PERFORMERS: LEON ERROL

Born:   July 3 1881
Died:   October 12 1951 

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2011)

Long before Barry Humphries and Paul Hogan began invading the stages and movie screens of the world, Australia’s first internationally-acclaimed comedian was the toast of Broadway and later, Hollywood. He was a rubber-legged funnyman named Leon Errol.

Born in Sydney in 1881, Leon originally planned to become a doctor but taking part in amateur theatrics while at university enticed him to change his career path dramatically. As the 20th century dawned the increasingly versatile performer built up an act touring the stages of Australia and New Zealand, at times working in a circus as clown, animal trainer and bareback rider and later even appearing in Shakespeare with a repertory company.

In 1905 he crossed the Pacific and got a job in a San Francisco beer hall, wowing the patrons with his eccentric dancing and pantomime skills. It wasn’t long before Leon was managing a burlesque troupe travelling throughout the U.S. west coast (and on occasion coaching a young Fatty Arbuckle) but the famous 1906 earthquake caused him to head to the safer environs in the mid-west and eventually across the country to New York. 

His big break came when Florenz Ziegfeld signed Errol for the 1911 edition of his annual Follies. Joining with popular Bert Williams in one celebrated sketch, Leon’s performance as a drunken major all but stopped the show. It was the start of a twenty year career on the Broadway stage as Leon Errol became one of top names on the famous thoroughfare.

The comedian became a regular in the following four Ziegfeld Follies, and along the way also starred in other productions for the famous producer … A Winsome Widow (1912), The Century Girl (1916) and the Midnight Revue – Dance and Grow Thin (1917).  He also headlined two editions of Hitchy-Koo in 1917 and 1918 and crossed the Atlantic in 1919 to appear at the London Hippodrome in a production called Joy Belle.

On his return to America, Errol spent a couple of years in vaudeville and topped the bill at the Palace before Ziegfeld lured him back with a major role in the Jerome Kern musical extravaganza Sally (with Marilyn Miller).

By the 1920s, the movie makers of Hollywood were competing with “flesh and blood” theatre for audiences and Leon (who’d already made a 2-reeler in 1916 called Nearly Spliced) was signed for a handful of features during the heyday of the silent film. One of them was an adaptation of Sally (also starring Marilyn Miller) in 1925.  

Then it was back to the footlights for Ziegfeld’s Louie the 14th (the national tour of which was interrupted when Errol managed to break both ankles during an acrobatic comedy routine on parallel bars), Yours Truly (1927) and Fioretta (1929) which saw him reunited with another Follies star, Fanny Brice.

Soon after, all of show business was caught up in the financial mess that culminated in the Wall Street crash of October 1929. Like many other top names, Leon Errol deserted Broadway and headed to Hollywood for the start of his second career … in the new-fangled talkies.  

Leon began with a major role in Paramount’s all-star Paramount on Parade (as one of the M.C.’s and in a sketch). The studio then starred him in a number of features and 2-reelers until the mid-30s, notably with Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman and Burns & Allen in We’re Not Dressing. During this period Errol also worked for Warners (Her Majesty Love, with Ziegfeld stars W.C. Fields and Marilyn Miller) and at Columbia and Universal.

Now in his fifties, Leon Errol was no longer being offered lead roles in major productions but had transformed into a sought after character player supplying comic relief throughout the storylines.

In 1934 he was signed by R.K.O. to star in a series of 2-reelers (usually as a philandering and henpecked husband). The shorts were enormously popular and in all there would be nearly ninety produced over the next two decades.

Errol also appeared in several features for the studio and one, The Girl from Mexico in 1939, became so successful it spawned a series, The Mexican Spitfire. Centred on the volatile character played by Lupe Velez, Leon was able to appear in two roles of each instalment … as the heroine’s affable Uncle Matt and his dimwitted look-a-like Lord Epping.

The plots ensured misunderstandings aplenty each time his Lordship was impersonated, and Errol’s physical antics became a major feature of the proceedings. Indeed, to moviegoers he was the real star of the pictures. (Rival studio Universal also capitalized on the pair’s popularity by signing them for the not-dissimilar Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga in 1941). After eight films R.K.O. ended the series in 1943 and a year later Lupe Velez committed suicide following a turbulent and troubled private life. 

Leon continued making his popular 2-reelers and the occasional feature, appearing again with W.C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, in Higher and Higher with Frank Sinatra and Victor Borge and with Abbott and Costello in The Noose Hangs High. He could also be found in several low budget musicals, westerns and in one of the many sequels to The Invisible Man.

In 1946, “poverty row” studio Monogram decided to revive the cartoon strip character Joe Palooka in a series of B movies. Joe Kirkwood Jr. played the boxer and Leon appeared as his manager Knobby Walsh in eight pictures until 1950. Meanwhile R.K.O. decided to re-use some of Errol’s shorts by including them in several cheaply put together features they were releasing (Variety Time, Make Mine Laughs and Footlight Varieties). As it happened, they would be the last time Leon Errol would be seen in a full length motion picture. 

By the early 1950s television was ripe for his popular short subject character to transfer to a weekly sitcom, but fate decreed otherwise. In October 1951, just three months after his 70th birthday, Leon Errol suffered a heart attack and died.

 

Films

The MEXICAN SPITFIRE series (R.K.O.)
1939    The Girl from Mexico
            Mexican Spitfire
1940    Mexican Spitfire out West
1941    Mexican Spitfire’s Baby
1942    Mexican Spitfire at Sea
            Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost
            Mexican Spitfire’s Elephant
1943    Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event 

The JOE PALOOKA series (Monogram)
1946    Joe Palooka, Champ
            Gentleman Joe Palooka
1947    Joe Palooka in the Knockout
1948    Fighting Mad
1949    Joe Palooka in the Big Fight
            Joe Palooka in the Counterpunch
1950    Joe Palooka Meets Humphrey 
             Joe Palooka in Humphrey Takes a Chance

The R.K.O. 2-reelers
1934    Autobuyography
            Fixing a Stew
1935    Hit and Run
            Salesmanship Ahoy
            Home Work
            Counselitis
1936    Down the Ribber
            Wholesailing Along
            One Live Ghost
1937    Wrong Romance
            Should Wives Work?
            A Rented Riot
1938    Dummy Owner
            His Pest Friend
            Berth Quakes
            The Jitters
            Stage Fright
            Major Difficulties
1939    Crime Rave
            Home Boner
            Moving Vanities
            Ring Madness
            Wrong Room
            Truth Aches
1940    Scrappily Married
            Bested by a Beard
            He Asked for It
            Tattle Television
1941    The Fired Man
            When Wifie’s Away
            A Polo Phony
            A Panic in the Parlor
            Man I Cured
            Who’s a Dummy?
1942    Home Work
            Wedded Blitz
            Framing Father
            Mail Trouble
            Dear! Deer!
            Pretty Dolly
1943    Double Up
            Gem Jams
            Radio Runaround
            Seeing Nellie Home
            Cutie on Duty
            Wedtime Stories
1944    Say Uncle
            Poppa Knows Worst
            Girls, Girls, Girls
            Triple Trouble
            He Forgot to Remember
1945    Birthday Blues
            Let’s Go Stepping
            It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog
            Double Honeymoon
            Beware of Redheads
1946    Maid Trouble
            Oh, Professor, Behave
            Twin Husbands
            I’ll Take Milk
            Follow That Blonde
1947    Borrowed Blonde
            Wife Tames Wolf
            In Room 303
            Hired Husband
            Blondes Away
            The Spook Speaks
1948    Bet Your Life
            Don’t Fool Your Wife
            Secretary Trouble
            Bachelor Blues
            Uninvited Blonde
            Backstage Follies
1949    Dad Always Pays
            Cactus Cut-Up
            I Can’t Remember
            Oil’s Well That Ends Well
            Sweet Cheat
            Shocking Affair
1950    High and Dizzy
            Texas Tough Guy
            Spooky Wooky
1951    Chinatown Chump
            Punchy Pancho
            One Wild Night
            Deal Me In
            Lord Epping Returns
            Too Many Wives

Other film appearances
1916    Nearly Spliced (silent 2 reel short)
1924    Yolanda (silent)
1925    Sally (silent)
            Clothes Make the Pirate (silent)
1927    The Lunatic at Large (silent)
1930    Paramount on Parade
            Only Saps Work
            One Heavenly Night
1931    Finn and Hattie
            Her Majesty, Love
            How I play Golf: The Mashie Niblick (Bobby Jones golf short)
1933    Alice in Wonderland
            Poor Fish (2-reel short)
            Three Little Swigs (2-reel short)
            Hold Your Temper (2-reel short)
1934    No More Bridge (2-reel short)
            We’re Not Dressing
            Service with a Smile (2-reel short)
           
Good Morning, Eve (2-reel short)
            The Notorious Sophie Lang
            The Captain Hates the Sea
            Perfectly Mismated (2-reel short)
            One Too Many (2-reel short)
1935    Princess O’Hara
            Coronado
            Honeymoon Bridge (2-reel short)
1937    Make a Wish
1939    Career
            Dancing Co-ed
1940    Pop Always Pays
            The Golden Fleecing
1941    Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga
            Where Did You Get That Girl?
            Hurry, Charlie, Hurry
            Moonlight in Hawaii
            Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
            Melody Lane
1943    Strictly in the Groove
            Cowboy in Manhattan
            Follow the Band
            Gals, Inc.
            Higher and Higher
            A Family Feud (U.S. Government short)
1944    Slightly Terrific
            The Invisible Man’s Revenge
            Twilight on the Prairie
            Babes on Wing Street
            Prices Unlimited (U.S. Government short)
1945    She Gets Her Man
            Under Western Skies
            What a Blonde
            Mamma Loves Papa
1946    Riverboat Rhythm
1948    The Noose Hangs High
            Variety Time (incl. short Hired Husband)
1949    Make Mine Laughs (incl. short Beware of Redheads)
1951    Footlight Varieties (incl. short He Forgot to Remember)

 

DVDs

ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Universal DVD

WE’RE NOT DRESSING
(part of CAROLE LOMBARD: THE GLAMOR COLLECTION and THE BING CROSBY COLLECTION)
Universal DVD sets

MAKE A WISH + LET’S SING AGAIN
DVD

DANCING CO-ED
Warner Home Video DVD

NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK
(part of W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION – volume 2)
Universal DVD set

THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE
(part of THE INVISIBLE MAN: THE LEGACY COLLECTION)
Universal DVD set

HIGHER AND HIGHER
Warner Home Video DVD

THE NOOSE HANGS HIGH
MGM DVD

VITAPHONE CAVALCADE OF MUSICAL COMEDY SHORTS
Warners 6-DVD set (2010)
disc 5: IN TECHNICOLOR! – Musical Comedy 2-Reelers (1934 – 1935)
includes the Leon Errol shorts
Service with a Smile (1934)
Good Morning, Eve (1934)

LEON ERROL TWO-REELER COMEDY COLLECTION
VCI DVD (2003)
includes
Twin Husbands (1946)
Pretty Dolly (1942)
Bet Your Life (1948)
Oil’s Well That Ends Well (1949)
Lord Epping Returns (1951)
Dummy Owner (1938)
His Pest Friend (1938)
Bested By a Beard (1940)
Man I Cured (1941)
Framing Father (1942)

LEON ERROL: HENPECKED TWO-REELERS
DVD
includes
Twin Husbands (1946)
Dear! Deer! (1942)
Beware of Redheads (1945)
Sweet Cheat (1949)

(DEAR! DEER! may also be found on Alpha DVD 5033) 

 

Recording

STARS OF THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES
Pelican LP-102
features Baby (with Marilyn Miller) from Her Majesty, Love (1931)

 

Television

Leon guest-starred on

THE ED WYNN SHOW
CBS February 4 1950 (30 min)

 

Books

chapters on Leon Errol will be found in the following …

THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS
by Leonard Maltin (Bonanza Books, New York, 1972)

THE FUNSTERS
by James Robert Parrish and William T. Leonard (Arlington House, New Rochelle, 1979)

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