has only to be himself on the screen to save any picture from dull oblivion.

Between laughs I learned that the pride of the Hortons was born and brought up in New York, the son of a former city editor of the New York Times.

He developed a flair for footlights early in life, and after several successes in the East came to the Coast to appear in legitimate plays — that was sixteen years ago — but he was soon won over by the illegitimate movies. His first big talking picture success was “Reaching for the Moon,” which picture, I am told, he stole so completely at the preview that it had to be re-cut, for, after all, it was Douglas Fairbanks’ picture.

His biggest enthusiasm right now is for his ranch out in the Valley, near Encino. An Easterner always thinks of a ranch as acres and acres of land where cowboys round up cattle and hold rodeos. But a ranch in California can be anything from a gas station to Pickfair. But Mr. Horton’s ranch, which would be a farm if it were back East, consists of about ten acres of every kind of tree that grows in southern California and a house that is really something to admire. He calls it his picture house, for, after each big picture, he builds another room. The Merry Widow room is a knockout, and the “Design for Living” room is an eye-opener — the bar, the closets, the halls, etc., are all named after pictures which paid Mr. Horton for saving them. He keeps forty-three workmen on bis ranch, so no one can accuse him of chiseling on the NRA.

He’s very proud of his fruit trees, which are kept in excellent condition, naturally, by bis forty-three retainers.

He never picks the fruit, 0or permits anyone else to pick it. He likes to see it on the trees. He buys other peoples’ fruit for his table. About three years ago there was a light snow in the Valley, and that year Mr. Horton’s cherry trees bore fruit for the first time, and his enthusiastic recital of how he bought netting for the trees to keep the birds off, and the money he spent to preserve his cherries, is one of the funniest and most fascinating tales you have ever heard, but only when he tells it.

Soon after Mr, Horton started building his house he looked out of his front windows one morning and was surprised to find a Russian mosque practically in his orange grove. He discovered that RKO had the adjoining ranch, and nothing can surprise him now. Mr. Horton’s hobby, next to his trees, is antiques. Not the kind that’s found in department stores, but the kind that’s found in queer little out of the way shops.

His home, I am told, is the most beautifully and tastefully furnished home out here. Edward Everett Horton is rather a sociable fellow and likes people and likes to have them like him. He goes to parties and he gives parties, though he is rather exclusive about his friends. He particularly likes Ruth ChattertonGenevieve Tobin and Maurice Chevalier. He  isn’t married. He wants to go to New York this spring, and do a play, but he has already signed up for enough pictures to keep him busy well into June. These Hollywood producers are no fools, they know a good picture saver when they meet one out.

Henry Armetta, the third of my merry gentlemen, was waiting for me at the Universal studio where he is under contract, and at his invitation we surrounded two huge chocolate ice cream sodas. A huge chocolate ice cream soda is sort of symbolical of Mr. Armetta’s life.

Years ago, when he was a struggling young Italian boy in New York City, walking the streets day after day looking for a job, he discovered, one afternoon, a filthy little soft drink stand in lower Manhattan where one might purchase a chocolate ice cream soda for two cents. It was just a tiny little soda, but Armetta would lap it up and say to himself, “Someday I shall be reech-a man, and I shall buy beeg-a soda.” So now Henry Armetta never misses a chance to buy a beeg-a soda, but with sort of a mournful shake of his head he will tell you that it doesn’t taste so good as the two cent sodas did in his boyhood.

Of the three picture-savers, Armetta has had the most exciting life, has gone in for more extremes. He was born in Palermo, Italy, and like a lot of Italian boys longed for a life at sea. When he was fourteen he ran away from home and became a stowaway on a boat bound for Boston. He was arrested when he landed and thrown into jail, but an Italian barber, who had once been a stowaway himself, guaranteed to give the boy a home and work if the police would release him. So young Armetta learned to lather customers.

After that he went in for truck driving, railroading, and just any odd jobs he could get until one lucky day he landed a job as barber in the Lambs’ Club in New York, which is the leading actors’ club in America. He became the friend of many of the actors who visited the shop daily, and one, particularly, the famous Raymond Hitchcock, attracted by Armetta’s jovial disposition and the funny little twists to his head and shoulders, offered Henry a job in his show. This was the beginning of a great friendship — and of three years in Hitchcock shows.

Armetta was well launched then on his theatrical career. He sent for his cousin in Palermo, Italy, and married her. Then the downhill came, and with it the Armettas came to Hollywood. Christmas Eve of 1925 stands out as the happiest time in Armetta’s life. He and his wife were dead broke, and so, weeks before Christmas, they started painting the few toys their children already had, hoping to camouflage them so they wouldn’t lose their faith in Santa Claus.

Then, three days before Christmas, Armetta, who hadn’t been able to get a job in months, was given a small role in DeMille’s “King of Kings” and was paid on Christmas Eve the grand sum of forty-five dollars. It was a princely fortune. Armetta, hysterical with joy, rushed to the ten cent store for toys, to the market for his turkey and his vino, and carried across his shoulders for two miles a beautiful Christmas Tree he had bought on Vine Street. He has never been so happy since.

Henry Armetta is the Family Type. He is utterly devoted to his wife and his three children — Johnny, who is sixteen and goes to Beverly Hills high school, and Louis and Rosalie, his eleven-year-old twins. Where one Armetta goes, five Armettas go. Rosalie gives perfect imitations of her father. They never miss one of his pictures and they think he’s tops. Mr. Armetta’s hobby is cooking spaghetti and barbecue. He has a huge barbecue oven in his backyard and ever so often throws a barbecue party with spaghetti on the side. "Uncle Carl" Laemmle was his guest recently at a barbecue party and assured Armetta that he could cook almost as well as he can act.

They are three swell guys, Sparks and Horton and Armetta, each as different from the other as North is from South, or as Gish is from West. I watch for them in pictures as carefully as I watch for the postman around the fifteenth of the month. (Pay day, you dope) And I guess, by now, you’ve got the general idea that I share the public crush on Sparks, Horton and Armetta.

Edward Everett Horton. He is a bachelor and loves to give parties.

Ned Sparks, dour old cynic, has the most cheering melancholy manner. You feel better just looking at him.

Henry Armetta has a wife and family and his winning smile is quite genuine. Life is very good for the Armettas.

Source: Silverscreen MagazineMarch 1935