Richard Carle: A Forgotten American Genius by David Soren

Richard Carle (Born in Somerville, Mass., July 7, 1871 – died North Hollywood, California, June 28, 1941) was a major force in the Broadway and Chicago theatre of the later 19th to early 20th century and after 1915 he became a character actor in at least 132 films until the time of his death. Although only remembered today by movie buffs, usually as one of the character actors one cannot recall the name of, Carle was a seminal influence and a remarkably hard worker who truly paid his dues in every aspect of vaudeville, theater and film.

He began on what was known as the Lyceum Circuit. This was an attempt to promote adult education and entertainment in America, beginning in 1826 and lasting even into the 20th century. It included traveling lecturers, shows, public education and debates moving through a Lyceum Circuit from town to town, often small towns, and especially throughout the northeast. In the later 1880s, he traveled around New England Lycea pretending to be a political candidate or reciting humorous monologues and known as a “Platform Humorist”.

Special Collections at the University of Arizona
Richard Carle in his own 1905 Broadway show The Mayor of Tokio. The ridiculous stance and knowing glance were a regular part of his comic timing and persona. From the University of Arizona Collection.

From here he attracted attention and made a slight move to the legitimate and not so legitimate theater when he went to New York City and became comic support for Peter Dailey one of the foremost and most eccentric comedians of his day and quickly found a niche in a variety of successful shows of the time, developing a reputation as a comedy enhancer or supporting figure. A theatrical trip to London brought him overseas acclaim and he returned to America in increasing demand.

Full of energy and highly intelligent, Carle learned the essence of American comic timing and with his adequate singing and dancing abilities became an essential Broadway ingredient of numerous shows in the early 1900s. Tall and slender and balding at a young age, he was adept at striking absurd poses, leaping about the stage in an awkward, mannered fashion (many thought that he was actually British since he developed so many reserved British mannerisms and attitudes and often affected a slight accent). In his early days he was particularly known for standing in a supercilious manner with his prominent rear end jutting out and giving a knowing look despite the fact that he was portraying a ridiculous person (see our photo above).

With increasing fame on Broadway came more control and Carle began to write his own shows and control their production. When they became hits he grew into a remarkable force in the history of American musical theater rivaled by a few stars such as George M. Cohan or Fred Stone for the versatility of his contributions. He would write the shows, assist in the composing of the music or compose all of it including words, direct them, cast them, star in them, do the choreography, sing and dance and do the comedy and produce the whole shows. By 1905 he was at his peak and some of his songs even became minor national hits. There were shows such as The Tenderfoot, The Maid and the Mummy and The Mayor of Tokio, which our photo postcard is from.

Although his humor was considered too naughty or bawdy or crude for the New York stage, his shows did really well in Chicago and he was able to make a profit with show after show, despite fairly weak Broadway business. For some 15 years he basically produced a show a year which earned money, a remarkable achievement matched by few on Broadway but because most of his money was made on tour or in Chicago, he is little remembered for his accomplishments.

It is easily possible to locate Richard Carle in movies (such as The Ghost Walks, 1934) although most of his silent film work in support

Richard Carle with singing comedian Hattie Williams in a 1912 production featuring music by the great Jerome Kern. From the University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection.

of the greatest comedians of his era is lost. He also branched out into dramatic roles both in theater and film and was capable of a wide range of characterizations. In the movies in the 1930s, no longer dashing about the stage or wearing ridiculous outfits, he often instead grabbed work in low budget films playing grumpy older men who were stuck in their ways and resistant to modern ways. He specialized in officious characters who thought they knew everything but didn’t or old curmudgeons who gave in to their daughters.

His work for the Poverty Row film company Invincible Pictures was typical of his later output although he also occasionally worked in major productions such as one of his last performances in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1941 That Uncertain Feeling starring Merle Oberon. A typical example of his impeccable comic timing may be found in his work with another unsung comedienne Evalyn Knapp in the now public domain comedy Three of a Kind (1936) in which he plays F. Thorndyke Penfield, the owner of the Penfield Peerless Laundry Company, a man who must constantly battle with his headstrong daughter and who is perpetually concerned with his public image while at the same time constantly forgetting what he is supposed to do or say. Evalyn Knapp as the daughter describes his 1930s comedic screen persona in the movie by referring to him as “a greedy glaoting stingy old miser of money.” For those who want to see a comedy master at work, Three of a Kind is highly recommended and easy to find for free. Watch how two scene stealers, the great and underappreciated Evalyn Knapp and Richard Carle, play together to extract all the comedy from their scenes:

The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection holds the following Richard Carle sheet music:

Richard Carle in one of his earliest works, the 1903 The Tenderfoot, from the University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection

THE TENDERFOOT 1903 – Music by H. L. Heartz. Lyrics by Richard Carle. Cover photo RICHARD CARLE in THE TENDERFOOT. A musical play in three acts as produced at the Dearborn Theatre in Chicago.

ALL THE GIRLS LOVE ME, IN SEVILLE, WAITING FOR A CERTAIN GIRL and A LEMON IN THE GARDEN OF LOVE 1906 – Words and Music by Richard Carle. “RICHARD CARLE presents himself and his songs in George Edwards’ Success of Two London Seasons THE SPRING CHICKEN, by arrangement with Klaw and Erlanger and the Gaiety Theatre Co., management of Charles Marks.”

IF NO. 1 MET NO. 2 1908 – by Richard Carle. RICHARD CARLE presents himself in MARY’S LAMB. Book by Richard Carle. Management of Charles Marks.

LITTLE GIRL I LOVE YOU 1911 – Music by Karl Hoschna. Lyrics by Richard Carle. Cover RICHARD CARLE in JUMPING JUPITER. Presented by Frazee and Lederer.


COME ON OVER HERE 1913 – Book and Lyrics by Harry B. Smith. Music by Jerome D. Kern. Cover RICHARD CARLE AND HATTIE WILLIAMS in THE DOLL GIRL. Presented by Charles Frohman.

Name: Carle
Topics: Comedians