A favorite practice in silent film was for studios to find their version of the hottest star of the moment. Even studios who were fortunate enough to have signed the original star were constantly looking for replacements. Theda Bara called Fox Studios home for years, but when she left, the studio began to promote Betty Blythe as their new vamp. They even cast her in roles that were incredibly similar to those portrayed by Bara.
Imitators, replacements and second-stringers meant that the studios stood a chance to indirectly profit off of the most popular stars, even if they were signed elsewhere or unavailable. At a point in his career, Charlie Chaplin was the most recognizable figure in the world. He was one of the first silent film stars to become recognized internationally as a movie star, and was a guaranteed sure-thing for any studio or any theater that acquired him or his films. It should come as no surprise, then, that studios and aspiring actors and comedians would look to Chaplin for inspiration. Soon, many were cashing in on imitating Chaplin, and one imitator in particular made no effort to hide it.
Billy West was the best known of the Chaplin imitators. When the public was demanding more and more Chaplin films, a producer saw an opportunity and signed West to profit from that demand. His appearance (in costume) was identical to Chaplin and his films also borrowed heavily from Chaplin, so much so that the casual observer could mistake him for the real deal. West was signed to King-Bee and his heyday lasted from 1917-1918 — when Chaplin was signed to Mutual. His studio even went so far as to call West “The Funniest Man on Earth.” Although West was the star of the pictures, his on-screen success was shortlived and certainly outshined by his on-screen foe Oliver “Babe” Hardy (later of Laurel and Hardy) and on-screen love Leatrice Joy. By 1920, West had given up his ‘tramp’ persona. To get a sense of West’s early films, check out ‘The Candy Kid’ below.
Silent film favorite Harold Lloyd found early success with his ‘Lonesome Luke’ character, which was also a nod to Chaplin. Unlike West, Lloyd was almost a parody of Chaplin. His costume was almost a reversal of Chaplin’s — the clothes were ridiculously small instead of too big, he replaced the hat and divided the mustache down the middle. Although Lloyd found success with the “Luke” series, he, like West, eventually felt restricted by the persona. When Lloyd abandoned the ‘Luke’ persona and adopted his ‘glasses’ persona, he found a character that was truly his own and that proved to be a true box office threat to Chaplin.
We’ll take a closer look at Lloyd’s career in an upcoming blog post!
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Want to dive deeper into the world of silent film? Keep up with my posts over on Curtains or on Chicago Nitrate.