The cross-eyed comic

Can a squint be a passport to stardom? It certainly was for Ben Turpin, says randor guy

Published - September 20, 2014 07:52 pm IST

Ben Turpin and his cross-eyed car

Ben Turpin and his cross-eyed car

Those were the days when Hollywood was just a rural suburb called Hollywoodland near Los Angeles. Trams (known as ‘cable cars’ in the U.S.) were the only mode of transportation. One such tram traveller was a cross-eyed man who stood leaning on the doorway and proudly introduced himself saying, “I'm Ben Turpin; I make $3,000 a week!” Silent film comedy star Ben Turpin did earn such a top salary, a fortune in those days.

His cross eyes made him popular, bestowing on him stardom and distinguishing him from other comedians.

At first, he worked in vaudeville, and later in circuses and other shows. His lithe, muscular frame, toothbrush moustache, and cross eyes were a delight to watch. He reportedly told friends that he got his cross eyes after an accident as a young man. Realising that they were his passport to stardom, he made sure they stayed that way and didn’t get them corrected. He was a devout Catholic and his friends would make fun of him saying they would pray that he get back his normal eyes, which did not amuse him at all. Whenever he was hit on the head in a movie sequence or in real life, he would immediately take out a mirror from his pocket to make sure his eyes were still crossed. He even insured his eyes for $1,00,000 with the famed Lloyd’s of London (Hollywood star Betty Grable insured her legendary legs for a million dollars.)

However, there were strong rumours that Ben’s eyes were normal and that the squint was created by constant practice in front of a mirror before every shot or public appearance.

He had a special car made with its headlights crossed to match his eyes. The photograph of him and his car became very popular, with the car starring in many of his movies.

Born in 1869 in New Orleans, Louisiana to a candy store owner, Ben had to work hard even as a kid, doing menial jobs to support his family. After watching comedy shows like vaudevilles and burlesques, he gradually began to work as a supporting actor and soon his cross eyes and comical responses brought him success.

He developed a vigorous style of physical comedy, including the ability to stage comic pratfalls (falling suddenly on one’s derriere.) that impressed even his fellow workers in the rough-and-tumble world of silent comedy. One of his specialties was a forward tumble somersault he called the ‘hundred an' eight’.

In 1917, Ben Turpin joined the leading comedy company of the time, the Mack Sennett Studio. And his aptitude for crude slapstick suited the Sennett style perfectly. Sennett's writers often cast the ridiculous-looking Turpin against type as a rugged Yukon miner or a suave, worldly lover for maximum comic effect. Soon he became one of cinema’s most popular comics. Delighted with his success, he soon took to introducing himself with the phrase, “I'm Ben Turpin; I make $3,000 a week.” He was also a master at spoofing and made films such as The Shriek of Araby, a spoof on the famous Rudolph Valentino classic The Sheik . After a successful career, Ben Turpin passed away at the age of 70 in Santa Monica, California.

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