BOOTLEG FILES 419: “The Candy Kid” (1917 comedy starring Billy West and Oliver Hardy).
LAST SEEN: A truncated version is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Not that I can determine.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An expired copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
This week’s column is somewhat different because I am not focusing on a motion picture that has been bootlegged. Instead, the bootlegging involves the appropriation of intellectual property – in this case, the on-screen persona of the most famous figure in film comedy history. The bootlegger is an individual who is only remembered today for ripping off a comic icon.
During the mid-1910s, Charlie Chaplin became a cultural phenomenon. While he was not the first performer to achieve recognition from film acting, Chaplin’s astonishing rise to fame made him the first entertainment superstar of the 20th century. Indeed, audience demand for Chaplin’s films became so great that theater exhibitors feared that they would be caught without enough new Chaplin movies to satisfy audiences.
But if the real Chaplin did not have enough films available for release, perhaps a faux-Chaplin could fill his oversized shoes? Enter Billy West, born in Russia as Roy Weissburg. West made his film debut in the 1912 comedy short “Apartment No. 13,” but he created no particular impression on audiences. In either 1915 or 1916 (exact details are a bit scant), West was contracted by the King Bee Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, to star in a series of two-reel comedies inspired by Chaplin’s work.
West’s on-screen persona was a carbon copy of Chaplin’s tramp character: battered derby, tight jacket, baggy pants, XXL shoes and a bamboo cane. West’s features were hidden beneath a large square mustache that twitched below nostrils, extra dark eyebrows that arched over his staring eyes, and a thick crop of wavy hair parted down the center of his skull. (He reportedly slept in curlers in order to make his normally straight hair closer in style to Chaplin’s coarse locks.)
However, there were a few problems. For starters, West bore no facial resemblance to Chaplin. In still photographs, he looked like some guy off the street who dressed up like Chaplin for a costume party. West tried to compensate for the lack of resemblance by imitating Chaplin’s distinctive physical shtick: the lopsided waddle-walk, the coy grins, the ability to use his cane as a weapon or a tool, etc. But while West was able to mimic certain aspects of the Chaplin act, he never truly duplicated the funnyman’s timing and style.
The King Bee hierarchy sought to push the Chaplin imitation further by giving West’s films as much of a Chaplinesque feeling as possible. West was provided with lovely ingenues who bore more than a passing resemblance to Edna Purviance, the charming leading lady of the Chaplin canon. Chaplin’s one-time co-stars Leo White and Mack Swain also turned up in some of West’s films, thus giving the impression that West’s work was a continuation of the Chaplin stock ensemble.
For contemporary audiences, the most notable aspect of the West films is the perennial villain. During his Mutual period, Chaplin relied on heavy-set Scottish actor Eric Campbell, who was mostly disguised beneath heavy eyebrows and bushy beards. The King Bee casting department brought in a little-known Georgia actor named Oliver Hardy, whose bulky height enabled him to physically dominate the tiny West in comic situations.
Through the latter half of the 1910s, West’s Chaplinesque comedies borrowed heavily from the plots and physical gags of the Chaplin output. Even the titles of West’s films sounded too familiar to Chaplin’s titles: “Dough Nuts,” “The Hobo” and “His Day Out” all had a Chaplin ring to them.
Reportedly, some theater owners showed West’s work while falsely claiming they were screening Chaplin comedies. But, strangely, West and his King Bee employers were never on the receiving end of Chaplin’s aggressive efforts to sue companies that profited by ripping off his screen image. There is a story that Chaplin actually saw West in costume and make-up while the latter was shooting a film on a Los Angeles street – and Chaplin supposedly called out to his clone, “You’re a damned good imitator!”
But was West that good? Most of West’s films are not readily available for screening – I assume that many of them are lost – and one of the few can be easily accessed suggests that West and his team were somewhat subpar. “The Candy Kid” is a 1917 effort that is so thoroughly indolent in its concept and presentation that it is impossible to imagine anyone mistaking West for Chaplin.
“The Candy Kid” involves a feud between the proprietors of rival confectionary cafes. Blustery Oliver Hardy runs one establishment while oily Leo White runs another. When Hardy manages to lure away White’s customers and cashier, White hires West to get work in Hardy’s establishment and sabotage the cafe. Not surprisingly, the would-be saboteur’s efforts go hopelessly awry.
As comedies go, “The Candy Kid” is fascinating only for being so painfully unfunny. West’s timing is completely off, and slapstick scenes where he trying to hide a bomb behind his back from a suspicious cop or where he is chasing an elusive insect with an oversized swatter are totally inept in their timing and execution.
While West is able to hijack a few Chaplinesque gestures here and there, his utter lack of charisma makes him an unlikable center of attention. One gag underlines what went wrong: while being interviewed by White, West swipes a large handful of candies and deposits them in his hat, which he places on his head. Once outside of West’s cafe, he pauses before two passing ladies and raises his hat, causing the enclosed candies to shower on his head and all over the street. The problem is that West is so busy imitating Chaplin’s physical comedy that he forgot to include an emotional element to it – he keeps the same dull, blank expression when he is swiping and hiding the candy and when his would-be gallantry exposes him as a thief. Had Chaplin performed the scene, he would have easily run a gamut of emotions to convey the quickly changing situation. West, however, only kept Chaplin’s mechanical movements – he never duplicated Chaplin’s soul.
West was not entirely happy finding stardom as a Chaplin imitator, and at one point he balked at performing while his producers tried to renew his contract. In order to maintain their quote, West’s producers replaced him with actor Harry Mann – thus, Mann was imitating West imitating Chaplin! By the early 1920s, West had enough of the Chaplin act and sought to establish his own persona in a series of two-reel comedies. He also directed and produced a few films based on the Winnie Winkle comic strip. By the end of the silent film era, though, West’s career went into a nosedive. He worked through the 1930s doing bit parts in films at Columbia Pictures, where he eventually found steadier work as an assistant director. He also supplemented his income as a restaurant manager. West lived out his final years in obscurity and died in 1975 of a heart attack while leaving Hollywood Park racetrack.
“The Candy Kid” is available in a truncated version on YouTube; I don’t know if it was ever released on video, though anyone can release it because its copyright expired. The film may not be special, but at least it provides a glimpse at the work of a comic who only became famous by bootlegging the act of a greater talent. Sadly, the real Billy West never had a chance to be a star in his own right.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!