David Hennessy wrote:Why did some clowns make the transition from silent to sound better than others? What were the determining factors?
Every reason you could imagine: Luck (mainly), talent, lifespan, tolerance for alcohol, financial and studio status, audience tastes. But time was basically going to be the enemy of many of these performers, simply because they’re were in a profession where a starring career would last one generation (basically seven years), in the majority, and anything after that was fortunate indeed.
That said, then most of the major comedians actually did quite well, they continued to work somewhere or another, if they stayed healthy and weren’t serious alcoholics. Chaplin and Lloyd had their own companies, and plenty of money to spare, and had at least one more generation worth of major careers. Keaton and Langdon had their ups and downs, but both continued to work until they died, Keaton had one of the most amazing careers of all time, going from turn-of-the Century Vaudeville to Television, sixty-plus years of work.
The Hal Roach Comedians were lucky to be at the Comedy Studio that survived the Sound Era the best and had top distribution, and creatively made the best transitions in preserving the best of silence and using the new medium as well. Many of the other comedians from Sennett and elsewhere like Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde, Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Clyde Cook, Jimmy Aubrey, became very busy character actors, and the supporting comics like Vernon Dent, Bud Jamison, Irving Bacon, Billy Franey, Leo White, Ernie Adams, James Finlayson, many more all continued to make livings for decades in the same sort of support.
The tragic cases were fewer than one would think and the ones like Lloyd Hamilton had the seeds of destruction sewn into their own personalities even before their careers tanked. Hamilton even had actually made a decent comeback in talkies before his health and personal problems wiped him out. It also has to do with a number of depressive and clueless modern day film historians wanting to see anyone’s career as tragic if they weren’t living in a palacial mansion in Beverly Hills. Some decry Keaton’s loss of his own studio and loss of his independence as the tragic end of his career, others with more common sense and Hollywood insight realize he was damn lucky to have had his independence as long as he did, that it was a rare gift to have had it at all, and that Keaton managed to continue to do some amazing work for a darn long time after that, and still died as a Hollywood Celebrity with plenty of money and a happy personal life after having picked himself up and persevered long after many of his contemporaries were long gone.
Heck, even comics like Ben Turpin were financially solvent and worked when they felt like it, and there were also a number of comics like Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, Edgar Kennedy, Leon Errol, Slim Summerville, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Edward Everett Horton, whose careers actually got better with the coming of sound. Even Raymond Griffith made way more money as a Producer in the 30’s than he had made as a comedian.
If anyone seemed tragic, I would have to consider Al Christie’s stable of comics, a number of whom seem to have been hit with a low-mortality curse and died young in the 30’s: Jimmie Adams (1933), Billy Dooley (1938), Jack Duffy and Bobby Vernon (both 1939), but apart from Adams, who had been banned from the screen for his involvement in the death of fellow comic Sid Smith in 1928, the other three had kept busy working in supporting roles or working behind the scenes until their deaths, so one can’t really fault their careers either.
RICHARD M ROBERTS