Comedy in films has evolved in over a century of production. Beginning with rather crude and slapstick humor, easily understood by immigrants, the film industry developed increasingly sophisticated styles of comedy as it matured. Drawing-room comedies of the mid- to late teens evolved into social satires, and with the introduction of sound, verbal wordplay was introduced. Charles Butterworth reigned as one of the 1930s’ Hollywood upper-class bumbling bachelors, recognized for his subtle performances and erudite style.
Born in South Bend, Ind., to a doctor in 1899, Butterworth graduated from Notre Dame University with a law degree in 1923, supposedly entertaining his friends with writings and speeches around classes as well as performing in amateur theater and theatricals. After graduation, he began writing for the South Bend News-Times, which helped launch the careers of famous journalists Ring Lardner and J. P. McEvoy.
While in the Midwest, Butterworth spoke at local Rotary Club banquets, using, as writer Wells Root described it, “a burlesque speech on the interminable discourse of his fellow orators…It was a shrewd and subtle scourging of the nervous Babbitt speaking after dinner.” In it, Butterworth introduced various members of his “club” as “saviors of mankind” and each with their own special “gift.” The comic possessed a wit dry as a martini in the Gobi Desert, and his subtlety added to the hilariousness.
Butterworth moved to New York and worked for The New York Times before becoming secretary to McEvoy, and occasionally earned a few engagements in vaudeville with piano monologues. McEvoy wrote “Americana” in 1926, and began preparing it for the stage. He allowed Butterworth to audition, with the comic employing what became his “Rotary” speech. McEvoy loved it, casting him in a small role in the play, which soon grew to include several sketches. Butterworth ended up stealing the show.
Root praised the show in his New York World review, which ran in The Los Angeles Times on July 31, 1926. The critic stated, “We do not recall the work of a completely unknown and inexperienced player making such an impression in many months.” Daily Variety called Butterworth a “sad-faced jester” in its review and found him devastating.
By 1929, Butterworth had appeared in several Broadway musical shows like “Allez Oop,” “Good Boy,” and “Sweet Adeline,” before being signed to a contract to appear in a short filmed at the Long Island studio with comedian Fred Allen directing. This work led to a small role in “Ladies of Leisure,” before Warner Bros. signed him to a contract in May 1930. Soon after, he co-starred in the two-strip Technicolor Vitaphone feature “Life of the Party” with Winnie Lightner, receiving excellent reviews for “his comical deadpan.”
Critics loved him. Times writer Philip Scheuer in his Feb. 23, 1931, review of “Illicit “called Butterworth, “A wistful little man, one whom you would expect to find dreaming beside his butterfly nets and beetle cases and seems never to be quite in the same room with the mere mortals, who surround his physical self, so that when he speaks, we are always a bit taken back, and more than a bit impressed…I hope Warner Bros. will not spoil everything by putting its owner into too many pictures indiscriminately.” Alexander Woolcott called him a “master of understatement.”
Many critics noted the “irrepressibly buoyant” comedy coming from such a sad-faced individual. They marked his bewildered looks and droll sense of humor. Butterworth found some of these comments baffling. He complained to The Times in May 1931 that “Critics started comparing me to Greta Garbo, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, and the Sphinx,” but he considered himself a clown.
The statement above reveals Butterworth’s intelligent way with words. On his studio biography, the comedian listed “Bobbing for apples, reading pamphlets, and watching water go over the dam” as his hobbies. His quips caused Times columnist Alma Whitaker in March 1934 to call him a “professional silly ass.”
The comic wrote most of his own dialogue, with studios providing him a script in outline form, and he would contemplate the characters and plot before writing quips. When Butterworth arrived on the set, he offered many different line readings until the scene seemed to jell. His job was to create hilarious and likable characters. As Butterworth told Film Daily in 1936, “To me, character comedy is the only kind worth bothering about. I have no use for gag comedy.”
His supporting parts always enlivened proceedings, such as in the 1934 MGM film “Hollywood Party,” or the hilarious 1932 short “The Stolen Jools,” where he claims to be Louise Fazenda. Butterworth also garnered praise for his performances in Paramount’s 1932 film “Love Me Tonight,” and “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back,” a 1934 Fox film. He also appeared in such dramas as “Illicit” and the 1935 “Magnificent Obsession.” The actor moved from studio to studio while appearing in strong supporting roles.
In 1936, Butterworth signed on as a regular performer in Fred Astaire’s radio show, an oddity, considering Astaire’s greatest talent was dancing. Butterworth performed monologues and sketches on the short-lived program.
In real life, Butterworth was an introvert, preferring quiet gatherings with friends like Marc Connelly, Robert Benchley, Oscar Hammerstein, and Harry Ruby, who formed the Butterworth Athletic Club after he bought the baseball equipment. Hammerstein later composed a hymn and a pep song for the group. Butterworth also swam and played tennis.
Butterworth married Ethel, the former wife of Eddie Sutherland in 1933, and in 1935, built her a $50,000 house designed by Lloyd Wright at 400 Parkwood Drive in Holmby Hills. By 1937, however, the couple separated. When Ethel Butterworth filed for divorce in 1939, she called him “…irritable, rude and quarrelsome” and complained that he found her friends boring, either leaving the house or staying by himself when they came over.
Butterworth’s issues might have revolved around alcohol, as he landed in the hospital a few times over the years. In 1972, Maude Chasen of Chasen’s Restaurant remembered an incident with Butterworth “driving his MG through the front door and telling the bartender to fill ‘er up.”
During World War II, Butterworth performed with Bob Hope on USO tours around the world. He flitted from studio to studio appearing in lesser quality films, until landing in poverty row productions.
On June 13, 1946, Butterworth left a nightclub party to return home. Speeding down Sunset Boulevard, he lost control of his French Magnette runabout at the intersection of Sunset and La Cienega Boulevard. The car slid 180 feet before crashing into a lamppost. The impact threw Butterworth from the car, and his head hit the pavement, leading to a fractured skull. He died en route to the hospital. Butterworth’s blood-alcohol level was 0.25% per the autopsy, more than two times the legal limit then, and more than three times the current blood-alcohol limit.
Butterworth left behind a sister-in-law, Mrs. Lillian Butterworth, and three nephews and one niece. The actor left a $150,000 estate, giving generous bequests to friends and relatives, with St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City claiming the vast majority of the estate.
Butterworth’s effete naivete and articulate banter is sadly missed in today’s world of cursing, scatological “humor.”