Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Billy Gilbert

Billy Gilbert began in vaudeville as a child, the son of opera singers. He made his way to Hollywood, his first film in 1929, just in time for the talkies, which suited his abilities more than silents would because Gilbert was a blusterer and a sneezer par excellence. Mr. Gilbert had a way of slurring pseudo-German-cum-Italian-cum-Greek accents and appearing as a wild, or goofy, or lost and forlorn character in over 200 films. Many of his roles were quite small, but he featured in Laurel and Hardy shorts, where he was forever chasing them with weapons, and bit parts in “Our Gang” comedies, and played the foil for the Marx Brothers and in Shirley Temple films.

His ability to affect a monstrous sneeze, used as a gag in many of his films, was also used in his voice role of Sneezy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).

We see him as the bombastic Field Marshall Herring in “The Great Dictator” (1940), and as the hapless, henpecked but lovable Mr. Pettibone in “His Girl Friday” (1940).

Billy Gilbert was one of those character actors whose personal shtick, primarily the sneezing and blustering, was his chief selling point to directors. One imagines that “Sneezy” was the role of a lifetime, his Rhett Butler.

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