October 4, 2007

Billie Ritchie was born in Scotland in 1874 and joined the world-renowned Karno Fun Factory and Comedy Troupe traveling the world with Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, among others. In 1916 he left Karno and began making silent films for director Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s L-Ko Comedy studios and then his Fox/Sunshine Studios. Ritchie always claimed that Charlie Chaplin imitated his on-stage character of a rag-bedecked “little tramp,” although he himself was saddled with the description of being one of the many Chaplin imitators.

Early movie magazines seem to support his claim. In an early 1915 article Moving Picture World described Ritchie as the original “Drunk” in a “Night in an English Music Hall,” a role he performed coast to coast with the Orpheum circuit. Ritchie estimated he had played the role, which Chaplin used in his Karno tours and evolved into the “Tramp” character, more than 5,000 times in America, England and France. Interestingly, in real life he never took a drop of liquor.

In 1919 Ritchie was injured while making a Lehrmann comedy when several ostriches used in filming attacked the unfortunate actor. It was probably on the set of A Twilight Baby, filmed in the fall of 1919 and released in January of 1920. It was directed by Jack White for Henry Lehrman’s production company. The accident was one of many examples of Lehrman’s common practice of putting actors in dangerous situations; his was nicknamed “Suicide” after he let several live lions lose on a group of extras in one of his early silents. Good thing the screaming wasn’t on tape! In another earlier film featuring Ritchie, Silk Hose and High Pressure, he was catapulted 30’ into the air using high pressure water hoses.

The ostrich attack seriously injured Ritchie and over the next two years he was confined to his bed at home at 1200 McCadden Place with serious back and internal injuries. He eventually succumbed to his injuries on July 6, 1921, dying in bed at the age of 42, leaving his wife Winifred and a 20 year-old daughter Wyn.

Ritchie had a good number of interesting “small world” coincidences in his final films, featuring some of the more infamous Hollywood personalities. His second to last film, in 1918, was The Fatal Marriage for Lehrman and Christy Cabanne, co-starring alongside actor Hugh Faye. Faye is unknown to most Hollywood historians but researches have pretty much confirmed that “Hughie” Faye was also known as “The Count,” one of the most notorious studio drug dealers in the early 1920’s. He is acknowledged to have been responsible for hooking and eventually killing) Mabel Normand and Wallace Reid, two of the most famous names in silent film. Ritchie’s final film A Twilight Baby (1920) featured an untalented female lead named Virginia Rappe, of Roscoe Arbuckle fame.

Another forgotten name with a great story…