Biography of Billy Gilbert (September 12, 1894 – September 23, 1971)
Early life and vaudeville career of Billy Gilbert
Born William Gilbert Barron in Louisville, Kentucky, the child of singers with the Metropolitan Opera, he began working in vaudeville at the age of 12.
Billy Gilbert’s big break in films
Billy Gilbert was spotted by Stan Laurel who was in the audience of Gilbert’s show Sensations of 1929. Stan Laurel went back stage to meet Billy Gilbert and was so impressed by him he introduced him to comedy producer Hal Roach. Billy Gilbert was employed as a gag writer, actor and director, and at the age of 35 he appeared in his first film for the Fox Film Corporation in 1929.
Billy Gilbert broke into comedy short subjects with the Vitaphone studio in 1930 (he appears without billing in the Joe Frisco comedy The Happy Hottentots, recently restored and released on DVD). Billy Gilbert’s burly frame and gruff voice made him a good comic villain, and within the year he was working for producer Hal Roach. He appeared in support of Roach’s comedy stars Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, and Our Gang. One of his Laurel and Hardy appearances was the 1932 Academy Award-winning featurette The Music Box. Billy Gilbert generally played blustery tough guys in the Roach comedies, but could play other comic characters, from fey couturiers to pompous radio announcers to roaring drunks. Billy Gilbert’s skill at dialects prompted Roach to give him his own series: big Billy Gilbert teamed with little Billy Bletcher as the Dutch-comic “Schmaltz Brothers” in offbeat musical shorts like Rhapsody in Brew. Billy Gilbert also directed these.
Like many other Roach contractees, Billy Gilbert found similar work at other studios. He appears in the early comedies of the Three Stooges at Columbia Pictures (Men in Black, Pardon My Scotch ), as well as in RKO short subjects. These led to featured roles in full-length films, and from 1934 Billy Gilbert became one of the screen’s most familiar faces.
One of his standard routines had Billy Gilbert progressively getting excited or nervous about something, and his speech would break down into facial spasms, culminating in a big, loud sneeze. He used this bit so frequently that Walt Disney thought of him immediately when casting the voice of Sneezy in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Billy Gilbert and Disney would later work together again in Mickey and the Beanstalk, with Billy Gilbert voicing Willie the Giant in a very similar way to Sneezy. Billy Gilbert did the sneeze routine in a memorable cameo in the Paramount comedy Million Dollar Legs (1932) starring W.C. Fields, Jack Oakie, Susan Fleming and Ben Turpin.
Billy Gilbert is prominent in most of the movies he appeared in. He appeared as “Herring” – a parody of Nazi official Hermann Goering – the minister of war in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; he danced with Alice Faye and Betty Grable in Tin Pan Alley; he stole scenes as a dim witted process server in the fast-paced comedy His Girl Friday; playing an Italian character, he played a rare dramatic scene opposite singer Gloria Jean in A Little Bit of Heaven. All choice Gilbert roles, and all filmed the same year (1940), which indicates how prolific and talented Billy Gilbert was. He was also the soda server to Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous.
Billy Gilbert seldom starred in movies but did have occasional opportunities to play leads. In 1943 he headlined a brief series of two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures. That same year Monogram Pictures teamed him with the urbane stage comedian Frank Fay for a comedy series; Fay left the series after the first entry, and was replaced by a more appropriate foil, fellow vaudeville veteran Shemp Howard.
Later years of Billy Gilbert
Billy Gilbert also worked in 1950s television, including a memorable pantomime sketch with Buster Keaton. He appeared regularly on the children’s program Andy’s Gang with Andy Devine. He retired from the screen in 1962, following his appearance in the feature Five Weeks in a Balloon.
Death of Billy Gilbert
Billy Gilbert died of a stroke on September 23, 1971, in Hollywood. He was cremated and his ashes scattered within the rose gardens of the Odd Fellows Cemetery, in Los Angeles. A plaque of remembrance was erected in his name nearby.
Personal life of Billy Gilbert
After an unhappy first marriage, Gilbert married Ella McKenzie in 1938. She had appeared as an ingenue in short-subject comedies. Fellow movie-star Charley Chase was the best man.
Legacy of Billy Gilbert
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Billy Gilbert has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6263 Hollywood Blvd.