So very many of the celebrities of Hollywood Forever worked together, and knew each other. Many of these unions are touching and ironic at the same time: one such pair is Ford Sterling and Hank Mann. Mann was there first; Sterling took over, then left, to be replaced by Mann – it was a whirlwind, yet when all is said and done, each is remembered fondly, and Mann remains a veritable icon of the silent film era.
He was born David W. Lieberman, on May 28, 1887, in New York, NY. He got his professional start as a trapeze artist: such liquidly physical talents would serve him well as his career progressed. He joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in early 1913, and he is known to have appeared in the first comedy to feature The Keystone Kops, Hoffmeyer’s Legacy (1912), as well as the first short to star the Kops, The Bangville Police (1913). Mann is generally referred to as the brains behind the formulation of this immortal troupe – Mann promoted the idea to Sennett, who recognized the ironical humor to be exploited in law enforcement, and the rest is film history.
The original seven members of the Keystone Kops were Charles Avery, Bobby Dunn, George Jesky, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Riley, Slim Summerville, and Hank Mann, who was featured as police chief Teeheezel. Soon thereafter, the chief role was taken over by Ford Sterling, who remains the most perpetual image of the Kops. However, all was not lost for Mann, who was (according to Mack Sennett in his 1954 autobiography King of Comedy) the “toughest” comedian in the Keystone troupe. “Once when Hank was working with (Roscoe) Arbuckle and Al St. John,” noted Sennett, “he was supposed to be yanked out of the driver’s seat of a wagon and land spread-eagled on the landscape.
“Al St. John was to jerk the pin from the singletree and the horses were to pull Hank Mann off the wagon. St. John had trouble with the pin, sweating and bawling. This delayed the action until the horses had picked up too much speed for such a stunt. When Al did get the pin out, the horses cut loose like runaway ghosts and snatched Mr. Mann thirty feet through the air, like a kite, until the law of gravity remembered him.
“By this time, Mann and the horses were almost out of Los Angeles County, certainly at least three whoops and a loud holler out of camera range. Hank descended into a plowed field, chin first, and furrowed a belly-whopping trench for ten yards before, with considerable common sense, he let go the reins.”
Such stories were not uncommon: these Kops were expected to take considerable risks, all for the sake of comedy, and the resulting popularity for the team of comics was immense, if short-lived. By the end of 1914, the Keystone Kops, amazingly enough, faded into the cinematic sunset, replaced by the steady stream of new gimmicks, and up-to-date standards of comedy and humor. However, the love and affection the Kops had for boss Sennett never waned: Mann was one of many original Keystone performers to make an appearance on This Is Your Life: Mack Sennett in 1954.
In 1915, Mann (not unlike pal Sterling) was wooed away from Keystone by yet another celebrity of Hollywood Forever, producer Henry “Pathé” Lehrman and his L-KO (Lehrman-Knock Out) comedy company. By early 1917, Mann had his own company under the Fox umbrella, producing and starring in such 1917 comedies as Chased Into Love, His Ticklish Job and The Cloud-Puncher. The year 1924 saw Mann contribute his considerable comedy talents to the Christie Company, as a gag man. In a similar fashion to comic Ben Turpin (whose comedy successes were largely resultant from his crossed eyes), Mann’s mustache added to his comic appeal – it was a brush mustache galore, thick-broomed and heavily in contrast to his basset-hound-shaped face – and his stunt abilities only added to his high reputation in his field.
However, there comes a time in every star’s life when the good roles become harder to come by: this happened for Mann in the mid-1930s, and he adapted by taking supporting roles in such films as City Lights (1931), Million Dollar Legs (1932), Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), Phantom of the Opera (1943), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Of tremendous poignancy were Mann’s appearances in two bio-pics, chronicling the lives of two acting contemporaries: The Perils of Pauline (on Pearl White, 1947), and Man of a Thousand Faces (on Lon Chaney, 1958). However, the most ironic was his supporting role in the 1955 comedy, Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Cops.
He eventually became a makeup man (having practically written the book on the early uses of makeup for comedy purposes), and later operated a malt shop in Sierra Madre, CA. Hank Mann died on November 24, 1971, at the age of 84, in South Pasadena, CA. His immense contributions to the cinema industry were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, on the Southwest Corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. He was one shining example of how the celebrities of Hollywood Forever worked for and with each other – and, in the process, defined an industry.