Historicist: The King of Deadpan
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Historicist: The King of Deadpan

The inimitable comedian Ned Sparks.

Ned Sparks (centre) with group in Toronto, 1940s, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4302.

“[A]nd do you mind being called Lord Sourpuss?” a Toronto Star (July 13, 1940) reporter asked. “No I don’t mind,” Ned Sparks replied, “I am a sourpuss. I get money for being a sourpuss. Can you get money for being a sourpuss?” The Ontario-born comedic actor, at the height of his fame in the 1930s and 1940s, made millions for his deadpan delivery of caustic quips on the silver screen. Retaining his Canadian citizenship, the dour-faced actor with the foghorn voice was a frequent visitor to Toronto and his hometown of St. Thomas throughout his life, maintaining that he’d return to stay if there was a Canadian film industry in which to ply his trade. At the outset of the Second World War, Sparks temporarily retired from the movie industry to reside in Toronto and assist in the war effort. At every stage of his life, he encountered comical situations that wouldn’t have been out-of-place in his Hollywood comedies.

Born Edward A. Sparkman in Guelph in 1883, Sparks grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario. At the age of 16, Sparks got a job selling snacks aboard a west-bound train that he subsequently abandoned so he could head north to seek his fortunate in the Klondike gold rush. He tried prospecting near Dawson City, Yukon. Luckless and hungry, he soon migrated into town.

Although his speaking voice croaked like a frog, Sparks had a mellifluous singing voice as a tenor, and he quickly earned himself a job on-stage with a troupe of entertainers. “They gave me a place to sleep, my food, and five dollars a week,” Sparks recalled in a New York Post article quoted in Charles Foster’s Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Dundurn, 2003). “This was much better than no place to sleep, no food, and no dollars a week so I accepted.” Travelling from tavern to tavern across the Yukon and Alaska for two years filled with equal parts humour and fear, Sparks performed alongside colourful characters including a lead singer—with five diamond-studded gold teeth—who auctioned herself off at the end of the night to any audience member with a warm room. He assessed their collective efforts as “surely the worst show any company ever staged anywhere.”

Returning home from the Klondike, Sparks enrolled in theological studies in Toronto at his family’s urging. He lasted only two years before deciding he wasn’t cut out to be a man of the cloth—although he carried a bible given to him by his mother for the rest of his days. While working odd jobs and selling tickets for the railroad in Toronto, Sparks returned to the stage, securing supporting roles in touring companies’ productions that came to town. When he’d begun earning enough to quit the railroad, Sparks decided to try his luck as a full-time actor in New York City.

Right: Still of Ned Sparks from Lady for a Day (1933).

Arriving on Broadway at the age of 24, he found he was back to eking out a living on bit parts and tending bar at a seedy dive, often unable to afford his next meal. He was usually called upon, he later told a reporter, to play “smiling-faced insipid characters” but rightly ascertained that he was not fated to be a conventional leading man.

On opening night of Little Miss Brown in 1913, in which he was to play a grinning hotel clerk, Sparks performed his scene with a stern, deadpan face. His improvisation proved so comical that the leading lady, who’d encouraged this gag, broke down in a fit of laughter. The director was furious, but Sparks was such a hit with the audience and critics that the producers doubled his salary. From that moment, Sparks focused his career on playing variations on the same character: a sourpuss who delivered one-liners in a distinctive nasal drone. He never again cracked a smile. This deadpan routine made him a star on Broadway and then one of the film industry’s most popular character actors.

Prior to his arrival in Hollywood in 1919, Sparks had already appeared in numerous pictures filmed at the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn while appearing on Broadway at night. But, once his stage career was threatened by his leadership role in the same actors strike that derailed Berton Churchill’s, Sparks headed west.

He found steady silent film work in the 1920s, but offers were declining by the close of the decade. “It was pretty tough sledding when there were a half a dozen actors who looked like somebody and the one who would work the cheapest always got the job,” Sparks recalled for a reporter. “I never really was in the movie industry until talking pictures came along. I just sort of hung around on the outside taking jobs whenever I could get them—which wasn’t often.” But the introduction of talking pictures—capturing his inimitably gruff voice—reinvigorated his career beginning with his role in The Big Noise (1928), only the second sound film produced.

Above left: Still of Ned Sparks from Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).

Sparks’ movie career reached its apex in the 1930s, when he started in his most enduring productions: 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Lady for a Day (1933), and countless lesser films. Throughout the 1930s, he was a regular feature on radio programs and comedies, including 1935’s “Canada’s Radio Rally,” an hour of comedy, music, and documentary featuring a range of performers located in communities from coast-to-coast.

With his hangdog expression and sunken eyes, as well as his crabby demeanour and ever-present cigar, Sparks was a popular subject for impressionists and animators who regularly immortalized him in cartoon shorts in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Sparks had had an unhappy experience on a short-term contract with MGM early in his Hollywood career. After signing on to make six movies over a year’s time for $5,200, Sparks discovered that not only did he have no choice in which films to make, but his contract allowed MGM to use him as an unpaid extra as frequently as the studio demanded. After that experience, Sparks refused to ever again commit to a long-term contract. A freelance actor, he signed on only for single projects that interested him. An audience favourite who stole scenes from bigger stars, Sparks was often called upon to add comedic relief to troubled productions, John Stirling notes in a Globe and Mail (January 1, 1982) profile of the actor, and his often brief appearances were regularly cited by critics as the highlight of many otherwise forgettable films.

Sparks was well-paid as an actor—earning $4,000 per week or $16,000 per film by the 1940s—but his fortunate turn was truly the result of savvy investments and shrewd financial management. From his arrival in Hollywood, he maintained a meticulous ledger of every film he worked on and dollar made—all the better to accurately track income tax owed to the government. He kept an office in downtown Los Angeles—its bookshelves lined with a seemingly endless assortment of books on finance and issues of investor newspapers. Here, he could check the stock ticker and manage his portfolio. Study financial history and keep well apprised of present market conditions, he offered as advice to a reporter in 1937. “Above all,” he added, “be sure that you can afford to lose, and finally, if you don’t try to make too much, you stand a fair chance of success.” Sparks didn’t share financial figures, but his investments were reputed to earn double his Hollywood salary. At one point, the Toronto Star reported that he intended to retire from Hollywood to become active in the management of an Ontario gold mine of which he was among the principal owners.

Sparks even tried to game the income tax system, writing off a set of dentures—which he only used on-screen, never to eat—as a $3,000 business expense. But the federal government disputed his claim and in the ensuing court case, experts testified that Sparks’ false teeth were not specially-made to eliminate a hiss from his voice—as the actor had claimed—the teeth were ruled to be a luxury. “I thought about carrying my dentures to the supreme court,” Sparks declared after having already fought the case for five years. “It was not the principle of the thing. It was the money. But I decided the high judges were too busy with the New Deal and things to bother about my teeth, important though they are.”

Above right: Still of Ned Sparks from Lady for a Day (1933).

Because he never signed a long-term contract, Sparks was never a priority of studio publicity departments. Few stories, it seems, were placed in the newspapers on his behalf as studios focused on publicizing their own stable of stars. His level of fame was similarly checked by a run-in with William Randolph Hearst. On the set of Raoul Walsh’s Going Hollywood (1933), Sparks grew frustrated with the endless takes Marion Davies, his untalented co-star—and the newspaper magnate’s mistress—needed to complete a scene when a stranger approached and asked his opinion of Davies as an actress. “I have more talent in my big toe than she has in her whole body,” he replied honestly before the stranger stormed off in a huff. By the time Sparks realized the stranger was Hearst, the ruthless businessman had blackballed any mention of Sparks in any newspaper in the Hearst syndicate. So Sparks learned to maximize his own publicity.

He earned headlines in 1936 when news circulated that he’d secured insurance through Lloyds of London that would pay him $100,000 for damage to his professional reputation if any photographer ever snapped a photo of Sparks smiling. In fact, he admitted years later, it was a publicity stunt—and the true value of the insurance policy was $10,000.

He attracting equally prominent—but much less positive—international press attention over his divorce. Sparks had married in 1930, in a ceremony so secret that even close friends didn’t know about it until ten months later, to Mercedes Caballero, an amateur actress who lived in the same modest apartment building. The unhappy marriage dissolved shortly afterward with a divorce in Juarez, Mexico, under the agreement that Mercedes receive a settlement of $15,000 and Sparks be awarded sole custody of their daughter, Laura. Soon after, they were in divorce court again with new allegations from Mercedes.

Claiming that Sparks had struck her and coerced her agreement to the divorce with death threats, she testified that Sparks was “as caustic at home as on the screen,” and that he’d berated her: “[Y]ou do as I say or I’ll land you in the gutter and you’ll be eating coffee and doughnuts.” Sparks vigorously denied the accusations. After her case was dismissed by the Superior Court, Mercedes admitted she’d made it all up in hopes of a more profitable divorce settlement.

“You know,” Bing Crosby recalled of Sparks, his close friend and co-star on three pictures, “he always played acerbic characters on the screen—dyspeptic, somewhat disagreeable people—but in real life he had a heart as big as the Hollywood Bowl, and a great sense of humor.” In Los Angeles, several times a week for years, he quietly volunteered his time mentoring youth in need at a local guidance centre. Sparks’ motto, Foster writes, was: “If you go through life treating everyone a little better than they treat you, your life will not have been spent in vain.”

Ned Sparks addressing a Toronto audience, 1940s, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4303.

Throughout his career, Sparks regularly returned home to Ontario either as part of a touring production—performing in Over Night in 1912 and in Nothing But The Truth in 1917 in Toronto, for example—during his stage career, or to visit friends and family after he’d struck it rich. Sparks considered St. Thomas, he told the Toronto Star (May 12, 1934), “my home town, my native hearth, where I find all that makes life worth while.”

He sometimes lent comedic flair to Liberal political rallies in Ontario, as in April 1930 when his boyhood friend and hunting partner Mitch Hepburn was just a federal M.P. with ambitions for the premier’s office. And as Hepburn’s career progressed, the bon vivant was sometimes joined at booze-fueled celebrations by his Hollywood friend. One such occasion with a couple of unattached women in a King Edward Hotel suite formed the subject of a chapter of Anthony Jenkinson’s Where Seldom A Gun Is Heard (London: Arthur Barker Ltd., 1937) that caused a minor scandal when it was reprinted in Saturday Night.

His visits often led to vignettes that might have been ripped from any of his Hollywood comedies being reported by local newspapers. In one instance, the premier and hunting party tore across the roads and meadows of his Elgin County property in a jalopy, friends crammed into the rumble-seat and Sparks in front, his rifle trained on terrorized woodchucks. Premier Hepburn reported that “Ned Sparks never missed a shot.” In another episode, the deadpan comedian pleaded in his famous drawl with a C.N.E. ticket-taker to let him through so he could get to a scheduled radio appearance at the Press Building. “I don’t doubt your word, sir,” the unimpressed young man replied, according to the Globe and Mail (September 3, 1937), “but you’ve got a car, and if you want to go inside that’s fine. But it’s still $1.75.” Whenever he visited, reporters appeared; and, giving the audience what it wanted, the sourpuss movie star was always ready with a churlish quip.

On his visits to Canada, Sparks regularly expressed his disgruntlement with Hollywood and his affection for the stage. Sparks “doesn’t like the movies and doesn’t care who knows it,” Jack Karr wrote in his Toronto Star (November 9, 1940) entertainment gossip column. On another occasion, Karr quoted Sparks complaining that he was “sick of the stupidity, shortsightedness and chiselling tactics of Hollywood executives” and that he was “walking out.” “You might say that I am part of a great institution but not of it,” Sparks told the Windsor Star (July 23, 1937). “I do not engage in the social life of Hollywood, and I prefer to be in the quiet countryside.”

So it was an easy decision to move into a suite at Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel at the outbreak of the Second World War—prior to the United States’ involvement—so that he could assist in the Canadian war effort. “I’ll be here from now on if they need me and want me,” the star, who had apparently been rejected for active service by the army and navy, told the Toronto Star (July 13, 1940). His film career would be placed on hold for two full years.

Sparks lent his fame to war drive efforts, including speaking on-stage before soldiers awaiting deployment overseas, but he declined to appear in National Film Board shorts supporting the war effort. In July 1940, he was among the Hollywood stars, Canadian radio personalities, and celebrities who participated in a nation-wide fundraiser hosted by the movie theatre industry. Cinema-goers attending special screenings purchased two war savings stamps instead of admission tickets and, in return, they had the possibility of meeting Hollywood stars. In Toronto, Ned Sparks, Vivien Leigh and her new fiancé Laurence Olivier were to make personal appearances at a handful of cinemas drawn from a hat.

But that night, with huge crowds at theatres across the city having raised roughly $100,000 in a single evening, the stars raced across town in limos escorted by police cruisers to appear at as many theatres as possible. They’d taken the stage before cheering crowds at no fewer than nine cinemas, both downtown and on the suburban outskirts, before Sparks and his colleagues called it a night. He remained in character, the Globe and Mail (July 17, 1940) confirmed: “Ned Sparks never smiled once during the whole runaround.”

At the request of Premier Hepburn, beginning in April 1941, the star initiated The Ned Sparks Show, a weekly radio series funded by the Ontario Travel Bureau and broadcast across the United States each Sunday evening on the Columbia Broadcasting System. The variety show, which regularly featured his fellow movie actors like Keenan Wynn and run-ins “with a mythical, wood-nibbling beaver named Fogarty”—according to Newsweek (April 28, 1941)—was intended to help draw American tourists to the province, and thus fill government coffers for the war effort.

When he wasn’t supporting the war effort, Sparks spent his hiatus from Hollywood attending boxing matches at Maple Leaf Gardens and split his time in Toronto with time at his property on the French River. But as time wore on and fewer old friends remained in Ontario, he grew restless. After refusing the overtures of New York producers offering exorbitant salaries for his return to the stage, Sparks finally settled—ostensibly because he feared no one would remember him—on starring in a vaudeville troupe for a six-week tour. The show sold out at every stop. And he was soon lured back to movie-making for an appearance in Stage Door Canteen (1943), a war-time morale booster in which dozens of stars appeared as themselves. After, he was coaxed out of retirement only once, by James Stewart, to appear in Magic Town (1947).

When Sparks retired to a rented apartment on a ranch in Victorville, California, he never looked back. He kept busy taking walks, admiring desert flowers, and penning his unpublished autobiography. The only movie star ever invited to visit him at the ranch, Foster asserts, was Bing Crosby. Having suffered ill-health for several months, Sparks died of an intestinal block at the age of 73 in 1957. “He was grouchy only on the outside,” a long-time friend said at the time. “Inside he was warm and a favorite of the children on the ranch.” A modest plaque marks his grave in the Victor Valley Memorial Park. Toronto newspapers took little notice of the star’s death, simply reprinting a brief Associated Press report.

Other sources consulted: John T. Saywell, Just Call Me Mitch (University of Toronto Press, 1991); Neil McKenty, Mitch Hepburn (McClelland and Stewart, 1967); Alfred E. Twomey and Arthur F. McClure, The Versatiles: A Study of Supporting Character Actors and Actresses in the American Motion Picture, 1930-1955 (Castle Books, 1969); and articles from Broadcasting (March 31, 1941) [PDF]; the Calgary Herald (September 16, 1931; and August 21, 1936); Evening Independent (March 14, 1939); the Globe and Mail (May 10, June 23 & October 19, 1934; July 9, 1935; May 15 & July 24, 1937; March 29, April 2, June 2 & November 3, 1938; April 15 & August 16, 1939; January 27 & April 8, 1941; and July 31, 1948); the Lewiston Morning Tribune (February 15, 1940); the Miami News (September 2, 1942); the Pittsburgh Press (August 30, 1931); the St. Petersburg Times (April 5, 1957); The Spokesman-Review (April 10, 1936); the Toronto Globe (September 7, 1912; and April 17, 1930); the Toronto Star (May 26, 1934; January 8, 1935; July 11, 15 & 16, and August 10, October 22, and December 3, 28 & 30, 1940; January 27 & February 25, 1941; March 23, 1943; August 6, 1946; and April 4 and June 20, 1957); and the Windsor Daily Star (September 28, 1940).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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