Hollywood Apocrypha: Artie Chester
The Passion of the Chris presents a series of articles, detailing some of the forgotten performers and accomplishments through the history of the cinematic medium. In this entry, we will be focusing on Artie Chester, a silent film star who has gone largely unremembered by even the most ardent of film historians.
During an early studio preview of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, the end titles contained a "Special Thanks" to a man by the name of Coop Hammond. By the time the first public screening of the film was held on August 10th of 1950, the citation was no longer present and audiences missed out on the chance to leave their theaters in confusion as to why the filmmakers had chosen to call out to a largely forgotten silent film character who had not been particularly noteworthy even in his own time. That his small contribution to the film was thus excised, whether through clerical error or authorial intent, is a wholly appropriate footnote to a career spent entirely on the fringes of an industry that seemed to want nothing to do with Artie Chester, a man who was never farther from its notice than when he was at the height of his fame within the apex of its most culturally ubiquitous period.
Born Artur Czeskyh in 1894 to a haberdasher and his soon-to-be-bride, Chester and his family left their hometown of Szolnok in 1907 as part of a modest Hungarian exodus induced by the widespread death of Cikta Sheep at the hands of an especially fallow barley crop. By that time Dezso and Jola Czeskyh had borne four children, of whom Artur was the oldest. At the age of thirteen, Czeskyh had already been working for two years with a local circus company shelling peanuts for attendees both too young and too old to handle the stubborn, salty husks by themselves. Despondent at the assumption that his excision from his birth country would mark the end of his brief yet illustrious show business career, Czeskyh sunk into a deep depression which he found was only assuaged by the numerous vaudeville and burlesque houses he soon found littering the streets of his adoptive home of New York City.
It was in one such house of ill-repute that the upward-bending arc of Czeskyh's career intersected with the downward skid of Myron B Laszlo, a would-be impresario who had enjoyed a very brief Broadway career as a producer of increasingly scandalous product, the most inflammatory of which involved the brief flash of an areola during an all-female musical revue production of Richard III. Laszlo's public injection of his own concupiscence into hallowed canon eventually led to his forceful relocation further downtown from Broadway to the Bowery, where his Broad-Thirst Theater increased its already ample popularity with the addition of a Peek-a-Booth, wherein patrons could pay an extra ten cents between live performances to witness the latest wonders of the silver screen (provided that said wonders contained a level of exposed flesh adequate enough to sate the needs of a lowly citizenry that had paid hard-earned money to gaze upon it). Czeskyh had seen his first motion picture on board the Disco Volante on his way to America - a Chaplin two-reeler which showed on a loop without credits against the dining hall of the crew quarters - and the spark of pure delight and amazement at the magic of the moving screen that had surged through his body then came back now as he peeked through tattered curtains and gazed past the grimy, sweat-salted necks of paying customers at the images that danced before him.
Emboldened by the contacts he was making in the nascent film industry, and eager to escape a mounting investigation into property taxes that had remained unpaid for the five years which he had spent in his new theatrical home, Laszlo decided to trade coasts and head to Los Angeles, where he was also assured that the general moral tenor of the constituency would match his own interests more cleanly and without the need to dress it up in the ill-fitting waistcoat of literary or theatrical canon. Czeskyh had, through his indifference towards Laszlo's more lenient bookkeeping practices, established himself firmly enough in his employers confidence that Laszlo offered him a steerage ticket on the train that would carry his's prized possessions out west (Laszlo himself would take a luxury liner through the newly-opened Panama Canal, and in the process would become the first man to pass through its waters while simultaneously dying of auto-erotic asphyxiation). It was thus that young Artur Czeskyh first came to Hollywood at the age of eighteen.
While the news of his mentor's grisly demise was slowly making its way back to American shores, Czeskyh took on a series of jobs in order to scrounge together the for-him astronomical sum of $25 dollars per week that he paid to live in the converted closet of a woman who's biggest claim to fame was that she had starred in an early Lumiere Brothers short, now sadly lost, entitled Minny Sorts Her Merkin Drawer. Czeskyh's memories of the sweaty two-reelers that he had seen projected onto the walls of his old place of employ were strong enough that he was sufficiently awestruck by his embedding within the city in which dreams were spun from light and shadow. He spent his off hours prowling from studio to studio, trying to get enough of a vantage through the fences to see the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd kicking at the edges of their craft. He would occasionally, in the hopes of being closer to his idols, take the remnants of a dinner roll or asparagus stalk that had been left behind by the occasional Cecil B DeMilles and Lillian Gishes that would eat at one of the restaurants lenient enough in their hiring practices to take him on.
One night, while rushing behind his bus tray to claim a pie crust that had been carefully disembodied from its meringue by D.W. Griffith, Czeskyh tripped on the low-falling cuff of a borrowed pair of black pants, upending an especially juicy brisket into the nearby lap of Mack Sennett. Sennett, who had been hoping to attract as little attention as possible to the fact that he was desperately trying to attract the attentions of one of his more faithfully married script girls, stood up and proceeded to declare with equal parts vindictive rage and projectile spittle that no Czeskyh (he was polite enough to ask his name beforehand) would ever work thenceforth in any town in which a Sennett drew breath. Luckily for Czeskyh, the entire fiasco was witnessed by Sy Rosenthol, a C-Level producer of comedic industrials and long-time (in his mind) Sennett rival. As it brought no small joy to the scrappy filmmaker to see his onetime colleague so humiliated, and at the hands of an expertly performed pratfall, no less, Rosenthol offered Czeskyh a five-picture deal on the spot. Artur in that moment realized that his dream all along had indeed been to star in short comedy films, and he agreed. Rosenthol left jauntily, a signed contract and new script girl firmly in each hand.
Rather than return what to him was, biliousness aside, a perfectly good pair of pants, Czeskyh arrived at FlagStone Studios the next day wearing what would eventually become his on-screen uniform for the next decade - said black pants as well as a mismatched brown suit-coat and checkered wool hat (the contrast between vestments would often be taken down as much as was possible - and economically feasible - via whatever rudimentary lighting tricks and development processes were available in the day). He was greeted with howling laughter upon entering the production office and quickly proclaimed a genius as he was shuttled off to work on his first film.
Before the release of Sour Krauts, Artur Czeskyh had legally become Artie Chester at the behest of a studio head who, aside from being concerned about the marketability of such a consonant name, feared a public backlash against any stars or characters suggesting even vaguely Western European descent, as the situation in the Germanic nations was becoming quite messy at the time. In the twelve-minute short, a propaganda piece which was produced to fulfill the terms of a contract that the studio had signed with the Armed Forces guaranteeing a wealth of funds in exchange for the production of features that would boost the moral of both American troops abroad as well as the citizens remaining behind for whom they were fighting, Chester plays a hot dog vendor who is accidentally shipped to the German front lines when, on the run from the police (who are after him for illegally setting up his cart on city property without a license), he wheels his stand into a safe, secure hiding space that ends up being the cargo bay of a US Army ship headed for the Italian coast. Chester has to battle against both the German soldiers who disapprove of his Americanized wares and the Allied Forces who believe him to be a defector and a traitor. The ensuing comedy of errors reaches its peak when Chester encounters Kaiser Willhelm on the floor of a German bratwurst factory, which happens to be the main supplier of German Army rations, and proceeds to encase the leader of the Central Powers within a sausage skin right on time for the arrival of the British Prime Minister, who confers upon Chester the Victoria Cross and a small tract of land in the now-Allied-controlled Frankfurt.
Hitting theaters as it did well after the war had reached its conclusion, the film was met with general indifference by American audiences and Chester limped into his next feature, which was a long-form advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes and which would bring into full being the character that he would embody, with few exceptions, for the rest of his brief career. Released an incriminating two years after Buster Keaton's The Paleface, Little Chief Smoke-Em tells the fairly similar tale of an amateur mineralogist, played by Chester, who, while chasing a particularly beautiful metamorphic sample down the slopes of a small canyon, tumbles his way into a Hopi village which has recently been put on the defensive against an imperialist tobacco magnate who is eager to further extend the breadth of his offerings by appropriating the leaves of the tribal peace pipes. The Hopi, hesitant to vulgarize materials used for their most sacred rites, has refused and incurred the violent wrath of the expansionist entrepreneur. Believing Chester to be an agent in his employ, they attempt various means of eliminating him before he is finally able to not only convince them of his innocence but assume his rightful place as the heir to their chiefdom, in the process teaching them how to fashion a crudely mechanized mortar system out sedimentary river stones with which they can grind their leaves on a mass scale for public consumption, thus driving the tobacco company out of business and bringing the brute savages firmly into the twentieth century.
It was at the two-and-a-half minute mark of this particular film that Artie Chester's cinematic avatar was etched into the annals of eternity. Beset upon by a group of Hopi warriors, the following inter-title is displayed on screen to complement Chester's vehement protestations:
After which Coop Hammond pulls the aforementioned intoxicant out of his coat pocket, pops it into his mouth and, after winking into the camera, lights it up before the Hopi scouts, heretofore quietly attentive to the ad copy, continue their threats. It was with that wink that Coop Hammond, and by extension Artie Chester, sealed his dubious place in film history.
What followed next was perhaps the quickest burst of output ever released by a major motion picture star. Chester starred in twenty-five movies between the years 1919 and 1922, and in a feat unprecedented for most silent film comedians he wrote, directed, and produced none of them in any capacity. He made little to no impact on the creative process at all, but merely served as an especially adept place holder for the comedic visions of those who had been deemed too unattractive to grace silver screens. It was perhaps for this reason - compounded by the fact that he was hitting his stride right as sound pictures were gaining in popularity and without the clout of a Chaplin to pull his silent fare through to widespread success - that Chester never really reached a level of popularity even remotely equal to that of some of his contemporaries. As attendance started to wane in the early thirties, Chester's relationship with the studio began to suffer until he was bought out of his contract after the loss of money incurred by Coop Clux Clan, a misguided effort to take creative reins by fashioning a farcical homage to one of his favorite films, D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation. W.E.B. DuBois published a statement from Germany later that year to specifically call Chester out as one of the most vile and insensitive practitioners of African American spiritual disenfranchisement; Bobby Seale would later claim walking in on a screening of the film which was held by a group of air force mechanics as one of the most decisive moments in the formation of his political activism.
Chester spent the next several years struggling to get film work in a town that wouldn't have been interested in hiring him even if they had remembered who he was. His biggest hope for a career resurgence came on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched the US into World War II. A host of Hollywood celebrities made newsreel headlines by sacrificing some of their prime years to the war effort, and Chester, who had only recently been granted American citizenship, wanted to be recognized for doing his part. He was rejected for military service due to the fact that his feet were too prominently arched, and so he volunteered instead for USO duty, participating in a brief tour of shows which never touched a grain of foreign soil, hitting bases along the east coast from North Carolina and down into Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Chester suffered a debilitating ankle injury during the rehearsal of a kick step routine with Syd Charisse and Shirley Temple at Dobbins Air Force Base, and as a result was the first and only non-military recipient of the Purple Heart.
It would be one of the last brushes that Chester would have with any sort of lasting fame. There were a series of television appearances throughout the forties, but other than that very little was heard from Artur Czeskyh. It was not until Billy Wilder reached out to him in the winter of 1948, during early pre-production on Sunset Boulevard, that Chester made any sort of major reappearance in public. He was cast as part of the "Waxworks" scene in Widler's Hollywood-insider classic, in which Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond plays cards with other ghosts of cinema past, including Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and, at one point, Artie Chester. Various pieces of Chester's coverage was damaged during the development process, however, and the studio decided that it was more cost-effective to cut him out completely rather than go back and add days of re-shooting. It was a fitting end to his career that Chester should have been cut out from the last major motion picture in which he was to appear, erased by a town that would never have noticed if he had never existed.
It was rather for his personal life that Chester was to gain any attention during his later years. Rumors and intimations of his sexuality had been persistently following him ever since his days on the Bowery, where Myron Selznick would often note that he was the only male employee not to persistently harass the showgirls, nor to take them up on their semi-regular offers of quick sexual gratification in between shows. While Chester was married for seventeen years to Althea Dixon, with whom he fathered a daughter, they rarely appeared in public together. Chester was often photographed in the company of Clyde Humphries, a friend from his days in New York who had made the move to California with him and who, once he had reached celebrity, was often introduced as his bodyguard. It was Humphries who had loaned Chester the overlarge pair of pants upon which he had tripped his way into stardom, and it was to him that he had presented said pants sealed within a decorative frame, stamped with a gold plaque that carried the rather revealing inscription:
To my dearest Cyde, who made me all that I am. - Artur
There is every indication that the relationship between Chester and Humphries, whatever its nature, was one that lasted until Humphries died in a plane crash in march of 1957. Shortly after, Chester divorced Althea and retreated to a life of semi-reclusivity. He died of lung cancer in a small bungalow on George Cukor's property in 1961. While he briefly made headlines when his body was removed from the Los Angeles County Morgue as part of a prank played by Peter Lorre at the expense of friend Errol Flynn, once his corpse was returned and he was finally consigned to his eternal rest, the world once and for all passed Artie Chester by. While some of his films began to turn up at underground repertory screenings in Parisian cinema clubs and American college campuses in the late sixties, Chester has remained almost completely anonymous among mainstream film fans. Here's hoping that this article begins the long process towards the rediscovery that he arguably deserves, if only as a historical oddity.
The author would like to give special thanks to Althea Chester, the Hammond Archives (housed at Life University in Marietta, Georgia), the McGill Institute, the Furey Wing of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and the Lunney Family for opening their collections, both public and private, to me. Without their help, this article could never have been completed.
Artie Chester - A Partial Filmography
1919 - Coop Gets the Scoop...........................……...Coop Hammond
1921 - Hey Waiter, There's a Fly in My Coop!…...Coop Hammond
1921 - Filly Flies the Coop...........................…………..Coop Hammond
1922 - Coop-De-Loop....................................………...Coop Hammond
1929 - The Coconuts.......................................………....Extra (Unbilled)
1930 - Rent-a-Coop.................................…………........Coop Hammond
1957 - You Bet Your Life......................................Himself (Contestant)
1959 - The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis......….......Willard the Janitor
1960 - The Coop Hammond Story...............…….....Himself (unbilled)
Embedded below is one of the few of Chester's films to survive in completion. It is an especially interesting case, as his legal name has been switched with his character name on this particular print (an error that seems to have happened fairly often, as most prints were struck by laboratories whose interests were not particularly focused on the accuracy of their titles so much as the economic demands of the small repertory houses which they serviced).