Henry Armetta, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
In many films of the 1930s and 1940s, what audiences remember most are the one-of-a-kind supporting players, with vibrant personalities, colorful ways of talking, recognizable tics and dramatic looks. Many of these people came to be called “picture stealers,” because their antics stood out in entertaining ways.
As an April 7, 1935, Los Angeles Times story put it, “Many of these men are middle-aged and so true to a “type,” according to movie standards, that they will continue to enact typical roles until they pass from the scene. They command good salaries, may only work a week on a picture, but are considered indispensable by casting directors.” One of these popular actors was the frantic and excitable Henry Armetta.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” for the Kindle is available from Amazon.
Born in Palermo, Italy, on July 4, 1889, Armetta grew up the son of a ship’s provisioner. He stowed away on a freighter in 1902, bound for Boston. He was seized upon entering the United States, but an Italian barber took him in and put him to work in his shop as a latherer. Not long after, Armetta ran away to New York City, finding a job in railroad construction as a water boy. He lasted a few days somewhere in the West, before hopping a train to return back East, as reported by the July 6, 1935, New York Times.
At 15, Armetta found a job as a pants-presser and tailor at the Lambs’ Club, an actors’ clubhouse. He quickly befriended actor Raymond Hitchcock, and soon became his valet. Armetta explained working for Hitchcock to the New York Times in that July 1935 story. “He was a marvelous man, Raymond Hitchcock. He never called me his valet. Always he told people that I am his protégé. So we have great fun.” They would sing together. Hitchcock found him extra work earning 50 cents a day and then as a chorus boy, both in “King Dodo” in 1903, and “The Yankee Consul” in 1904-1905. Armetta loved the spotlight, and discovered his natural tendencies made people laugh, like slapping himself on the head, per the July 1935 Modern Screen.
After more than five years with Hitchcock, he left to work for actor William Farnum. As Helen Fay Ludlam, Farnum’s publicist described it in the September 1936 Modern Screen, Farnum had to work to keep Armetta cool, as his worrying tendencies caused excitable commotions. Farnum would keep calm when talking about issues or appointments in order not to rattle Armetta, per Ludlam, as Armetta’s antics when flustered resulted from “extreme conscientiousness.” The actor panicked at the drop of a hat.
Like Hitchcock, Farnum enjoyed working and singing with Armetta, a generous and charming man, and helped land him parts in his pictures filming here in Los Angeles. Because of his somewhat threatening looks, Armetta landed mostly villain parts starting in 1915, playing Mexicans, Spaniards and Italians. He also worked as a property man, makeup man, and assistant director.
When Armetta married, his wife thought he should focus on his acting career, and the couple moved back to New York. Armetta suffered through slim pickings for two years before finding occasional work with Fox Films at 10th Avenue and 55th Street. In 1923, Director J. Gordon Edwards took him to Italy as an interpreter on the film “The Shepherd King.” Armetta also appeared in “Silent Command” that year with Bela Lugosi and Edmund Lowe. He decided to try to parley this opportunity into something bigger, and so he and his wife returned to Hollywood in 1924, where his comic asides quickly established him as a scene-stealer in westerns and slapstick comedies. As Ludlam explained it, “Henry Armetta doesn’t need gags — he looks funny.”
Director Frank Borzage helped push him into larger supporting player status, when he cast Armetta in his 1928 film “Street Angel.” Armetta thought he should walk differently in the film, as a somewhat older and less conditioned man would. He taped a pillow to his belly, which caused one shoulder to hunch and led to a funny walk, which was a hit. Armetta earned $125 a week for the role, and soon after raised his rate to $450 a week, which almost halted his film career. D. W. Griffith hired him at that rate for “Lady of the Pavements,” and Armetta was on his way. The actor earned nice roles in “In Old Arizona” and “The Hurdy Gurdy Man,” among others.
In 1929, Armetta appeared in the film “Jazz Heaven” with Clyde Cook, filming a sequence which probably inspired Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s actions in the 1932 short, “The Music Box.” Cook and Armetta must carry a piano down flights of narrow stairs, without disrupting the sleeping landlady, and of course, mishaps ensued. The New York Times review for the film noted that Armetta was “excellent both in accent and in his woeful expression.”
Armetta appeared in Radio two-reel shorts in 1930, before appearing in several MGM films in 1931. In 1932, he went freelance, with Warner Bros. rushing him into the film “Tiger Shark” with Edward G. Robinson. The May 8, 1932, New York Times gossip column noted that, “Mr. Armetta is the apoplectic man who gave the MGM pictures some of their most hilarious moments last year.” In September, the paper noted that he was popular among directors “whenever they find in their scripts a part calling for a Latin gentleman of middle years and excitable disposition.”
Armetta made $500 a week in 1934, and ranked fourth among actors for number of days before the camera that year. He was one of the 46 busiest actors, appearing in 28 films in the years 1933 and 1934. People liked him, both those he worked with and filmgoers, because they found him charming and delightful. Off the screen, Armetta was sincere, modest, and generous, renowned for his barbecue and spaghetti parties. He also supported the Italian restaurant Lucca at 5th Street and Western Avenue, along with Helen Morgan, Mae West and Edgar Kennedy. In fact, Armetta was often too generous, reporting to the July 1935 Modern Screen that, “I no save da money.”
By 1935, Armetta moved into feature supporting roles onscreen, gaining more recognition and popularity for his talent. As the September 1936 Modern Screen described Armetta, “He doesn’t have to do a thing, but he steals practically every scene he is in. Regardless of the action the audience keeps on chuckling, holding in the big laugh with difficulty until Armetta perhaps lifts an eyebrow — then the house, unable to hold in any longer, truly rocks with laughter…He is the 1000% gloom-proof actor on the screen today.”
Armetta began making personal appearances in support of his films in June 1937, appearing in a sketch with Dee Loretta on the East Coast on behalf of his Universal films. By 1939, he was making regular personal appearances at the Loew’s State Theatre in New York City, appearing with the likes of Marie Wilson and Betty Hutton.
The comedian also appeared more and more at charity events, from playing in the Stars and Comedians baseball games at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field to earn money for Mt. Sinai Hospital, to taking part in a fundraiser to help animals in August 1939.
On Oct. 22, 1945, Armetta collapsed of a heart attack backstage at San Diego’s Russ Auditorium several minutes after the opening of “Opening Nights.” He was rushed to the hospital, where he died at the age of 57. The New York Times Oct. 23, 1945, obituary praised his talents. “Few comedians have drawn more laughs from moving pictures audiences than did Henry Armetta. He usually appeared as an explosive Italian with an ample waist line, a list to starboard when walking, a ferocious grin, an amazing scowl, a habit of thwacking himself on the forehead with open hand and biting his mustache in moments of stress and strain — which were always constant.”
A Requiem Mass was held for him at 10 a.m. on Oct. 26, 1945, at Beverly Hills’ Church of the Good Shepherd, followed by burial at Holy Cross Cemetery. At his death, he resided with his family at 301 S. Rodeo Drive.
Armetta’s exuberant, likable brand of apoplexy, shame and concern earned huge laughs from appreciative audiences, many of whom recognized their own foibles and disasters in his expressive performances. His demonstrative actions captured filmgoers’ hearts.