Saddle Pals & Sidekicks
(From Old Corral collection)
|Al 'Fuzzy' St. John|
Full name: Alfred St. John
1892 - 1963
Fans of the B western remember Al 'Fuzzy' St. John as one of the best sidekicks ... and a very funny guy. His real life was full of twists and turns, successes and failures, and negatives included alcohol abuse, lots of money problems, and a messy divorce. A popular star of silent comedies, Al's career sputtered out when talkies arrived and he found himself relegated to vaudeville and bit / character roles in movies. By the mid to late 1930s, Al concentrated on B westerns and began his transformation into a comic saddle pal named "Fuzzy".
|Al's uncle - and mentor - Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle.|
Arbuckle was about five years older than Al and was in vaudeville and California theater in the early 1900s. His movie career began around 1913 and he became one of the major silent film comedians. Frequent co-stars and featured players in his one and two-reel shorts included Mabel Normand, Buster Keaton, and Arbuckle's nephew, Al St. John.
In 1921 - 1922, 'Fatty' was arrested and tried for the rape and death of actress Virginia Rappe at a September, 1921 party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. There were three trials. The first two had hung juries, and he was acquitted of all charges in trial number three.
But he couldn't escape the sensationalized reporting and the resulting scandal destroyed his movie career.
Using the pseudonym of "William Goodrich", Arbuckle did some directing in the 1920s, including several of Al St. John's starring shorts.
In the early 1930s, 'Fatty' made a comeback in a half dozen shorts for Warners / Vitaphone and Al appeared in one.
Arbuckle passed away from a heart attack on June 29, 1933 in New York City.
Alfred St. John was born September 10, 1892 in Santa Ana, California to Nora Nell Arbuckle St. John (1871 - 1960) and Walter St. John (1851 - 1939). In the early 1890s, the family resided in Santa Ana, then briefly settled in Pomona, California, and were in Los Angeles when the 1910 census was taken. Father Walter hailed from Ohio, and in the census, his occupations were "farm laborer" and "Contractor - House Builder". Mother Nora was the sister of comedy film star Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (1887 - 1933).
Al's introduction to acting and the movie business was due to that Arbuckle family connection. And the close relationship between Al and his uncle continued through 'Fatty's' death in 1933. More on 'Fatty' in the info box on the right.
In the 1910 census, the occupation of 17 year old Alfred St. John is "Actor - Theater". And the stage career of teenager Al is confirmed in the May 8, 1910 issue of the Los Angeles Herald newspaper at the Library of Congress website:
"PRINCESS THEATER - 'The $50,000 Beauty' with Vera Blair Stanley in the title role is merry melodious musical melange to be presented by the Princess musical comedy company next week. The company has been supplemented by the addition of Alfred St. Johns [sic], a pleasing juvenile."
How did Al wind up at the Princess Theater? Uncle Roscoe Arbuckle was at the Princess doing both acting and producing chores and his wife Minta Durfee was a member of the theater company.
Al's first movie appearance was circa 1913 in comedies at the Mack Sennett studio where 'Fatty' was employed.
Arbuckle, St. John, Buster Keaton, and others were members of Sennett's chaotic Keystone Cops. And when 'Fatty' starred in his own comedies, Al was often in the cast and sometimes worked production jobs. When Al registered for the World War I draft in 1917, he was in New York City with Arbuckle's Comique Film Company.
There was a large crowd of silent film comedians and major stars included Arbuckle, Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, and Laurel and Hardy. Trailin' after the big name comics were many lesser but popular funny men ... and Al St. John was in that bunch. From about 1919 - early 1930s, he starred in scores of silent and early sound comedies for Warners, Paramount, Fox, Pathe, and Educational Pictures. Most were two-reel shorts and released on the independent market. Al even wrote stories and directed many. He also did some support / character parts in features including two 1928 sagebrushers with Tom Mix at Fox.
He was slight of build, about 5 feet 6 inches tall and 150 pounds, and his comedic style was slapstick, pratfalls, acrobatics, facial mugging, and wizardry on a bicycle and unicycle.
Following are reports from the trades that provide a timeline from 1916 through the early 1930s. Included are salary figures which I've highlighted in THIS color. Take those money amounts with a grain of salt.
- May 13, 1916 Motography: "Al St. John, who started out as one of the original Keystone police, and established the traditions of this unique force, has jumped into the headlines and will be starred in the next Triangle comedy made at the eastern studios of the corporation. Roscoe Arbuckle will direct the new production and Alice Lake will play the leading feminine role." (This film was the Triangle - Keystone comedy THE MOONSHINERS.)
- October 28, 1916 Motion Picture News: "Roscoe Arbuckle, Keystone comedian and director, is to leave Mack Sennett's organization when his present contract expires on the first of the year ..." ; "After January 1 he is to produce comedies ... under the brand name of Comique. Al St. John, who has been appearing with Mr. Arbuckle in Keystone comedies for the past year, will be a member of the company."
- July 30, 1919 Clipper: "Al St. John, who has been appearing with Fatty Arbuckle in his comedies, is to be started in a series of two-reel comedies by Famous Players - Lasky, under a contract just closed by Warner Brothers. The firm is to be known as Al St. John Comedies ..."
- August 9, 1919 issue of Exhibitors Herald and Motography: "Al St. John, side partner of 'Fatty' Arbuckle for the last three years, has been signed by Warner Brothers for five years, and will be starred in a series of picture comedies, to be released through Famous Players - Lasky Corporation." ; "St. John's Warner contract, it is understood, will net him in the neighborhood of $250,000 a year. His salary with Keystone, six years ago, was $75 a week."
- March 13, 1920 Moving Picture World had a blurb about Warner Brothers releasing the Al St. John comedies on the independent market. They had previously been released by Famous Players - Lasky (Paramount).
- March 20, 1920 issue of Moving Picture World: "Making out his income tax recalled to Al St. John that five years ago he was earning - and working hard for the money - $3 a day at the carpenter trade. Now he is a screen celebrity contracted to draw $50,000 in 1920."
- November 8, 1920 Film Daily: "Al St. John is now with the Fox sunshine comedy forces. He will direct and also appear in pictures."
- August 18, 1923 issue of Camera! magazine: "Al St. John has been presented with keys of the city of Santa Ana, his own home town, for the week when the Orange County fair is in session there this fall."
- The October 30, 1923 Film Daily and November 17, 1923 Exhibitors Herald had a lengthy story on escalating rental and production costs impacting the exhibitors. William Brandt, president of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of New York State, blamed the high costs on salaries paid to stars, directors and supporting players. And Brandt identified a bunch of Hollywood stars and their WEEKLY salary. Included were: Tom Mix ($4000.00/week); Gloria Swanson ($6500.00/week); and Al St. John ($1000.00/week).
- June 28, 1924 Exhibitors Trade Review: "Al St. John's contract with Fox Sunshine Comedies having expired, he has signed to appear in Tuxedo Comedies for Educational release."
- June 19, 1926 Moving Picture World: "Al St. John Re-Signed By Educational ..."
- February 11, 1928 Motion Picture News: "Al St. John, Educational comedian whose career ... dates back to the early Sennett days, has been cast for a role in 'The Painted Post', a new Fox Films western starring Tom Mix."
- December 21, 1929 Exhibitors Herald-World: "AL ST. JOHN has completed the role of master of ceremonies in issue number 12 of Screen Snapshots. Ralph Staub is directing the series for Columbia release."
- January 27, 1930 Film Daily - Headline: "Al St. John's Sound Debut". Article excerpt: "Al St. John marks his debut in sound talking comedies by appearing in 'Western Knights' for Educational."
- April 9, 1930 Variety: "Al St. John has replaced Redmond Wells in Pathe shorts, opposite Jimmy Aubrey."
- April 15, 1930 Film Daily: "Al St. John has been signed by Pathe for a role in 'Two Eggs,' a short to be directed by Monte Carter."
- October 16, 1930 Film Daily: "Lloyd Hamilton and Al St. John will appear together in the next Educational-Hamilton comedy ..."
- October 17, 1930 Exhibitors Daily Review and Motion Pictures Today: "Al St. John, after completing a role in 'The Land of Missing Men', was engaged for a part in Al Rogell's latest Tiffany special, 'Aloha', now in production."
- August 15, 1931 Motion Picture Herald had news of Educational's plans for new comedy shorts: "Four new series will make their debuts, with 'Honeymoon Trio,' co-featuring Walter Catlett and Al St. John, introducing the Cameo comedy group on Aug. 30 (1931)."
- September 6, 1931 Film Daily - Headline: "Al St. John to Make 4 Two-Reelers for Para.". Article excerpt: "Work has begun at the Paramount New York studios of a series of four two-reel comedies in which Al St. John will be starred."
Buster Keaton recalled his Keystone Cops days and wrote about Al doing falls and tumbles in the book My Wonderful World of Slapstick (Doubleday, 1960; by Buster Keaton with Charles Samuels):
"Even more astonishing to me was discovering how few of them knew the first thing about taking a fall. The ex-Keystone Cop, Al St. John, for example, worked side by side with Roscoe (Arbuckle) for five years without learning one damn thing about protecting himself in a fall. As an old trip-and-tumble expert myself I advised St. John to use elbow pads, something he had never heard of until then. He had been using his hands and elbows each time to break his falls. The result was that he was continually suffering ..."
Al tied the knot with Marion Lillian Ball (1891 - 1975) on October 5, 1914 in Los Angeles, and daughter Mary Jane (1918 - 1994) was born October 9, 1918. Citing cruelty and alcohol abuse, Lillian divorced him in August, 1923 and their split was plagued by never-ending battles over missed alimony and child support payments. Trades and newspapers carried many reports of Al's court appearances and threats of jail time due to those missing payments. On a later webpage, you'll find more on those legal squabbles.
In 1926, Al married June Price Pierce and they were together through her passing in 1957. Her full / maiden name was Yvonne June Villon (1901 - 1957), and she was an actress and dabbled in real estate. Al was husband number three and June brought along her son, Raymond Beach Price (1919 - 1981). Their marriage ceremony was at June's home in Cahuenga Park, California. Attending the nuptials were about 200 guests, mostly Hollywood movie folks, and 'Fatty' Arbuckle and his wife were witnesses. Al had purchased two and a half acres adjoining the house and plans were to add a swimming pool, tennis court, garden area, more.
The 1920s were Al's peak years in prestige and earnings. There were big paydays, but his lifestyle was lavish, and money flowed out for real estate, cars, a plane ... and alimony and child support:
- In the early 1920s with first wife Marion, they had a full time cook and butler and Marion had a full time chauffeur.
- September 16, 1922 Camera! magazine: "Al St. John and a company of seven slipped away from the Fox studios and journeyed up to the Sierra Mountains and fished and hunted in the hills. All voted Al a prince of a good fellow - it was he that footed the expenses for the trip."
- Circa 1923, Al and a syndicate of Los Angeles business men were buying city and farm properties and a recent purchase was an eighty acre tract of land that once was a gold claim.
- February 3, 1923 Camera! magazine: "Al is an enthusiastic aviator and recently purchased a Pacific bi-plane in San Diego."
- February 9, 1923 Film Daily: "Hollywood - Al St. John, Tom Mix and William Russell are the owners of a new haberdashery recently opened here."
- May 19, 1923 Camera! magazine: "Two brand new McFarland [sic] motor cars have been added to the Al St. John string of 'speed buggies'." ; "... throwing custard pies and making monkeyshines pays big! St. John now owns nine motors and one aeroplane."
Al St. John's early film career.
Above is a tradezine ad for 'Fatty' Arbuckle's HIS WEDDING NIGHT (Comique/Paramount, 1917). Left to right are Arbuckle, Alice Mann, and Al St. John. This was filmed in New York City and the producer was Joseph M. Schenck, husband of Norma Talmadge.
Above - portrait shot of young Al St. John from a 1918 trade publication. He was in his mid twenties.
Above - trade ad from late 1919 for Al St. John starring in two-reel comedies for Famous Players - Lasky / Paramount and released by Warners.
Above - 1921 theater ad for a Tom Mix's PRAIRIE TRAILS (Fox, 1920) and the Al St. John two-reel comedy THE SLICKER (Fox, 1921).
Above is the Al St. John portion of a full page tradezine ad from Fox in 1923.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above is a lobby card from the silent HELLO CHEYENNE (Fox, 1928), one of the films in Tom Mix's final season at Fox. From left to right are Mix, Al St. John and Joe Girard. Al did another with Mix, PAINTED POST (Fox, 1928). He was in his mid thirties when he did these Tom Mix films.
Above is a 1928 trade ad for Al St. John and his shorts for Educational Pictures.
Above is a portion of a Summer, 1930 full page ad for Educational's Mermaid talking comedies. Al's starring days were coming to an end when he was paired with comedian Eddie Lambert in WESTERN KNIGHTS (Educational, 1930). KNIGHTS was Al's first sound film.