The Short and Frenetic Life of Harry Sweet

Harry Sweet, the comedic actor, director and early innovator of the “slow burn” comedy routines that made performers like Edgar Kennedy eagerly sought for film shorts, had a career that could have achieved greatness if he hadn’t died tragically in a plane crash at the age of 32.

He rarely paused for a moment’s rest, appearing in front or behind the camera in more than 150 films over a 14-year period. He was a man on a mission to learn his craft, and the studios he worked for rewarded him with more assignments and more responsibilities. It was a frenetic pace made especially arduous given that many of his co-stars in his early films were animals not known for their cooperative nature.

Today, as much as 95 percent of Sweet’s films have been lost, denying cinema scholars the ability to accurately assess his body of work. But during his time, there was little doubt among his contemporaries that given half the chance and a healthy film budget, he may have rivaled some of the greats of the silent era.

Harry Sweet early in his career.

Harry Sweet early in his career. (Photo originally appeared in The Film Daily.)

Harry Sweet was born Harry Swett on Oct. 2, 1901. His father, Don Alvo Swett, was a New Englander, and his mother, Jane Alexander, had emigrated from Ireland to the United States. The family lived in Teller County, Colorado, where his father was a postal worker. Sweet had one sister, Glencora, who was eight years younger.

The Swett family moved to Reno, Nevada, in 1912, and Jane Swett died there in 1915 at the age of 50. Although Harry’s father would later move to Los Angeles, the three remained in Reno at least until 1918 where Harry and his sister attended local schools

While in high school, Harry worked in local movie houses and gained experience as a motion picture projectionist. By the time he left school, he was also a skilled acrobatic performer. Whether he belonged to an acrobatic company is unknown. But following his high school graduation, he traveled to Hollywood and immediately found a job at L-KO Kompany, a small film studio lot under the umbrella of Universal Studios that had been specializing in one- and two-reeler short comedies since 1914.

Keystone Kops veteran director Henry “Pathé” Lehrman founded L-KO after a falling out with Ford Sterling after Lehrman and Sterling formed Sterling Comedies at Universal. Instead of leaving Universal, Lehrman formed L-KO. It was never a top tier comedy studio to match Mack Sennett or Hal Roach, but it did produce a steady stream of quality films, including several shorts from Charley Chase.

Sweet arrived in Hollywood in 1919 when the Spanish influenza epidemic was still raging through California. It hit the actors and film crews hard at L-KO lot and Universal shut it down as a precautionary measure. Sweet managed to appear in L-KO’s last film, “The Oriental Romeo” featuring Chai Hong and directed by Jess Robins.

Sweet moved seamlessly over to Century Films, which produced the Baby Peggy and Brownie the Wonder Dog comedy two-reelers along with other animal shorts that included the “Century Lions” and the “Century Dogs.” Sweet would polish his acting chops on the Century Lions and Brownie films under the direction of Fred Hibbard and Tom Buckingham.

While Sweet regularly appeared opposite the Century animals, the studio was also eager to promote Sweet on his own merits. In 1921, Sweet signed a two-year contract with Century to star in a series of shorts. The studio announced in June that 18 new two-reelers would feature Sweet in lead roles to complement 18 Brownie shorts. Century rounded out the schedule with 16 comedies for Charles Dorety, who also spent considerable screen time opposite the Century animals.

Harry Sweet with Brownie the Wonder Dog and actress Louise Lorraine while working for Century Films.

Harry Sweet with Brownie the Wonder Dog and actress Louise Lorraine while working for Century Films. (Photo originally appeared in The Film Daily.)

Sweet was immensely popular on the set. Gloria Morgan, who would become Sweet’s script supervisor when he was with RKO toward the end of his life, described him as “a very gentle, funny man with a delicious sense of humor.” Directors wanted him for his acrobatic skills and his insistence that he work without a stunt double. He was often cast as a rube living in rural America. He allowed his routines to slowly build to a huge climax that required physical agility in often dangerous and elaborate finales. Through the 1920s, he gained weight, although it didn’t hinder his ability to construct comedy routines demanding stunt gags.

In the spring of 1924, Sweet jumped from Century to Mack Sennett. Richard Jones, the supervising director for Sennett, may have had Sweet in mind to direct rather than star in films on the Sennett lot. Whether that was a promise Jones made to Sweet before he joined Sennett or came about later is unclear. However, almost immediately Jones suggested that Sweet could direct Sennett comedy stars better than directors who didn’t have the acting experience in front of the camera.

Sweet’s only previous directing experience was “What! No Spinach?” for the Standard Photoplay Company in 1920. Yet Jones was confident of the actor’s ability and gave him the Ben Turpin vehicle “Romeo and Juliet” (1924) and “The First 100 Years” with Harry Langdon and Alice Day. Both films proved to be hits.

The Sennett lot gave Sweet the latitude to perfect his comedic timing and helped him gain experience in dealing with a wide range of actors from Langdon to Natalie Kingston and Madeline Hurlock.

But since Sennett comedies adhered to a formula, Sweet wanted to experiment with the use of camera angles and editing to provide a fresh perspective to his films.

In March 1928, he produced “Rhythms of a Great City in Minor.” The film had a budget of only $164 ($2,281 in 2014 dollars) and was limited to less than one reel at about 850 feet. Sweet rounded up his actor and production crew friends that included Arthur Houseman, Charles Puffy, Lydia Yeamans Titus, Leslie Fenton, Betty Davis and Max Wagner. Davis was an occasional actor and film editor and likely helped Sweet edit the footage. Sweet also made an appearance in the film.

Harry, center wearing a white hat, on location with actor Charles Puffy, left foreground.

Harry, center wearing a white hat, on location with actor Charles Puffy, left foreground.

The short is an early example of guerrilla filmmaking, shooting footage without city permits on busy streets, atop transit buses and in alleyways. It also made extensive use of jump cuts. The film contained four stories, with a series of short jump cuts and tilted angles leading into the first story.

Sweet showed the film privately to impresario Sid Grauman, founder of the Egyptian and Chinese theaters. Grauman was sufficiently impressed to give his own private screening to Charlie Chaplin. The film never played outside Los Angeles and no copies are known to have survived. But it serves as an early example of Sweet’s determination to break outside the confines of conventional two-reel comedies.

Unlike many silent film actors and directors, Sweet successfully made the transition to talkies. A significant career move occurred in 1930 when he was tapped to run RKO’s short subject department. At the time FBO, Pathé and Radio Pictures were merging together to become RKO.

Harry Sweet, second from left, in the Century comedy Horse Sense with actress Alberta Vaughn, center. (Photo originally appeared in The Film Daily.)

Harry Sweet, second from left, in the Century comedy Horse Sense with actress Alberta Vaughn, center. (Photo originally appeared in The Film Daily.)

Sweet’s first project was to transform Edgar Kennedy from playing second fiddle to Charley Chase and other big comedy stars of the day to a headliner. Kennedy was the master of the “slow burn” routine as the indignities would pile up and an exasperated Kennedy would attempt to hold his temper until he exploded. Sweet helped Kennedy develop the routine and exploit it in Kennedy’s “Mr. Average Man” series.

RKO released the first “Mr. Average Man” film, “Lemon Meringue,” on Aug. 3, 1931, that also featured Dot Farley, who would remain in the cast as “mother” through 1948. Sweet also directed a pair of “Whoopie Comedies” with Kennedy and Florence Lake. “Rough House Rhythm” was released in April 1931 and “All Gummed Up” followed a month later.

Sweet signed a new contract with RKO in March 1933 for another year as short subject director and to star in comedies.

Edgar Kennedy, left, with Harry Sweet in about 1931. (Photo courtesy Dennis Atkinson)

Edgar Kennedy, left, with Harry Sweet in about 1931. (Photo courtesy Dennis Atkinson)

On the afternoon of June 18, 1933, Sweet took screenwriter Howard “Hal” Davitt and Vera Williams, a 20-year-old bit player acting under the name of Claudette Ford and an acquaintance of Sweet, in his private plane to scout filming locations near Big Bear Lake. Sweet was an experienced pilot, who had flown single-engine airplanes for most of his adult life. He often flew goodwill and charity runs. His last goodwill flight was a trip in 1932 from Los Angeles to his old hometown Reno, where he visited old friends.

The trio left Glendale Airfield and landed at Big Bear airport where Sweet had hoped to meet a friend. When the friend failed to show up Sweet decided to fly over the lake.

Shortly before dusk at about 7:15 p.m., Sweet was at the controls and flying about 40 feet above the water. The engine failed and the aircraft plunged into the lake in about 20 feet of water. The plane was submerged except for the tail with its identification number visible.

About 50 men volunteered to recover the bodies and aircraft while the Department of Commerce identified the plane and Sweet as its owner from the serial number.

As darkness fell, the recovery operation halted, and resumed in the morning of June 19. An inquest held the same day determined that Sweet was the pilot. The rescue team pulled the bodies from the wreckage and autopsies determined that Davitt and Williams died from fractured skulls and Sweet had drowned. All three were found wedged at the front of the cockpit.

Williams’ body was returned to her father, George Hallar, in Toledo, Ohio, and Pierce Brothers Mortuary in Los Angeles took possession of Sweet’s body. Davitt’s mother in Boone, Iowa, was also notified.

“Good Housewrecking” with Kennedy was Sweet’s last film, which was released two days before the director died. Producer Lou Brock took over the “Mr. Average Man” series and supervised it for many years.

The limited budgets, length and often-formulaic nature of comedy short subjects made such films the redheaded stepchild of the film industry, especially at the larger studios. Appreciation for the genre didn’t occur until television began broadcasting episodes beginning in the 1960s. Had more of Sweet’s work survived, and perhaps surviving to see the “Mr. Average Man” series through to its end in 1948, he may have earned the same comedic acclamation as Edgar Kennedy, Laurel and Hardy and other kings of comedy short films.

Harry Sweet Internet Movie Database Biography

SOURCES:

The Film Daily, April 13, 1921
The Film Daily, April 22, 1921
The Film Daily, May 12, 1921
Exhibitors Herald, Oct. 22, 1921
Exhibitors Trade Review, Jan. 7, 1922
Exhibitors Herald, June 25, 1921
Exhibitors Herald, Sept. 10, 1921
Exhibitors Trade Review, Oct. 8, 1921
Exhibitors Herald, Nov. 4, 1921
Variety, April 12, 1924
Motion Picture News, Jan 27, 1927
Picture-Play Magazine, June 1928
The Film Daily, May 17, 1932
Motion Picture Daily, May 17, 1932
San Bernardino Sun, June 19, 1933
Oakland Tribune, June 19 1933
Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio), June 20, 1933
The Film Daily, June 21, 1933
Nevada State Journal, June 21, 1933
Café Roxy (accessed Sept. 9 2014)
“The Great Movie Shorts” by Leonard Maltin (Crown), 1972
Harry Swett, Ancestry.com

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