George E. Stone in a photo courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Velvet Smith, Sparrow, Slinky, Dippy, Johnnie the Shark, Spats, Tough Tony, Ropes, McGonigle, Toothpick Charlie: just a few of the wise guy characters that made diminutive character actor George E. Stone famous. Though actually Jewish, the sharp-dressed Stone is more remembered for playing flashy Italian street toughs than the many ethnic characters he portrayed in films. While similar in many ways to most of the characters he played on screen, the likable actor suffered more emotional hardship than many film characters.
Born Gerschon Lichtenstein May 18, 1900 (or possibly 1902 or 1903), in Lodz, Poland, young Georgie Stone and his family struggled, so much so that the young lad began working in a silk factory at the age of six, at least per New Movie Magazine in 1935. On his way home one day, he saw fellow Jews slaughtered in a front of his eyes, and played dead to escape the pogrom. The family was smuggled into Germany on a hay wagon, with his father coming to America to make a living and support the family. Mother and children were supposedly turned away twice at Ellis Island because of one of the girl’s eye infection, before entering the country in 1912. The children’s mother had died before they arrived, and their new stepmother detested them, so Stone ran away from home. Stone became a naturalized citizen August 17, 1915, in New York City, living at 231 W. 96th St.
George E. Stone in Modern Screen Magazine.
Stone told Sidney Skolsky for a 1933 article that he ran away at 14, sold newspapers, and worked in hat factory, before ending up a page at the Lambs’ Club in New York. Actor William Farnum befriended him, sponsoring his stage debut, and helped him supposedly land extra parts in movies, including “The End of the Trail” in 1916, and such other films as “Going Straight,” “Gretchen the Greenhorn,” and “The School Ma’am.”
He played a song and dance man on stage, burlesque, and vaudeville, appearing in the act, “The Nine Crazy Kids,” Gus Edward’s Kids,” with Eva Shirley, in the floor show at the Silver Slipper nightclub, and formed the act, Eileen and Stone. In 1923, Stone performed in Shubert’s “Artists and Models” at the Winter Garden Theatre. The go-getter even produced a show called “George Stone’s Rolling Stones.”
While performing in the show, “Hello Lola,” Stone broke his leg, and while recuperating, Ben Bard suggested he make a film test. Plucked from obscurity, the young man first appeared on screen in Fox Films’ “Seventh Heaven” as the sewer rat. His career as a street rat took off, with the five foot, three inch, 110 pound tough guy playing small, colorful parts in his next few films as characters named “Velvet Smith,” “Flash Hoxy,” ,”Limey,” “Sparrow,” and “Slinkey.” Many of these characters suffered cruel deaths by shooting or suffocation, either for squealing or just getting just desserts.
Audiences began noticing the intense Stone, as did critics. His streetwise, Runyonesque characters felt human, be they comic or tragic, thanks to his years surviving in tough neighborhoods. Like many of them, Stone swaggered down the street, finely dressed and looking for a little action, either poker, horseracing, or enjoying the ladies. In real life, cock of the walk Stone worked out at the gym every day, earning the nickname Lion.
Mae Clarke and George E. Stone at Santa Anita, Modern Screen Magazine.
Hollywood Filmograph felt he gave a commendable performance in the 1929 film, “Melody Lane,” while Exhibitors Herald Film called his work outstanding. Critics and audiences alike enjoyed Stone’s screen work, giving him praise for his acting in films ranging from “Little Caesar” to “42nd Street.” The prolific Stone enjoyed the steady work of the character actor, telling New Movie magazine in May 1934, “I haven’t the stature or the Adonis looks to be a matinee idol.”
Stone gave some of his finest performances in Jewish roles, starting with the role of Sol Levy, the Jewish merchant in the 1931 film, “Cimarron.” Many reviewers found his work notable, with some hoping it might land him meatier parts. The Olean Evening Herald wrote on February 26, 1931, “His performance will probably change the course of his career, for hitherto he has been typed almost exclusively in underworld roles.” They thought he would be considered one of the finest character actors after this film, but instead, studios seemed to mostly pigeonhole him once again as weak links in the gangster underworld. Stone did occasionally land comic parts in westerns or B-pictures, but never totally seemed to break out of studio typecasting.
While perhaps not a practicing Jew, Stone did support his faith by performing in Temple Emanu-El’s revel on June 13, 1931, and often taking part in charity and fundraising productions.
In 1933, Stone starred in “The Big Brain,” also known as “Enemies of Society,” one of the few times he actually top lined a film. The November 9, 1933 Oakland Tribune employed the tagline, “George Stone is the go-getter who goes from gutter to broker and back again in double quick time” in describing the film. Critics praised his performance. The December 17, 1933 Syracuse Herald stated, “George E. Stone has had only small parts in a lot of pictures, but in each instance he has made that part so vital that the picture would not have been complete without it.” Unfortunately, the picture did poorly at the box office, and Stone found himself again stuck mostly playing screen weasels, such as the dope fiend flunky to C. Henry Gordon in “Penthouse.”
Stone once again played a moving Jewish part in “The Frisco Kid” with James Cagney in 1935, with Movie Classic calling his performance “a magnificent portrayal, tinged with both pathos and comedy.” One wire piece claimed that Cagney had to teach the Polish actor Yiddish for the film, though his immigration form mentions he spoke the language.
George E. Stone in “The Big Brain” also known as “Enemies of Society,” Film Daily.
Jokester Stone enjoyed working on “Hold “Em Yale” in 1935, since he could clown around with Andy Clyde and Warren Hymer. Movie Classic called them “natural gagsters” for sitting around between takes trying to top each other’s jokes.
The son of Mr. and Mrs. Morris Stone of Patterson, New Jersey married for the first time March 25, 1937, taking Ida Pleet as his bride. The short-lived marriage ended in 1938. Stone married Marjorie Ramey March 4, 1945, but that too, ended quickly.
On July 18, 1937, Stone performed on radio station WJZ in a production of “Twelfth Night” with John Barrymore, Spring Byington, and Alan Dinehart, playing Feste, seemingly the only time he tried Shakespeare. In 1936, Stone had performed in the drama, “Anthony Adverse.” Critics seemed to feel he might be ready for such things, as Silver Screen wrote in February 1937, “Every time you see George E. Stone in a picture you know you’re going to see a fine bit of acting. George’s parts are rarely large, but it’s George’s role and scenes you recall rather than those of the hero.”
From 1941 to 1948, Stone performed the character “The Runt” twelve times in the Boston Blackie film series. The weaselly assistant to Blackie, the Runt often functioned as the film’s comedy relief. Many reviewers found him hilarious in the first several, but by the middle, trades such as the Independent Exhibitors Bulletin called his acting “forced and repetitious.”
Stone played another sympathetic Jewish part in “Abie’s Irish Rose” in 1946, with several critics noting he ended up with many of the best laughs in the film.
Over the next decade, Stone appeared in such films as “Bloodhounds of Broadway,” “Pickup on South Street,” “The Robe,” The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Guys and Dolls,” and “Some Came Running,” as well as TV shows, often playing his good old standby, Runyonesque underworld characters.
The diminutive actor suffered illnesses over the years. He fell ill with pneumonia in 1936, losing out on a film, and underwent minor surgery another time. Stone fell ill again in 1948, and in the early 1950s, began losing his sight. Perhaps an early form of macular degeneration, his sight began fading away almost to darkness in both eyes, and he couldn’t afford surgery. He told The Daily Mirror on November 1958, “To me, it meant the end of everything I’d taken for granted.” Loretta Young gave him a card with a small prayer, which gave him faith and hope. Friends raised the funds for two operations at Cedars of Lebanon in 1958 to save his sight. The surgery left him able to see slightly.
He continued acting in small roles, playing a court clerk in episodes of the television show “Perry Mason” for years, as well as making appearances in films like “Some Like It Hot,” “Bells Are Ringing,” and “Ocean’s 11.”
Stone ended up living at the Motion Picture Country Home after suffering a major stroke in 1966 which left him bedridden and unable to speak for more than ten months. He died May 26, 1967, and his funeral was held May 28 at Mt. Sinai near Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills. HIs two sisters survived him.
The dapper little Stone stole many pictures with his cocky yet vulnerable characters who yearned for a place to fit in. Audiences could identify with these roles, feeling just as invisible and bereft as Stone’s characters, as they all looked for shelter and salvation either through laughs or pathos.