By Odacer “Reggie” Sinclair, Baronet
Worthy and talented movie actors have indeed proven numerous since Hollywood's earliest days. Yet when it comes those who actually attained the finish line of consummate merit, whoever matched or bettered the motion picture grandeur or thespian virtuosity of Ben Turpin? Here was a player who could take on the biggest roles the screen ever furnished: Desert chieftain, Teutonic noble, Frontier lawman, or venerated champion of hearth and home. Nor can any film historian who would flatter themselves on knowing the true story can afford to ignore or slight the countless houses brought down by torrents and oceans of tears so tenderly lifted from audiences' eyes. In those days, as the saying goes, movies were movies. But with Ben there was always something even above and beyond. More than four, more than five, here were eight star performances the like few others have ever realized or known. Perhaps now then and at last, the time has come to address and inquire into the matter of "The Unknown Turpin."
For who made a more imposing figure in the saddle, rescued gals in peril, or brought justice to a troubled land better then old Ben? Who fought that hard grueling fight, climbed the highest mountain, braved the stormiest household? Who outfoxed crafty outlaws, man-handled toughs, wrestled wild bears, made all the women swoon better then Ben? Who saw past the deceiver's bluff and vanquished the deluded cheat in his own execrable snare? And who well but he, when the light shone through in that fleeting moment of epiphany, would have the daring do to admit, when all else were hushed and silent, that the window might need fixing? Regarding these questions then -- and certainly to anyone whose done the requisite time in the movie house expected of an expert -- there can be little or no mystery.
He played with all the best and later in his career had his pick of parts. Surrounded by Bathing Beauties and strumming the trusty uke, here was a ready model for manly youth. Here was a performer who played his heart out with every paycheck -- nor did he ever let the fans down. The films? They read like indelible and chiseled inscriptions on Cinema's most granite monument. "Yukon Jake," "A Small Town Idol," "The Eyes Have It," "Pride of Pikeville," "The Shriek of Araby," are just a few of the many inspired and illuminating milestones one might enumerate. Oh, pie-throwing you say? Ben could hold his own with the very best -- face to the front. Indeed were truth admitted, many today could still learn a thing or two from this titan of celluloid who never flinched whenever the flung pastry of psychosocio-respectability traversed the numbing eternity of physical and ontological space. The mordant insight effused through his character portrayals perhaps most epitomized the neo-existential inanition of rural/industrial man. At the same time, let it not be overlooked, his photo-chronographic incunabulum is visual testimony to twentieth century ocular syncretism. Not that Ben, were he alive to day, would agree or even understand what all this means. Nevertheless, the intelligent character of such way of speaking certainly no properly sophisticated reader will think to dispute.
Mack Sennett would later recall: "Ben Turpin died rich and having fun. After his retirement it was his hobby to direct traffic at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue. With eyes crossed and arms flailing he engineered some of the most outrageous automotive jams in the history of congested Los Angeles. "He yelled to every motorist, 'Ben Turpin, three thousand dollars a week!'"
Sifting through the remnants of the now hallowed record, it's easy to see why he drew this kind of figure, and why his place is ever set in the highest attic of the pantheon of screen immortals. Yet is his birthday set aside as a contemplative day off from work? His statue standing somewhere along the gilded walks of Hollywood Boulevard? His bust conspicuously adorning the haven of a city park?
No, but Ben Turpin is here nonetheless; here in spirit and here in mind. And that incomparable and unparalleled vision, that once led forth theater goers of a bygone age onto the daunting horizon of tomorrow lives, and will undoubtedly continue to, for generations to come.
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