Biography: Sidney Toler

Biography: Richard Lane

Biography: Tom Kennedy

Biography: Bob Bailey


Some of Laurel & Hardy’s co-stars were often associated with a single type of character part: Jack Norton usually played drunks, Eric Blore servants, Charles Middleton villains, and so on. Character actor Sidney Toler made dozens of films over 17 years, but he is generally identified with his most famous role: “Charlie Chan.” When Warner Oland, who personified the wily Oriental detective in films, died in 1938, 20th Century-Fox scoured the casting directories for a suitable replacement. Amid much publicity the studio settled on a relatively obscure background player named Sidney Toler, and the “Charlie Chan” mysteries made him a star.

Sidney Toler was born in Warrensburg, Missouri on April 28, 1874. A graduate of the University of Kansas, he played prominent roles in popular plays of the day, including “Lulu Belle” and “Canary Dutch.” He also wrote one play, “Belle of Richmond.”

He entered films at the dawn of sound, in 1929’s Madame X. Toler’s stock-in-trade was resigned grumpiness, which he often used for comic effect. In Speak Easily (1932), stage manager Toler’s reactions to the Buster Keaton-Jimmy Durante antics around him are very funny. (Not all of Toler’s roles were this prominent; he’s a crowd extra in The Marx Brothers’ 1933 film Duck Soup.)

Laurel & Hardy’s Our Relations gave Toler the reasonably good role of the grouchy captain of the boys’ ship (“And don’t call me Cappy!”). Toler was a dependable character player but he didn’t make a great impression on audiences until he became “Charlie Chan.”

Sol Wurtzel, who later produced most of Laurel & Hardy’s wartime films, had been making the Chan mysteries steadily until star Warner Oland passed away and “Number One Son” Keye Luke bowed out. Wurtzel wanted to keep the series going, but he was typically cautious about Sidney Toler; he tried the actor for a single picture before committing to a series. Toler caught on immediately, and he continued in the role almost exclusively for the rest of his career. When Fox discontinued the series in 1942, Toler returned to character work but his Oriental portrayals now found him cast as an ethnic type in exotic settings, and these were only supporting roles.

The 68-year-old actor, evidently recognizing that his only chance for starring roles would be as Charlie Chan, bought the screen rights to the character himself. He tried to interest Fox in a deal in which he would produce the films and Fox would release them. This might have worked a few years later, when independent producers had more chances for releasing outlets with major studios, but in 1943 Fox said no — not surprising since the Chan boxoffice receipts were slumping anyway, and Fox had already written off the series.

Toler approached various producers, trying to revive the Charlie Chan property. Philip N. Krasne, a prominent Hollywood attorney who often invested in motion picture productions, was receptive to Toler’s pitch, and with financing assured Toler found a berth at Monogram Pictures. Monogram was a “budget” studio without too many star attractions, and considered landing Toler and Charlie Chan a great coup. This proven property would open doors for Monogram: theater managers who ordinarily wouldn’t go near Monogram product took a chance on the new Chan series. To Monogram’s credit, the studio hired major-name supporting actors to give the productions some stature, and Charlie Chan’s return was welcomed by moviegoers.

Sidney Toler’s “Chan” was less placid and more acid than his predecessor, and his annoyed remarks to Numbers Two, Three, or Four Sons, and to “Birmingham, the chauffeur” show Toler as his delightfully grumpy best. He also took part in the comic moments of the Chans, notably the finale of Dark Alibi, in which Mantan Moreland and Ben Carter do their “incomplete sentence” act and Toler joins in! Toler’s last non-Chan role was in the Fred Allen–Jack Benny comedy It’s in the Bag (1945), and even this had Toler good-naturedly kidding his meal ticket: he’s a sour plainclothes detective who occasionally speaks without prepositions, like “Mr. Chan” himself!

At a time in life when many actors would be idle and in quiet retirement, Sidney Toler was in his seventies, making three Charlie Chan features a year for Monogram. In 1946, diagnosed with cancer, Toler filmed two Chan features in increasing pain. To minimize the demands on Toler, Monogram hired Victor Sen Young, his Number Two Son from Fox. Young and Mantan Moreland carry much of the action in Toler’s last few films. Like Warner Oland, Sidney Toler died in professional harness; now gravely ill, Toler was positively heroic in his determination to complete one more film, The Trap, before the illness took his life at the age of 73.

When today’s audiences see Sidney Toler in Our Relations, they usually recognize “Charlie Chan.” His scenes with Laurel & Hardy made for some amusing comedy. If only 20th Century-Fox had used Sidney Toler in a Laurel & Hardy movie — or Laurel & Hardy in a Sidney Toler movie!

Copyright © 2016 by Scott MacGillivray.


Richard Lane’s screen portrayals exuded confidence. He had a snappy answer for everything and everybody, and his assured manner gave him a wide range of roles, from slick con men to harried professionals to crafty detectives. He also displayed a flair for comedy. He appears in two Laurel & Hardy features: A-Haunting We Will Go (as a dapper con artist) and The Bullfighters (as a know-it-all press agent).

Richard Lane was born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin on May 28, 1899. He was a stage-struck kid who loved to perform, and for two decades he worked in vaudeville and stock companies. On the musical stage Lane appeared with Al Jolson in “Big Boy,” and in “George White’s Scandals.” Lane’s stage endeavors led to a career in the movies. He made his film debut in 1936, at Vitaphone’s New York studio, working in short subjects with Bob Hope and with Shemp Howard; he also worked opposite newcomer Danny Kaye at New York’s Educational studio.

Hollywood beckoned, and practically every studio in town featured Richard Lane. Some of his more familiar credits include Charlie Chan in Honolulu, Bringing Up Baby, Union Pacific, Time Out for Rhythm (one of his few romantic roles), and Hellzapoppin. The amazingly prolific Lane typically averaged one film appearance per month, and during one six-month period Dick Lane appeared in 29 feature films. Equally amazing is that Lane never saw most of his screen performances — he was just too busy! As he told author James Curtis, “I make ‘em, I don’t have to look at ‘em.”

In addition to his show-business jobs, Lane was an astute businessman with several irons in the fire: he was involved in the manufacture of tools, tires, and venetian blinds; he was interested in modern methods of agriculture; and he wrote and produced a twice-weekly sports program for radio.

Lane’s most familiar screen role was “Inspector Farraday” opposite Chester Morris in Columbia’s breezy “Boston Blackie” mysteries. (He also appeared in the “Blackie” radio series.) Lane was so well established in these “B” features that Columbia gave him other projects. In 1945 producer Jules White paired him with another vaudevillian turned screen actor, Gus Schilling. Gus and Dick clicked as a team, and their series of amusing two-reel comedies lasted five years (and several years more in reissue). Columbia finally gave Lane a feature-film lead in 1948. He played two-fisted “Captain Biff Brown” in the maritime melodrama Devil Ship. The studio was wrapping up its various film series at the time, so “Biff Brown” had only one voyage to his credit.

Toward the end of the 1940s the largest Hollywood studios economized, making fewer pictures. Lane, like many established character actors, turned to the smaller, independent studios for gainful employment. He received excellent notices for his sympathetic portrayal of a down-on-his-luck Kentucky colonel in Lippert’s Everybody’s Dancin’. One of his best roles from this period was in the Allied Artists musical There’s a Girl in My Heart, in which Lane plays a singing police sergeant of 1899!

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a gradual shift from “B” movie production to television activity. Dick Lane was the one of the first Hollywood actors to seize the new opportunity, having appeared in experimental broadcasts for station KTLA in 1942. His smooth patter was perfect for newscasts and commercials, and he became adept at doing live broadcasts. A staple of early TV was wrestling, broadcast from a local arena. Ringside announcer Dick Lane wasn’t a student of wrestling, but he handled the assignment with his usual resourcefulness. He improvised some exotic-sounding holds (like “the Boston land-crab” and the “lie-flat Kelly”) and bulled his way through the broadcasts. Sports fans ate it up, and the enthusiastic Lane remained a television personality for almost three decades. (Sportscaster Keith Jackson’s familiar cry of “Whoa Nellie!” was originated by Dick Lane almost 70 years ago.)

Lane’s last movie credit was a cameo appearance in Carl Reiner’s 1978 feature film The One and Only. Naturally enough, the film’s subject was professional wrestling. Richard Lane died on September 5, 1982, at the age of 83.

Whenever you see a glib, worldly guy in an old movie, it’s probably Dick Lane. His professionalism always comes through.

Copyright © 2016 by Scott MacGillivray.


Tom Kennedy was one of Hollywood’s reliable laugh-getters. Brian Anthony and Andy Edmonds, in their biography of Charley Chase, reveal that Tom Kennedy was not the brother or half-brother of comedian Edgar Kennedy. But Tom had the same slow fuse as Edgar, and could portray the same kind of comic frustration. A 1938 Columbia two-reeler directed by Chase, Halfway to Hollywood, stars Tom Kennedy but plays exactly like an Edgar Kennedy sitcom.

Tom was born in New York City on July 15, 1884, and enjoyed some success as a prizefighter. Producer Mack Sennett, another tough Irishman with a sense of humor, hired him in 1915 as a foil for the roughhouse Keystone comedians. Kennedy’s basic training at Keystone established him in pictures, and by the early 1920s he was working for Sennett’s leading rival, Hal Roach, in Snub Pollard comedies. (Footage of Kennedy with Pollard appears in the Robert Youngson compilation The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy.)

He first appeared with Laurel & Hardy in 1929 (in Liberty, as a policeman), and he was memorable in Pack Up Your Troubles (as a recruiting sergeant) and Hollywood Party (as an uncooperative butler).

It was with the coming of sound that Tom Kennedy’s talents became more pronounced. His burly frame and battered face suggested menace but his voice had more of a pout than a snarl, so he often played good-natured guys whose patience (and intelligence) would be tested by the crazy doings of his co-stars. The comedy often sprang from Kennedy’s bemused reactions. He was equally effective playing policemen, cab drivers, bartenders, moving men, and various “working stiffs.” He worked with many comedy stars: W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Leon Errol, Clark & McCullough, and Edgar Kennedy, and he was repeatedly cast in Monogram’s “Jiggs and Maggie” and “Bowery Boys” comedies, and RKO’s “Mexican Spitfire” farces. Tom Kennedy had very few leads in features, but little films like Petticoat Larceny (featuring Tom as an inept burglar with a heart of gold) benefited from the expertise of the veteran comic.

A glimpse of the real Tom Kennedy can be seen in Warner Brothers’ annual gag reels (Breakdowns of 1937, Breakdowns of 1938, etc.). These were shown annually at the staff Christmas parties, and the reels consisted entirely of out-takes from Warners’ productions, with actors forgetting their lines or fumbling with props. Tom Kennedy appears again and again in one of the reels, constantly struggling with his dialogue until it becomes too much for him. On one occasion he doesn’t even seem to know what scene he’s in! What looks like dumbness seems to simply have been his unwillingness to bother with details. Apparently it didn’t make much difference to him: he just did what he was told and took things in stride.

Tom Kennedy was a charter member of Columbia’s short-subject department, and even shared a starring series with Monty Collins. Both Collins and Kennedy were seasoned comics, but neither was dynamic enough to become a household word among movie fans. The series ended in 1938, but many of the Collins & Kennedy shorts were remade or reissued in later years; one of them returned to theaters as late as 1957.

Producer Jules White continued to cast Tom Kennedy opposite many of Columbia’s comedy stars. At one time or another Tom Kennedy was paired with Johnny Arthur, El Brendel, and Shemp Howard, and he supported The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde, Harry Von Zell, Bert Wheeler, and Joe Besser. Kennedy was still working in comedy shorts in 1953, still taking pratfalls and pies in the face at the age of 69. One of his last two-reelers, Spooks!, is also one of his most familiar: Tom Kennedy may well be the only Keystone-era comedian who was filmed in 3-D!

Kennedy made his home in Woodland Hills, California, where many screen veterans spent their retirement years. But he was so familiar to movie audiences that producers continued to hire him for movie and television appearances. He was cast as a policeman in Stanley Kramer’s all-star comedy colossus It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and joined a dozen familiar faces from bygone days in Alex Gordon’s western The Bounty Killer. The Gordon film was his last role; cancer claimed Tom Kennedy’s life on October 6, 1965. He was 81.

It’s too bad Tom Kennedy didn’t have more opportunities to work with Laurel & Hardy, but his three appearances with the team are noteworthy.

Copyright © 2015 by Scott MacGillivray.


Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward
by Scott MacGillivray

Scott MacGillivray’s Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward was the first book to fully chronicle the later careers of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and everything that followed, from theatrical reissues to home videos. If you enjoyed the book the first time, you’ll like this new edition even more. The author has expanded the original text by more than 50 percent, to include new insights, new information, and new discoveries in Laurel & Hardy history, never before published. (Which Laurel & Hardy comedy of the 1940s was withheld from release for almost four years? Which “forties” movie was their all-time biggest hit? Which movie was almost shut down by federal intervention?) You’ll read much more about Stan and Ollie’s unrealized projects, including five more feature films, two TV series, and two Broadway shows. A must-read for Stan and Ollie’s fans everywhere, Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward is better than ever!

Praise for the first edition of Laurel & Hardy: From the Forties Forward

“What a marvelous book! I read it straight through, getting happier by the minute to think that more and more material is being set into history about the boys. The writing is so lucid — and that in this day of film books that aren’t is high praise. Really wonderful!” — JOHN McCABE, Laurel & Hardy’s authorized biographer

“Scott MacGillivray has accomplished something that most historians can only dream of doing: overturning the conventional wisdom… he rewrites the book on the movie-comedy team.” — BOSTON HERALD

“All the world’s admirers of Laurel & Hardy will now forever be indebted to Scott MacGillivray for providing so much new information about two of the world’s most beloved figures.” — STEVE ALLEN

“Displays a knowledge and affection for its subject that one would be hard pressed to find in most academic texts.” — CLASSIC IMAGES

“To write a book about screen performers as well covered as these two and still present a wealth of heretofore unpublished information is quite an accomplishment.” — FILM QUARTERLY

“MacGillivray takes great pains to provide the context necessary to reassess these films after so many years of knee-jerk dismissal and neglect… His book will remain the definitive study of the late years of the Laurel and Hardy phenomenon.” — ARNE FOGEL, Minnesota Public Radio

Order the paperback from Barnes and Noble

Order the hardcover from Barnes and Noble

Bob Bailey in
            "Jitterbugs" BOB BAILEY

You don't think of "leading men" in a Laurel & Hardy movie. With Stan and Ollie as the center of attention, the male leads consisted of either a traditional "juvenile" role or an incidental romantic presence.

Only rarely did we see an actor who shared equally in Laurel & Hardy's dialogue, plot situations, and comic routines. In the 1930s, it was Dennis King (The Devil's Brother). In the 1940s, it was Bob Bailey (Jitterbugs and The Dancing Masters).

Robert Bainter Bailey was born on June 13, 1913 in Toledo, Ohio. Like Stan Laurel, Bailey was born into a show-business family and grew up in a theatrical atmosphere. He became a regular member of the Chicago radio community, with recurring roles in such shows as "The Road of Life," "Scattergood Baines," and "That Brewster Boy."

Bob Bailey answered the call from Hollywood in 1943, and broke into films opposite Laurel & Hardy in Jitterbugs. This was a remake of a 1933 Fox film called Arizona to Broadway, and Bailey took the featured role of "Chester Wright," a worldly confidence man.

Bailey worked so well with Laurel & Hardy that he was hired for their next film, The Dancing Masters. His role of "Grant Lawrence," boy inventor, was neither as demanding nor as prominent as his work in Jitterbugs, but he tried his best with low comedy. In the aftermath of a ginger-ale-spraying sequence, Bailey's half-sheepish, half-snarling "I got my pants wet!" is a comic highlight.

Bob Bailey had superb dialogue skills but limited visual "business"; his few moments of facial mugging in The Dancing Masters are amusing but mechanical, as though he was uncomfortable in broad comedy. 20th Century-Fox took the hint and turned him into "Robert Bailey," promising young dramatic actor. Throughout 1944 Bailey had moderate to minor roles in five 20th Century-Fox features. He lacked the chiseled profile and rugged physique of the typical Hollywood leading man. His soft, boyish features were not the matinee-idol type. His talents, and especially his voice, were better suited to broadcasting, so Bailey returned to network radio.

In 1955 CBS Radio revived one of its popular detective series, "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," and cast Bob Bailey in the lead. The role had been played in the hard-boiled gumshoe tradition by Hollywood actors Edmond O'Brien and John Lund, but Bailey brought new dimension and sensitivity to the tough-guy role. The Bob Bailey "Johnny Dollars" are among the most popular and collectible recordings of vintage radio.

In late 1960, CBS moved production of "Johnny Dollar" to New York. Bailey, unwilling to relocate, was forced to relinquish the job. He kept busy writing TV scripts the children's adventure show "Fury" was an ongoing project but his heart was in acting. Plans to bring "Johnny Dollar" to television were dropped when producers couldn't reconcile Bailey's colorful voice with his unimposing (5-foot-9, 150-pound) physique. Bailey made one more film appearance: he plays a reporter in the 1962 Burt Lancaster drama Birdman of Alcatraz.

After this film, Bailey suddenly withdrew from show business and settled into a solitary private life, apart from family and friends for many years. In the 1970s, reunited with his daughter Roberta Goodwin, he lived comfortably in a California suburb. Bob Bailey suffered a stroke in 1983 and passed away that year. He was 70 years old.

Bob Bailey was a skilled dramatic actor who made two funny movies almost by accident. We salute his contributions to the world of Laurel & Hardy.

Copyright © 1998 by Scott MacGillivray. Acknowledgment is made to John Gassman and Roberta Goodwin for background information.

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