Brusque and grouchy, Ned Sparks’ lovable curmudgeons can usually be found as the still center of a storm of dizzy dancers, temperamental producers, and gangsters in crisis. His onscreen persona was so deadpan that he was reportedly insured with Lloyd’s of London for $100,000 against any photographs taken of him actually smiling. Yet there’s more to this primo supporting player than just a grouchy face…he got his start in show biz as a singer during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and was blacklisted on Broadway for his role in starting the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).
Edward Arthur Sparkman was born this day in 1883 in clean, friendly, and polite Canada, specifically Guelph, Ontario. He left home at 16 to try gold prospecting in Alaska. When that failed, he joined a musical company in Dawson Creek, and per The New York Times, “knocked around in tent theatricals, medicine shows, and carnivals.” Wouldn’t this be a great movie? Can’t you just hear him complaining? But wait…it gets better… Back in Canada by age 19, he attended a seminary. Briefly. But still. He also worked on a railroad before finally landing in a Toronto theater. By 1907, he was appearing on Broadway, and the Ned Sparks persona we all now know and love made its first appearance as a “cynical desk clerk” in a play called Little Miss Brown. His stage success earned him a six-picture deal with Louis B. Mayer, and, in his screen debut, a re-make of the play in 1915, he played this same role.
Thus the mid-teens saw Sparks working in both New York and Hollywood. Around this time, he was involved with organizing AEA, which sought to protect stage actors. At the time, producers set working conditions and pay scale; could fire anyone, at any time, for any reason; and there was no compensation for the unlimited rehearsal time. In the late teens, Equity went on strike, which led to improved working conditions. However, many members were blacklisted, and as Sparks was one of the founding members, his Broadway career seems to have been severely curtailed. After working pretty much continuously from his arrival in New York through 1918, he didn’t work onstage again until 1920, appearing in his final production in 1921.
He was still working in silent films though, three or four a year, until his first talkie in 1928, The Big Noise. I won’t lie and tell you I’ve seen any of Sparks’ silents. I’m sure he was good. But his monotone foghorn of a voice and his irritable attitude are so instantly recognizable, and add so much to any picture he’s in, that I can’t imagine he could have affected the audience as much without them. Sound proved a godsend to Sparks’ career, and to us as classic movie fans.
I recommend anything he’s in, but my favorite Sparks year is 1933, and here are three from that year you shouldn’t miss.
Lady for a Day
Gold Diggers of 1933
In 1936, Sparks admitted that the $100K Lloyd’s of London insurance policy story was a publicity stunt. He was “only” insured against smiling for $10,000. Though his personal life included a messy divorce and he lost touch with many of his friends after his retirement, his voice and unflappable cantankerousness pretty much guaranteed his immortality, not only in his films, but as a frequently-caricatured figure in the cartoons we can still enjoy.
Bonus video that won’t embed: Cranky Ned in “Malibu Beach Party”