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Culture

Billy Gilbert: Putting On the Greek

June 20, 2021

William Gilbert Barron was a born performer, quite literally. On September 12, 1894, the son of members of the Metropolitan Opera Company, the man who the world would come to know as Billy Gilbert was born in the dressing room of the Hopkins Opera House in Louisville, Kentucky. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, three American comedians regularly portrayed Greek immigrants; Harry Einstein, George Givot, and Billy Gilbert. These three performers all repeatedly portrayed Greeks over the course of their careers – it was never just a one time performance for any of these men.

The method all three chose to effectively portray themselves as ethnic Greeks was to speak in a poorly constructed heavily accented English. This type of comedian has a long history in American entertainment venues. A comedian of this variety is known as a dialect comedian. Collectively these three comedians appeared in dozens of movies. Given that their intended audience readily accepted these caricatures as an identifiable 'Greek' then, Greek-American Studies, such as it exists, must come to understand the actions and verbiage – at that specific time and within this artistic form. Over the course of their three careers these performers appeared in roles such as pushcart vendors, small restaurant owners, waiters, and even as Greek-American community leaders speaking on behalf of the Greek community at large. It cannot be over emphasized that all three performers regularly offered a cinematic portrayal that the average American of this time period, recognized or quickly came to recognize as a Greek living in America.

In Billy Gilbert's case his life as a professional performer began at an early age. It is reported Gilbert quit school after the fourth grade to join a successful children's singing troupe. Such was Gilbert's success that by the age of twelve he began performing in vaudeville. By the age of 18 Gilbert was performing to great acclaim as a comedian on vaudeville stages all across the country.

After years on the vaudeville circuit, Stan Laurel (1890-1965) saw Gilbert on the vaudeville stage in 'Sensations Of 1929,' immediately realizing his talent. Laurel introduced Gilbert to comedy producer Hal Roach (1892-1992). Not long afterwards Gilbert was hired by Roach to write jokes, perform in films as an actor, and in time, become a comedic director. From this point on Gilbert worked regularly with an amazing array of comedy super-stars such as – but not limited to – Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Charlie Chase, Harry Langdon, Shirley Temple, Thelma Todd, and the child actors of Our Gang.

In 1930, Gilbert appeared in his first short feature film with the Vitaphone Studio and in 1943, Gilbert began to headline a brief series of two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures. That same year Gilbert began another series of short comedic features, teaming up with stage comedian Frank Fay (1891-1961) for Columbia Pictures.

For younger readers we should stress that the mixing of short films, cartoons, and news-reels with main feature films was common with the purchase of a single ticket from the beginning of silent films until well into the 1970s. Consequently, Gilbert, aside from his performances in major motion pictures, also appeared regularly in literally dozens of short feature films.

Without question Gilbert, over time, became most associated with a drawn-out, explosive sneezing routine that became his life-long trademark. Curiously Gilbert once noted, “people remember me as the comedian with the funny sneeze … Funny thing is I didn't use it in more than five or six of the films I made, but the way it sticks in people's memories you'd think that was all I ever did.” Nevertheless, such was his identification with sneezing that Gilbert was the model for, and ultimately the voice of the dwarf, Sneezy in the 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Overall, Gilbert literally performed, at one time or another over his nearly fifty year career, in every public American entertainment form, vaudeville, burlesque, radio, the Broadway stage, comedy revues in Los Vegas, as well as ongoing roles in Hollywood films and television.

Another major event in Gilbert's life took place in 1937. Gilbert married Ella Baxter McKenzie, an actress (Nebraska State Journal September 5, 1937). During World War II, Gilbert and his wife entertained the troops in a wide-ranging series of USO performances. In 1944, Gilbert signed with the prestigious William Morris Agency, which immediately led to starring roles and prominent supporting roles in numerous films.

Billy Gilbert was different than either Harry Einstein and George Givot in that he did not strictly appear as a Greek character. As noted in passing in various news accounts: “Billy Gilbert plays Italians, Greeks, and Frenchmen so convincingly and consistently that most fans would guess his birthplace as anywhere except Louisville, Ky. (The Missoulian (MT) September 8, 1940).” For our purposes here from this point on we will only consider Gilbert's Greek characterizations.

Here are just ten undeniably Greek characters Gilbert appeared as in film: Shot in the Escape (1943) as Alexsos; Sleepytime Gal (1942) as Chef Popodopolis; One Night in Lisbon (1941) as Popopopoulos; Maid's Night Out (1938) as Mr. Papalapoulas; Broadway Melody of 1938 as George Papaloopas; Mr. Doodle Kicks Off (1938) as Professor Minorous; Once Over Lightly (A short feature) (1938) as Professor Dimitrius Kapouris; On The Avenue (1937) as Joe Papaloupas; Bulldog Edition (1936) as George Poppupoppalas and Millions in the Air (1935) as Nikolas Popadopolis.

Now these are but a fraction of Gilbert's appearances as a Greek – and praise for these Grecian portrayals was common. As we hear for Gilbert's work in On The Avenue: “Billy Gilbert, whose Joe Papaloupas is a gem of comedy all by itself (Piqua Daily Call March 8, 1937).” In, Hollywood Musicals Nominated for Best Picture by Frederick G. Vogel it was reported that Gilbert distinguished himself “mostly by his frequent Greek-tinged mispronunciations (2015: 137).” Other published instances of praise for Gilbert's portraying a Greek were common.

In 1943, Columbia Pictures gave Gilbert his own series of short comedies, but only a few films resulted. In 1944, Monogram Pictures teamed Gilbert with noted comedian Shemp Howard (of Three Stooges fame) and Maxie Rosenbloom for three low budget feature films. All in all Gilbert appeared in well over 200 Hollywood feature films, short subjects, and television shows. One would assume after hearing all this that the full extent of Billy Gilbert is well documented. Yet it is not.

While Dan Georgakas was coordinating the efforts to discover and compile a full listing of the appearance of Greek characters in American films Charles Stathis sent a surprisingly detailed email. Stathis listed (including some images) of Billy Gilbert numerous short feature films where this actor portrayed a Greek-American. The vast majority of these short features were not listed in any available listing of Gilbert's work.

Unfortunately by the time Stathis' email reached Georgakas these roles in short feature films could not be included in what became The Greek American Image in American Cinema ( Queens College, City University of New York (cuny.edu).

Fortunately, this detailed account of Greek portrayals in American film is a work in progress. As one might expect since its initial publication this compilation of films has seen commentary from a host of individuals offering further additions. Consequently, any updating, additions, or expansion of this film compilation will undoubtedly draw upon Charles Stathis' input and contributions.

And while such attention should be paid to the work of any actor portraying a Greek, Gilbert remains something of a special case. The enduring affection for Gilbert's film performances is without question. As but one example of the professional regard in which Gilbert is still held by his fellow actors we should cite the February 8, 1960 ceremonies surrounding Gilbert's award of a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame (cf. 6263 Hollywood Blvd).

Although Gilbert worked briefly in television through the Fifties (including appearing in television sketches with fellow comedian Buster Keaton), he finally retired in 1962. Billy Gilbert died of a stroke on September 23, 1971, at the age of 77. His ashes were scattered in the rose gardens at Odd Fellows Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Billy Gilbert's lasting influence on other comedians is a matter of ongoing discussion. Various sources suggest that Gilbert's performances as the jealous husband character in Hal Roach short features may have in fact inspired Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramer character on the Honeymooner's television show. Whatever future comedians and researchers may make of Billy Gilbert's lengthy and rich career, his appearances as a Greek immigrant to America during the Golden Age of Hollywood film still require thoughtful review.

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