He was a passenger on the train with Mabel
on their way to
In "Behind the Scnes with Fatty and Mabel," from the April 1916 issue of The Picture Play, Wil Rex wrote that the
Elgin Lessley was waiting on the sideline. Lessley is described as an “intrepid cameraman, who has the reputation of turning out the clearest films of any Keystone crank turner, was loading his film magazines” as the banister was being tested.
The Toyo Kisen Kaisha had the fastest steamers on the Pacific route and was able to easily make 19 knots. It had accommodations for 275 first-class passengers (54 second-class and 800 steerage). The steamer was 440 feet long and 50 feet in breadth; powered by twin screws 17,000 horsepower turbine engines.
And here he was in Fort Lee, New Jersey in the middle of winter, having left sunny Los Angeles with his wife, Blanche; Ferris Hartman, the comic musical producer and his wife, Josie Hart, stage actress; Roscoe Arbuckle, director and star; Minta Durfee, film star and Mrs. Arbuckle; Mabel Normand, the greatest comedienne of the early 20th century (OK, just one person’s opinion); Joe Bordeau, also known as Boudreaux; and Al St. John, who made $60 a week. It was a train full of fun makers that made the trip to
Roscoe Arbuckle "confessed” to Ray Frohman in 1919 that “Elgin Lessley was the only man who ever photographed Fatty for the screen (unless two or three cameras were being used at once).” Before he became the cinematographer on Buster Keaton’s most memorial films, he was with Mabel and Roscoe. I think that perhaps Roscoe may have fibbed a little.
Back in 1916 at the Triangle East Coast Studios, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand arrived from
Elgin Lessley was born
In 1910, the family moved from
During the First World War, 1918, when he filled out his military resignation he was married to Blanche and they were living in Culver City, California. Blanche was born in
Buster Keaton had inherited
By 1924, there was no comedy film star making better pictures then the team of Keaton/Lessley. Edward McPherson in BUSTER KEATON: Tempest in a Flat Hat, tells of an effect, which was indicative to the genius of this pairing. McPherson explains a sequence effect of a split of the screen into nine fragments, "courtesy of a custom-designed shuttered light proof casing that fit over the camera. . . . To create the minstrels, the shutters simply were opened one at a time, with the film rewound in between. However, mechanical precision was not enough. It took the steady arm of cameraman
When The General was made the highly decorated war hero Glen Cavender, who played Captain Anderson, served as technical director for battle sequences on Ince pictures prior to The Coward. There is a rumor that the general who gives the command for the engine to cross the burning bridge is Keaton’s former cameraman, Elgin Lessley. He was not Elgin Lessley.
There was a second chapter to the career of Elgin Lessley, in the first chapter we found him cranking for Mack Sennett in Edendale. When Sennett joined Triangle,
He must have done his bit at Keystone to warrant the reputation he had acquired by the train trip. “He Did and He Didn’t” (1916), “Bright Lights” (1916) are not listed but were filmed by him and what he did at Keystone in
The IMDb does list some magnificent movies that should not be overlooked (even if Mabel isn’t in them). Just in passing, I should mention that the IMDb gives Elgin Lessley’s birthplace as
Although it doesn’t seem that, the path of Mabel and
He filmed the first feature directed by Frank Capra, “The Strong Man” (1926). It was one of the films selected by the National Film Registry in December of 2007, (just a couple of days ago). This naming to the Registry assures that Elgin Lessley work will not be forgotten, even if he is uncredited. The Langdon/Capra/Lessley team went on to create the superb “Long Pants” (1927), “Three’s a Crowd” (1927) and "The Chaser" (1928), and oh yes, “Heart Trouble” (1928), another lost comedy.
The cinematographer doesn’t seem to receive much credit, even one as gifted as
By 1928 when
There is no film listed in the IMDb after “The Cameraman” (1928) for Elgin Lessley. The contraptions for taking “flickers” were rapidly changing and with the advent of sound, perhaps, his particular skills were not in demand but for whatever reason he stopped cranking his magnificent camera, we have him to thank for some wonderful, joyful film images.
Some of Elgin Lessley films were:
Waiters’ Ball, The
Laundry Clean-Up, A
Royal Roque, A
Dangers of a Bride
Clever Dummy, A
Phantom Husband, A (as
Bell Boy, The
You Can’t Believe Everything
Marker Cards (as
Alias Mary Brown (as
Daughter Angele (as
Irish Eyes (as
Haunted House, The
Servant in the House, The
High Sign, The (uncredited)
Play House, The (uncredited)
Boat, The (uncredited)
Paleface, The (uncredited)
My Wife’s Relations (uncredited)
Frozen North, The
Electric House, The (uncredited)
Love Nest, The
Three Ages (uncredited)
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (uncredited)
Three’s a Crowd
Now, I was thinking of adding another chapter to the piece of
“…I wrote one (article) about him (
I have a few things that aren't in your article. The reason he was in the
His death certificate says he was born in Higbee, and the informant was his sister Nettie. He died of "chronic myocarditits," which at the time was a catch-all term for heart trouble. He'd been diagnosed with it 10 years earlier, so it probably contributed to him dropping out of film. But Eleanor Keaton said he quit to take care of his wife. Blanche Olmsted Lessley died on
Elgin Lessley, is buried at Forest Lawn at Gendale, California in the Eventide section lot number 1247 in space 3.
(courtesy of Lisle Foote)
Keaton’s Bill for Expenses Rouses Anger
Buster Keaton and his entire production staff left this week for
On the way up to Sonora Buster played pinochle with his cameraman. When they tired of that the cameraman brought out a pocket checkerboard with stick-in pawns. Then they reminisced for a while. Bought oranges from the train butcher and finally went to sleep on each other’s shoulders.
Upon arriving on location Buster stood while the cameraman shot him. After this was done they came back to
Lou Anger, general manager of the Keaton Studio, nearly collapsed when Buster and the cameraman put in a joint expenses account of $7.84.
“Save it, Buster,” advised Anger, “and show it to von Stroheim and Mr. De Mille.”
Los Angeles Times,
In an opening scene in “Long Pants”, the audience will get the photographic effect of looking for a book in a big library. They will swing from the bottom shelf to the top row before they will pick out a well-known romantic tale.
This effect Elgin Lessley, Harry Langdon’s chief camera-man, obtained by laying out a track some fourteen feet long in front of the library set in “Long Pants.” Upon this track he placed a movable platform where he perched his camera. From this position Lessley could scene the thousand and one angles for this unique shot which could not have been obtained had his photographing apparatus remained stationary on the studio floor.
Lessley has been a camera-man since 1911, getting his initial experience with the old Méliès Star Film Company. He has been with Langdon slightly over one year during which he has photographed all of the comedian’s feature productions. Prior to then Lessley spent five years with Roscoe Arbuckle and about five years with Buster Keaton.
Camera work on “Long Pants” had occupied nineteen weeks on the day this week when we saw Lessley in the First National Studios. He told us then that “Long Pants” had then used 300,000 feet of film negative and that he expected another 100,000 feet would be exposed before work was completed.
This footage has passed and is passing through not only Lessley’s camera but that of his assistant.
January 22, 1927 Moving Picture World Long Pants
1909 March 14,
1913 Passenger List, Toyo Kisen Kaisha, saloon passenger, line 76 (line 80 John MacCulloch)
1916 January Triangle Financial Reports
1916 April The Picture Play, Wil Rex, Behind The Scenes With Fatty And Mabel
1918 Draft Card
1923 November 3,
1923 December 23,
1924 January 13, Theater, Here’s Story Made Buster Keaton Smile
1995 April, Taylorology #28
2004 Fort Lee: The
2005 May 15, Dennis Drabelle, A Genius for Comedy
Edward McPherson in BUSTER KEATON: Tempest in a Flat Hat,
Lisle Foote, Silent Film Historian
Oriental Steamship Company brochure