The Fixer Uppers - In the Cast
During the silent films era, when Hal Roach Studios required villainy to serve as dramatic conflict for its comedy heroes, big and brawny Noah Young would receive calls for such roles. Through the 1920s, the imposing Young physically and otherwise victimized the likes of Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard, Charley Chase, Jimmy Parrott, Clyde Cook, Glenn Tryon, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy -- once a menacing heavy himself.
Two decades later, looking thinner and less the boxing bruiser he'd been in THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (1927), for THE FIXER UPPERS Noah Young was no longer playing the heavy. Here he played the bartender who refused service to Arthur Housman.
Why use Noah Young to enact the film's raging painter when the studio could hire the wonderfully sinister, mean-looking and angry-sounding Charles Middleton? Anyone John Ford would turn to when needing wickedness writ large on the silver screen certainly ought to be good enough for service in Hal Roach comedies!
Flamboyant and theatrical, Middleton was soon to be cast as the definitive intergalactic arch-villain in the history of all movies. Beginning in 1936, Middleton would portray the feared and volatile Ming the Merciless, lecherous Emperor of the Universe, in three classic science fiction FLASH GORDON serials for Universal Pictures. Once seen, this career-making characterization is so wily, evil and distinctive it can never be forgotten. Although frightened little front-row kids might have tried! As so many of today's big directors have testified, almost all subsequent screen villainy has been measured against Middleton's "Ming" standard.
Charles Middleton appeared in three other films with Laurel & Hardy. Twice he portrayed the austere commandant in their Foreign Legion pictures, BEAU HUNKS (1931) and THE FLYING DEUCES (1939). In PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES (1932), he was a dastardly orphanage meanie. In all four films he was dead serious, looked grave, and when h-e-e-e-e-e-e-e SPOKE! ... It was fire and brimstone! The windows rattled, furniture shook, and actors hid.
Middleton also played in WAY OUT WEST, but not the Laurel & Hardy film. It was instead the 1930 same-named M-G-M feature film. Middleton's grandson, who was eight when the actor died in 1949, recently appeared at a Way Out West tent meeting in Los Angeles. That get-together turned out to be an amazing meeting. It is one thing to be a celebrity's relative. It's another to know, remember, and be able to share the stories. But also to be a performer, an actor with important television and movie credits, as well as an impressionist and voice specialist capable of bringing one's grandfather to life on a stage before an audience -- well, that was remarkable. And that's precisely what Burr Middleton, the emperor's worthy descendant, was able to do.
Fortunate fans in attendance learned that Charles B. Middleton was just an actor playing a part, and not at all like his evil characterizations now renowned in pop culture throughout the galaxy. The best of all serial directors, William Witney, wrote in his autobiography, "Charlie had the meanest face I'd ever seen. In real life he was the nicest, most gentle person imaginable."
With his turned-down scowling mouth, thundering stage voice, and exceptional skill at portraying hissable villainy, one might have thought Middleton's mad machinations would have typecast him forever in the rogues gallery. Both on and off screen. Not so. In reality, Middleton was a devoted, faithful husband, and merely known as "Grandpa Charlie" to young Burr Middleton, who also lovingly called his benevolent grandfather, "Old Pal."
Proof of his acting ability, and a clue to Middleton's true, likable personality was his role in the original HOP-A-LONG CASSIDY (1935). It was the first and best entry in the long-running B-plus western series. Middleton is absolutely sympathetic, winning, and convincing as Hoppy's good friend and boss at the Bar 20 Ranch.
Burr Middleton explains, "Charlie, as friends knew him, my 'Old Pal,' was genial, kind and pleasant to everyone. He was always smiling, always. He was like another movie antagonist, Boris Karloff -- totally different from the roles he played on the screen."
His grandson brought vaudeville posters, props, and costumes to the recent Way Out West meeting, including the bathrobe Middleton wore as the vengeance-seeking "39-0-13" (his prison convict number) in Republic's outstanding 1939 chapter play entitled DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE. This serial featured former Our Ganger and Boy Friends star Dave Sharpe, who, Burr Middleton said, kept his grandfather "mesmerized with his athletic ability."
To see that bathrobe hanging there, the one Middleton was putting on and taking off all through the serial, to realize what it represents today for even casual members of the Saturday matinee alumni, and then to watch Burr Middleton impersonate his grandfather with consummate skill, one was almost certain the real Charles Middleton was about to step out from behind the curtain there on the stage, and positively rage at everyone, "While y-o-u-u-u-u-u foolish people have been sitting HERE ... I've been out securing the mortgages, on a-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l your PROP-ity!"
Charles Middleton was born on October 7, 1874 in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. So he was sixty years old when he made THE FIXER UPPERS. He learned to swim in the same swimming hole as President Abraham Lincoln, whom he eventually portrayed on the screen six times! Middleton ran away from home at the age of twelve. He began his career as an entertainer working in circuses, carnivals and vaudeville. In time he owned several stock companies and travelled the country producing and acting in stage shows.
Eventually this six-foot three-inches tall Fighting Kentuckian moved to Hollywood in 1929. It's surprising to learn he'd been friends with the great Will Rogers since 1902. He appeared in several of the comedian's feature films during the 1930s, rivalling Rogers in DAVID HARUM, MR. SKITCH, STEAMBOAT ROUND THE BEND, and THE COUNTY CHAIRMAN.
Three decades earlier, in 1904, Middleton's mother kicked Will Rogers out of her house during festivities for the World's Fair. "Get out of my house," she told Rogers. "You are a no-good cowboy! You will never amount to anything!"
Not much. Only one of the most immensely popular folk heroes and entertainers in the history of America.
In the early 1920s, right before his series for Roach, Rogers was an enormous star of the Ziegfeld Follies on 42nd Street in New York. One night Rogers was visited backstage by then vaudeville stars Charlie Middleton and his wife, Leora. They were a team, Middleton & Spellmeyer. "Leora," Rogers told Mrs. Middleton with that wry smile of his, "there's only one thing I hold against you."
"What's that, Will?" she asked.
"You married a man who is uglier than I am!" exclaimed Rogers.
Rogers got Middleton interested in polo, same as he did for Hal Roach. That's how Roach met Middleton and first cast him in BEAU HUNKS, often cited by Roach as his favorite Laurel & Hardy film. Later Roach directed Middleton in his 1939 feature film CAPTAIN FURY.
Middleton never signed Hollywood's boilerplate seven year term talent contract, with Roach or any other studio. He freelanced, which was not the usual practice then. He was represented by William Morris. Not just the legendary William Morris Agency, now a part of show business lore. Middleton was represented by the William Morris, himself, founder of the famous company.
When not touring outer space and terrorizing the universe on behalf of his Ming dynasty, Charles Middleton created memorable characters opposite W.C. Fields in MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (1934), Harold Lloyd in WELCOME DANGER (1929), and the Marx Brothers in Leo McCarey's DUCK SOUP (1933). He worked not only in comedies, but also westerns and serials, as well as prestigious director vehicles such as James Whale's SHOW BOAT (1936) and John Ford's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940).
Middleton joined what amounted to a character actors' fraternity known as The Masquers Club, where he socialized with Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Glenn Tryon, Alan Mowbray, and Charley Chase, who practically lived at the place seeking refuge from persistent marital troubles at home. Middleton took his grandson there many times, where the young boy met and got to see scores of great actors, just being themselves and relaxing with friends. What a privilege.
"That building itself had more history than any single structure in Hollywood," Burr Middleton remembers. Located about a block north of Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of the city, this huge old residence was home to several Way Out West tent functions into the mid-1980s before it was torn down. Many of its remnants and artifacts are now housed in the Mayflower Club over in North Hollywood, present home of this Los Angeles Sons of the Desert tent. As the younger Middleton toured the current meeting place recently in North Hollywood, he recognized the old bar, the fixtures, the signed portraits and much of what he saw.
"As a boy I was lucky enough to see people like Laurel and Hardy at The Masquers Club," Middleton continued. "From just knowing the films, but not the real people, I realize it's hard for others to imagine, but they were all great friends. Charlie knew both Stan and Babe from their individual vaudeville days in the teens. Being so much older, he saw them all coming along. Vaudeville was a small community back then, nothing like show business today. I know my grandfather socialized with both Stan Laurel, and Babe Hardy. And they all hung out at The Masquer's Club.
"Babe Hardy was the carouser. He was the pool hustler and the beer drinker. I know from both my grandparents that Babe and Stan were very different kinds of people from one another but that they worked perfectly together. They respected each other, too. And really liked each other, and regularly broke each other up, both when the cameras were on, and when they were off. My grandfather sometimes had all he could do to keep a straight face around them, they were so funny. He was a professional, but it was really hard not to laugh when you were performing with those two. Can you picture Charles Middleton laughing in a scene with Laurel & Hardy? But it happened!
"Stan Laurel was the more serious of the two. He was the one who developed and oversaw their material. He supervised the editing of their films. He was extremely involved as a filmmaker; he enjoyed great latitude and control owing to Hal Roach's confidence. Whereas Babe Hardy would come in and do a hard day's work using what Stan had tailored for him, and then go out to the golf course or on out to the town where he would be on the prowl.
"From what I understand, Stan would go to the studio previews in Glendale or Pasadena, watch the audience reaction, takes notes, and study the preview cards. If something didn't work, he'd go back and fix it in the editing or talk to Roach about re-takes. He was conscientious about making the best film possible; he was the taskmaster.
"My mother told me a funny story. If you went over to Stan Laurel's house, he had a picture of Hardy on the back of the toilet seat, and vice versa at Hardy's house! She never knew why. Another thing, Stan Laurel had a toilet situation out by his pool where, if you were sitting on it, suddenly the walls would collapse flat, and you'd be out there in the open, just like the Charlie Chaplin gag with the collapsing building!"
One of Charles Middleton's last films was for Hal Roach, the Cinecolor Streamliner HERE COMES TROUBLE (1948), featuring several other old-timers, including Jimmie Finlayson. Middleton died in Los Angeles, April 22, 1949. Alan Mowbray spoke at the rites. Glenn Tryon was one of the pall bearers. They were all cronies from the Masquers Club. Another pall bearer was Herb Rawlinson; he played the part in SLIPPING WIVES that Middleton recreated in THE FIXER UPPERS.
Lastly, there is one continuity error in THE FIXER UPPERS involving Middleton, though it's not his fault. Early on we see the life-size painting of Mae Busch which Stan mistakenly speaks to when he says, "So you won't talk, eh?" Later in the film the painting is shown slashed to shreds, presumably by Middleton's character in a jealous rage. But if shot, it was edited out and not shown. So far no script for the short has surfaced to reveal further details.
-- by Richard W. Bann --