Ben Turpin: A chat with his biographer, Steve Rydzewski

It’s really up to us, all of us wonderful people out there in the dark, to keep silent films and the talented group of professionals who made them alive. I give a bow of thanks to Steve Rydzewski for returning Ben Turpin to the spotlight in his new book, For Art’s Sake: The Biography & Filmography of Ben Turpin.

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Steve brings the cross-eyed comic into focus and entertains us with hundreds of photographs. Add a copy to your bookshelf.

After reading For Art’s Sake over the summer, I got in touch with Steve with some questions I had about his interest in Ben and the 40-plus years of research he put into his project.

Michael:  Your interest in Ben Turpin goes back to when you were 12 years old. How did you become interested in Ben and how did your interest grow into fascination?

Steve: I grew up on Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. I even wanted to be an animator when I’d grow older. But one Sunday morning in 1969 when I was twelve, I started watching an old program called The Funny Manns that showed clips of forgotten silent comedians. It was the same jumpy music as the cartoons, same sound effects, the wild movement, exaggerated characters, and the laughs. I don’t think I knew any of the actors at that time but later found out it included Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Billy Bevan, Mickey Rooney, and others. Out of all of them I enjoyed Ben the best in clips from Yukon Jake and The Dare-Devil. It actually took me a while to put Ben Turpin’s name to his face! Once I did I started collecting 8 and 16mm films, or whatever gauge if I didn’t have a particular title. Then I learned of some Hollywood bookshops where I could buy stills, lobbycards, and anything else if I could save up for it.

Then when I wanted to read up on Turpin, I couldn’t find hardly anything on him. That’s when all my searching began, seeking out every published article and interview that’s taken years to accumulate. I’m still searching!

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Michael:  What’s the story about Ben’s crossed eyes?  Was he born cross-eyed? Or did he cross them so much as a kid that they stuck?

Steve: No, Ben wasn’t born cross-eyed. After three years of crossing his eyes playing comic strip hero Happy Hooligan on stage, multiple times a day, it stuck. Clowning his eyes was a popular part of the act. Today’s eye specialists may say impossible, but Ben insisted he awoke one morning with his right eye stuck inward. He was about 34 at the time.

Michael:  Ben’s comedic routines were very taxing on his body, weren’t they? Tells us a bit about the falls that he perfected for the camera.  Did the strain he put on his body have a lasting impact on him?

Steve: Physical comedy is rough comedy, yes. Turpin had been an eccentric dancer and furious tumbler on stage. He was young and healthy in the 1890’s, and almost 40 when he entered the movies with Essanay in 1907. He continued doing falls his whole life.

The one he’s most famous for was his 108 (Ben’s best one of his eight different falls). It’s a rapid tumble that starts in a standing position, you go into a forward – still standing – somersault, and fall on your ass, back, or head. I’m sure Turpin had his share bangs, bruises, and ointment.

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Michael: How many of Ben’s films still exist and are available for viewing?

Steve: There are about 122 of Turpin’s films still around. That includes all his small cameos, and starring appearances, complete and incomplete. About 25% of those titles are in archives, the rest are in circulation on DVD or VHS from various sources.

Michael:  What are your favorite Ben Turpin films?

Steve: My favorites are probably Yukon Jake (1924), Ten Dollars or Ten Days (1924), The Dare-Devil (1923), Our Wife (1931) with Laurel and Hardy, Ben’s early Vogue Doctoring A Leak (1916), his later short for Weiss Brothers Holding His Own (1929)… I like ’em all!

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Michael:  Is For Art’s Sake your first book?  What is your next project?

Steve: Yes, this is my first attempt. And no, there’s nothing else on paper or in mind. I did contribute a few things to the soon-to-be released biography of comedian, Larry Semon, by author Claudia Sassen. Another forgotten talent finally getting his due.

Michael: How much cooperation did you get from Ben’s family?

Steve: Ben’s family? For years I spent time trying to locate his descendants with no luck. Two years prior to the book’s printing, I at last found a relative, Ben’s grand-nephew, in Florida, Richard Knies. He was one of my several motivators to finish the book! Although just child at the time, Richard told me a few things that I quoted in the book.

Michael: Most comedians are very different in their personal lives as compared to their screen persona. How was Ben in his personal life?  Was he a joker?

Steve: Everyone often said that Ben was quiet and humble off-screen and many people thought him “genuine.” When he’s the center of attention, he can turn it on. And was he a joker, off the stage? Definitely!

Michael:  Ben’s story is really a success story, isn’t it? He did what he loved, made a lot of money, and kept his sanity until the end.  How did he make a success in Hollywood and remain virtually unchanged in his personal life?

Steve: Yes, it was a rags to riches story. And it couldn’t of happened to a better guy. Ben learned a lot during his early, long and lean years. He loved traveling, loved acting, and stayed happy till the very end. Perhaps his financial success so late in life, after years of living from paycheck-to-paycheck, taught him something about money.

Mr. and Mrs. Ben Turpin

Mr. and Mrs. Ben Turpin

Michael: Ben always credited Charlie Chaplin with his break into films.  How did they meet and how did Charlie help?

Steve: Yes, Turpin often acknowledged Chaplin for giving him that big break. Turpin met Chaplin when Charlie was casting for players for his first Essanay comedy, His New Job, in early January 1915. Ben impressed Charlie. They took a liking to each other, both on and off the screen, and Chaplin’s shorts were big hits. Turpin was grateful that Charlie asked him out to California. Ben’s appearances in Chaplin’s comedies also attracted attention and things only got better for Turpin.

Ben claimed Chaplin was a demanding director, but soon realized why he was such a perfectionist. Turpin later admitted he learned about delayed action and reaction, timing, and expression from Charlie. Surely there were others, but Ben’s big break was best.

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Michael:  Ben was already 48 when he joined Mack Sennett in 1917. By 1926, he was bringing in $3,000 a week from Sennett. What did he do with his money?  Did he live the extravagant lifestyle of 1920s Hollywood?

Steve: Ben was a better saver than a big spender. He enjoyed real estate and invested a lot in residential and commercial properties. For a while he was one of the top dogs in Hollywood! But no, he didn’t live the Hollywood lifestyle. Maybe if he were a younger man, or if he were single. But by the 1920’s and in his fifties, he settled for a more quiet lifestyle.

Michael: During your research for For Art’s Sake, what did you learn about Ben that surprised you?

Steve: For the life of me, after reading and re-reading the Turpin manuscript so many times, I forget the surprises! I’m sure there were many things that at first amazed, later only fazed, and obviously faded from me! But there’s some interesting little things in there that still make me laugh.

Michael:  What is the one question you would ask Ben if you could have met him during the writing of For Art’s Sake?

Steve: “Ben, can we go through your life and career from the beginning?”

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