>> Friday, April 11, 2008
In the days before public drunkenness was considered politically incorrect, it was possible for a performer to make a good living as a character actor specializing in souses. For example, if you’re old enough to remember watching television in the 60’s and 70’s, you can’t help but recall the frequently belching inebriate that Foster Brooks portrayed on numerous variety shows, sitcoms, and game shows. Of course, Brooks wasn’t the first to make a living portraying a comic lush. In the early days of the talkies through the heyday of the studio system, many character actors performed as drunkards, often providing staggering background action in nightclub and saloon scenes. Of this group of celluloid souses, two actors stand out as the most prolific and recognizable character drunks of all time--Arthur Housman and Jack Norton.
In the 1930’s, character actor Arthur Housman was far from being a household name, but the face of the slim, sleepy-eyed, mustachioed actor was well known to the movie-going public. Houseman made nearly 150 films between 1912 and 1929, portraying everything from reporters to acrobats, but when sound entered the picture, Housman was assigned a few jobs portraying a daffy dipsomaniac, and the character stuck to him like spirit gum. Between 1930 and his death in 1942, Housman played inebriates in dozens of features and shorts. Most of these were uncredited single-scene appearances. In the few cases when he did receive screen credit, he was most often listed as “Drunk,” but occasionally there were variations, such as “The Drunk,” “Drunken Sailor,” “Drunken, Irate Husband,” “Drunk Being Photographed,” and “Dick Harris, Drunk.”
Periodically Housman was given a more substantial film role that gave him an opportunity to showcase his talents. The most memorable of these roles were in the four films in which he costarred with Laurel and Hardy--Scram (1932), The Live Ghost (1934), The Fixer Uppers (1935), and Our Relations (1936). Each of those movies gave Housman the chance to interact with the most popular comedy team of the day, and the actor not only held his own; he often stole scenes from the pair. It should be noted that Housman also appeared in Laurel and Hardy’s The Flying Deuces (1939), but his appearance was only fleeting.
Arthur Housman died of pneumonia on april 7, 1942 at the age of 52. Little is known today of Housman’s life outside of the soundstage, with the exception of a tantalizing recollection from Stan Laurel. Stan remembered that Housman came by his crocked characterization naturally in that he was a dedicated drinker off camera; and Housman’s drink of preference was gin.
With Arthur Housman’s passing, the title of cinema’s number one character drunk was handed down to Jack Norton, a ex-vaudevillian with thinning hair who also wore a thin mustache. Norton was a teetotaler in real life, and when he entered the movies in 1934, he initially played sober characters. However, by the late thirties, Norton was rivaling Housman in the number film inebriates that he had portrayed. Norton’s drunk was not an imitation of Houseman’s glum-faced character. Instead, his character was brighter-eyed, more cheerful, and usually better dressed than Houseman’s. Norton mastered his interpretation by studying boozers carefully, assimilating the wobbly walk and slurred speech until he had perfected it.
From the mid-thirties through the late fourties, Norton was filmdom’s premiere background drunk, appearing in innumerable nightclub scenes dapperly dressed in an immaculate tux. Like Houseman, most of Norton’s appearances weren’t much more than cameos, with a sentence or two of dialogue on those occasions that he was given any lines at all. Some of Norton’s most memorable roles were for screwball director Preston Sturges, including an unforgettable turn as a member of the notorious “Ale and Quail Club” in Palm Beach Story (1942). However, modern audiences are most likely to recognize Norton as the jelly-legged film director, A. Pismo Clam, in W.C. Fields’ masterpiece, The Bank Dick (1940). At that time, only Norton was capable of portraying a souse so stinko as to make the Great Man look sober by comparison.
Jack Norton retired from film work in 1948 due to illness, but he continued to take periodic acting jobs on live television in the early 50’s. He died on October 15, 1958, bringing the classic days of the movies’ character drunk to a close. However, film lovers will continue to recognize the mugs of Arthur Housman and Jack Norton for as long as black and white films continue to be screened.