James "Paul" Parrott strangles George Rowe while Ethel Broadhurst questions the legality of such matters in Soft Pedal, an entry in Parrott's own starring series for the Hal Roach Studios.
For the occasional viewer of classic film comedy, the name James Parrott means little or nothing at all. Few that laughed at the antics of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and Charley Chase realized the identity of the man behind the scenes and the impact he had in the production of the classic shorts of the 1920s and 1930s. While the name of older brother Charley Chase looms large among slapstick fans, James Parrott has been forgotten over time and has not obtained the resurgence in popularity that has been accorded to the Chase shorts.
In retrospect, James Parrott took part in the production of hundreds of one and two reel comedy shorts in the various capacities of acting, directing, and screenwriting. He directed some of the funniest and most beloved films made at the Hal Roach Studios, starred in his own series of one reelers, and supplied gags for many other films made on the Roach lot. Although Parrott was a key player at the Roach studio, his untimely death in 1939 at the age of 40, and the unavailability of much of his work has led to a lack of information and appreciation of this talented and inventive comic.
James Gibbons Parrott was born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 2, 1898, to Charles and Blanche Thompson Parrott. Older brother Charles Junior preceded him by almost 5 years, being born October 20, 1893. The Parrott family resided in a neighborhood consisting of Irish and Jewish immigrants. Charles Senior spent much of his time drinking, gambling, and playing the horses, while Mrs. Parrott worked odd jobs to help pay the bills. Brother Charley looked after young Jimmie during these hard times and the two became very close.
In 1903, Charles Senior died from a heart attack, leaving the family in worse financial shape than before. The little family moved in with Blanches’ sister Belle, and Charley quit school to go to work in order to support his mother and brother. Eventually the call of the stage beckoned Charley, who left home at age 16 to travel the vaudeville circuit as a singer and comedic performer. By the time Jimmie had reached his teens, he had quit school and became involved with the street gangs of Baltimore. His anxious mother packed him away to California to live with his older brother and new wife Bebe. Charley had found his niche in Hollywood and was employed at the Fox studios as Director General of all the comedies filmed there. Charley’s connections in the film industry helped get his younger brother work at Fox as an actor and writer.
Eventually, James Parrott would rise to the status of director of the Sid Smith comedy series in 1919. Several of these shorts would feature Parrott as costar as well. AN AUTO NUT (1919) reveals a talented young man in the early stages of developing his craft and the short contains several surprising slapstick gags involving an old jalopy. The film as a whole is crudely put together, and Smith and Parrott were not particularly great as a team, but several entries in the series were produced. During this period, Charles Parrott employed his bother as an actor in a series of Reelcraft comedies he directed. Not much is known about these early films and few exist for viewing today. At the same time, Jimmie was becoming a fixture at the new Hal Roach studio, then known as Rolin. Parrott started out as a gag writer and extra in the Harold Lloyd shorts, and can be spotted showing great skill and agility on roller skates in Lloyd’s 1919 short, DON’T SHOVE.
By the time DON’T SHOVE was released, America had entered World War 1, and James Parrott was drafted, sent overseas, and wounded, possibly from exposure to mustard gas. This injury is thought to be partly responsible for the debilitating health problems that Parrott would suffer as time went on, including a series of nervous breakdowns, epileptic seizures, alcohol/drug addictions, and a heart condition.
By 1920, the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City was in full swing. The Roach style of humor had proved itself equal, if not superior, to that of rival Mack Sennett. Several series were in production, including those of Snub Pollard and Eddie Boland. Later Roach series would feature Hunkey Doorey, The Dippy Doo Dads, Clyde Cook, Our Gang, and others. Jimmie returned to the Roach lot and threw himself into a frenzy of filmmaking activity. He contributed gags to many shorts, co-starred with Boland and Pollard in their shorts, and co-directed THE PICKINNINY (1921), with “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison. In 1921, Roach gave Parrott a series of his own to replace the Eddie Boland series. Jimmie quickly adopted the obligatory funny mustache and changed his character’s name to Paul Parrott. The Parrott stock company would feature such regulars as Eddie Baker, cross-eyed George Rowe, and future Harold Lloyd co-star Jobyna Ralston. Roach would publicize Parrott as “the Doodletwit of Screen Comedy”!
Viewing a Paul Parrott comedy today, one is struck by the sheer number of inventive gags that seem to fly by at an incredibly fast rate. Unlike the Sennett comedies, these gags fit perfectly within the modest plots and are at times, so bizarre and outrageous as to be considered avant-garde! Parrott’s character is likeable; sometimes brash, sometimes stupid, but mostly hilarious. At times the films are reminiscent of the better work of Jerry Lewis: A series of blackout gags held together by a meager storyline. As these are 10 minute one reelers, there is no time for character development or Chaplinesque pathos. The cast always seem to be having fun, and although director credit usually went to others (Ralph Cedar, J.A. Howe, etc), Parrott’s distinctive touch is felt in most of these films.
The Paul Parrott series was produced between 1921 and 1923 and were ground out at the rate of one a week. With any series of this magnitude, the quality of shorts range from the sublime to the simply awful. UNCOVERED WAGON (1924) is a small masterpiece and rates high in the film spoof genre. This is the Parrott film to watch first if you have never seen one before! It contains a surrealistic underwater scene, a stereotyped homosexual Indian, and a streetcar passing through the desert! WHISTLING LIONS (1926) defies description and must be seen to be believed! In this entry, Parrott enters a fat man race, rides an ostrich, wrestles a lion, finally ends up in bed with cohort George Rowe. The film resembles a pleasant opium-induced dream. POST NO BILLS (1923) takes one gag, the posting of theatre handbills, and milks it for all it’s worth. It is astonishing how many variants on the same joke can be obtained. The recently discovered and preserved ROUGH ON ROMEO (1922) and ARE PARENTS PICKLES (1924) are both comic gems from start to finish. On the other end of the spectrum, BLAZE AWAY (1922) is a dull, flat, and uninspired western spoof that seems to have been made up on the spot, possibly to fulfill the Pathé release schedule. For those who like their slapstick fast, straight up, with no frills, the Parrott films will satisfy. The series proved popular with audiences at the time and over 60 shorts were produced. Had Parrott’s mental and physical health held out, the series would have no doubt continued.
Production on the Paul Parrott series gradually declined in 1923, although they continued to be released until 1926. New kid on the block Stan Laurel’s series would take over production on the one reel shorts. During this time, Roach tried pairing Jimmie with Snub Pollard in several shorts. JOIN THE CIRCUS (1923) is an amusing slapstick romp with non-stop gags in a big top setting. Unfortunately, the two comedians had conflicting comedic styles and the short 10 minute running times forced them to cram in too many gags in an effort to give each comedian equal screen time.
It was during this period that James Parrott’s health began to deteriorate. In later interviews, Hal Roach would comment on Parrott’s unpredictability. Roach thought that Jimmie suffered several nervous breakdowns, while Roach studio musical director Marvin Hatley claimed that Parrott would indulge in drinking binges. According to Hatley, Jimmie would be fine for long periods, then disappear from the lot for months at a time. Eventually he would get himself together and return to filmmaking, only to repeat the cycle again later. Several reports mention that Jimmie suffered from epileptic seizures. All of these factors led to Roach’s decision not to promote Jimmie into a featured star at the studios. From 1924 on, Parrott would work primarily behind the scenes on the lot as both writer and director of many of the most popular comedy shorts ever made.
Jimmie began directing full time on the Roach lot in early 1924. Moving around from series to series, Parrott would contribute his talents to the Clyde Cook, Jimmy Finlayson, and the Hal Roach “All Star Comedies” series. By this time Charles Parrott had begun his own series of shorts (as both Jimmie Jump and Charley Chase). The physical resemblance between the two brothers was remarkable, although their respective styles of comedy are completely different. The Chase films lean towards domestic comedies, instead of pure slapstick. Still, the confusion between the Chase/Parrott shorts continues to this day as later Parrott films were re-released under the Charley Chase name. Because of this, Parrott remains overshadowed by his more popular and famous brother.
Starting with JUST A MINUTE (1924), Jimmie began directorial duties on his brother’s shorts, eventually racking up close to 30 titles in the series. In 1928, Parrott began a long and fruitful association with comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, directing many of the team’s funniest and most beloved comedies. The list of titles is impressive: TWO TARS, PERFECT DAY, HELPMATES, COUNTY HOSPITAL, and 1932’s Academy Award winning masterpiece, THE MUSIC BOX. In each of these shorts, Parrott lends his own distinctive comedy touch; situational slapstick bordering on the bizarre and absurd, but with enough human touches to keep things from going in the direction of the unbelievable and annoyingly stupid. He also had the foresight to let his comedians (particularly Stan Laurel) make suggestions and explore their own characterizations within the films. These comedies have held up so well, and are so often revived today, that James Parrott is number 5 on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) list of the twenty most popular directors, right along with Frank Capra, Orson Welles, Akira Kurisawa, and Buster Keaton!
James Parrott made the transition to the sound era with relative ease. After a short stint with Fox studios in 1929, Parrott returned to the Roach lot and resumed working on the Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy films, directing both English and Foreign language versions of the two series. He briefly returned to acting in THE KING (1930), supporting Harry Langdon and Thelma Todd in an entry of the short lived Langdon series. As the 1930s drew on, directing jobs became more sporadic as Parrott’s health again took a turn for the worse. Like his brother, Jimmie had a destructive fondness for alcohol. He had also developed an acute addiction to amphetamines and cocaine in an effort to curb his increasing weight gain. This in turn led to a serious heart condition. Photographs taken in the mid 1930s show an overweight and clearly unhappy Parrott, unrecognizable from the lean and handsome Charley Chase look-alike of a decade earlier.
The latter half of the 1930s would not be kind to James Parrott. Although still able to direct quality shorts (e.g. THE PIP FROM PITTSBURGH), Parrott had developed a reputation as unreliable. To keep him going, Chase, Stan Laurel, and Hal Roach would give him work when they could. During this period, Parrott would direct an Our Gang short (WASHEE IRONEE, 1934) and several acceptable entries in the Thelma Todd / Patsy Kelly series. In 1935, Parrott left the Roach lot and was accepting any job that came his way. For Columbia, he directed one entry in the Radio Rouges series, and freelanced as a gag writer for Twentieth Century- Fox and Republic studios. Stan Laurel used him sporadically to contribute gags to the Laurel and Hardy features. By 1937, Parrott could not be counted on to direct or write, and relied on brother Charley to support him financially. There was a brief marriage to Ruby Ellen McCoy in 1937, but as his various addictions worsened, so did his state of mind. James Parrott intentionally took an overdose of pills and died in Hollywood on May 10, 1939. Obituaries and news reports at the time attributed the death to a heart attack. Brother Charley would follow him to the grave in 1940.
For those interested in the Roach studio or Charley Chase, there are currently two well researched and informative books available on these subjects.
Anthony, Brian, and Edmunds, Andy: Smile when the Raindrops Fall. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998. (Biography of Charley Chase)
Skredvedt, Randy. Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies. Beverly Hills, CA: Moonstone Press, 1987.
Revealing once again the pitfalls of silent comedy scholarship, film historian Joe Moore wrote in after the above article was published on this website questioning James Parrott's oft-repeated World War I story. The popular conception that Jimmy was drafted in 1917 and then got injured (gassed) on the front lines is very often taken as fact, both in Bradley Reeves's Parrott article and in Brian Anthony and Andy Edmonds's Charley Chase biography Smile When the Raindrops Fall. Moore, however, suggests that the story may be apocryphal:
"One thing I want to question is the story of Jimmy getting drafted and gassed during WWI. As I remember we didn't declare war until April of 1917 and really didn't get much in the way of combat troops over there until fall of that year. Well, my research shows Jimmie Parrott appearing on the Rolin payroll ledgers in September of 1917 and then working there very steady throughout the rest of the war. I question whether he could have been drafted, inducted, gone through basic training, sent over seas, gassed, hospitalized, recovered, sent back to America, let out of the service and resumed working all during the very narrow five month period of April-September 1917 which I can't account for. Especially since most U. S. troops were still were just getting 'over there' about the time he seems to have started working for Rolin.
"Jimmy Parrott was what they called a 'day worker' at the Rolin studios during the teens. Very few of the 'regular' actors that we associate with Rolin were actually on 'salary'. Usually just the leads actors and actresses. During the teens that would have been Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard, Bebe Daniels and later Marie Mosquini and Toto. The 'salary' actors got paid a regular weekly rate whether they worked every day of the week or not. The 'day workers' only got paid for the days that they actually worked. On the payroll records from this period you can track the day by day production of most of the films Rolin produced. You can actually see which 'day workers' were being utilized on any given day and on what film. So for Jimmy Parrott's name to appear on these ledgers he would actually have to be working there earning his $5.00. He appears very regularly there from September 1917 until at least February 1919. He might miss an odd week or two here or there but he appears in productions every single month during this period. The solid evidence of the payroll ledgers pretty much blows the WWI story out of the water.
"I do wonder how the story about Jimmy's supposed WWI service got started and why. Was someone trying to use it to make an excuse for his later drug habit?"
Joe Moore is a silent comedy historian who, along with Rob Farr and Richard M. Roberts, is currently working on a book on the Hal Roach Studios covering the 1914-48 years soon to be published by McFarland.