BILLIE RITCHIE (1874-1921)
A fierce looking Billie in Partners in Crime (L-Ko, 1914)
CAREER OVERVIEW / MOTION PICTURE NEWS STUDIO DIRECTORY ENTRY / BILLIE IN THE NEWS
Billie Ritchie's claim that Charlie Chaplin was imitating him may seem ludicrous, but he was one of several Karno vets who played the same roles that Chaplin did. Unfortunately, the similarity in costume and makeup cause Billie to be unfairly judged as a Chaplin imitator, a description that the comic would have considered libelous (see Billie in the News). He should be taken on his own terms, for better or worse.
In the few Ritchie comedies I have seen, he plays an entirely unlikable character, utterly without charm. Only a handful of L-Ko comedies exist today and even fewer Fox/Sunshine comedies have survived, making a fair re-evaluation difficult. From the extant evidence, Ritchie belongs firmly in the third tier of comedians whose professionalism and workmanlike attitude move the plot briskly along, but whose performance offers little in the way of characterization. Ritchie called his character Bill Smith, "the man from nowhere". If Ritchie had grander ambitions in terms of creating a believable (and likable) character, it is improbable that he received any encouragement from the producer to whom the comedian entrusted his entire screen career to: Henry Lehrman. Artists such as Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle balked at working with a man they considered to be a competent hack, but Ritchie's loyalty to his mentor meant that he had to sustain a breakneck schedule that made deadlines a higher priority than art. In fact, as can be seen from Ritchie's obituaries, that loyalty ultimately cost the little comic his life.
BILLIE'S ENTRY IN THE MOTION PICTURE NEWS STUDIO DIRECTORY, JANUARY 29, 1916:
RITCHIE, Billie, comedy leads, L-Ko, Universal; b. Glasgow, Scotland, 1877; stage career, vaud., com., mus. com., made debut in England wearing replica of present attire with his three sisters in 1887, also played same character in the English pantomime, "Cinderella," with Fred H. Graham; played in "A Night in an English Music Hall," also in, "A Night on Broadway, " Vanity Fair," "Around the Clock," etc., over Orpheum circuit.; m.p. career, L-Ko, playing in many one, two and three-reel farce comedies. Hght. 5 ft. 7 in., wght. 140. Studio ad., Hollywood, Cal.
BILLIE IN THE NEWS:
BILLIE RITCHIE, THE ORIGINAL "DRUNK". Billie Ritchie, in order to settle, allay and to put the quietus on all controvertionalists who contest his claims to having originated the "drunk" make-up he now uses in those screaming L-KO comedies, wishes to announce that he first used his present make-up in 1887, three years before Charles Chaplin of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was born. How's that for a left-handed slam?
In an interview in "Motography", published January 16, Chaplin gave his age as 25, which would make the year of his birth 1890, three years after Ritchie has started to popularize his style of comedy in England.
"I first used my present make-up in my vaudeville act with my three sisters in 1887," says the indomitable Billie. "I also played and used the same make-up with Fred H. Graham in the English pantomime, 'Cinderella', playing 'Baron Near Broke'. Two years later I again used the same make-up in the character of the street musician in 'Early Birds' while with the Karno company. I claim that I am the originator of this make-up and of the comedy that is associated with the make-up."
Billie Ritchie was the original "Drunk" in a "Night in an English Music Hall" in which he played the Orpheum time from coast to coast. In addition he originated the part of Bill Smith, the Man from Nowhere, in Gus Hill's musical revue, "Around the Clock." Billie estimates that he has played the drunk part made familiar in L-KO comedies more than five thousand times in America, England and France.
Ritchie's parents were variety artists before him. Billie was trained to stock work in England's oldest theater, the Theater Royal at Plymouth, England but soon started his "drunk" career by playing "father" in "Ten Nights in a Bar-room". And the strangest part of Billie's career is that, although he has been playing "drunk" parts since early manhood, he has never taken a drink.
Ritchie has been on the stage and in pictures the greater part of his life. His stage career covers vaudeville and musical comedies. His debut in England was in 1887, wearing a replica of his present attire.
In the character of the young Londoner, Mr. Ritchie created a new style of comedy. It was a combination of unusual facial expressions and acrobatic ability and it had not been seen in the United States up to that time.
In his picture career he follows the same style. Practically all his motion picture work has been done with the L-Ko-Universal companies, for which he has appeared in one, two and three-reel farce comedies.
The comedian had been ill for over two years as a result of injuries sustained while making comedy pictures. He was 42 years of age and born in Glasgow, Scotland. He appeared in English music halls before coming to this country and has been identified with picture productions for about seven years. The burial took place last Saturday at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
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