LaRue Schmidt of Allentown has only vague memories of her movie actor great uncle Howard “Si Jenks” Jenkins (1876-1970).
“I saw him once at a family gathering when I was a child but remember almost nothing about it,” she says. But when she began doing research with her cousin Bette Christie about her family and she discovered just how many films he had been in, she could not believe it.
Although never a star, Jenks played in many films and occasionally played beside them. In “Captain January,” he teaches child star Shirley Temple how to spit. In “Drums Along the Mohawk,” Jenks attempts, unsuccessfully, to get a reluctant Edna Mae Oliver to go to the fort for protection from the Indians. She merely laughs at him as a “silly little man.”
In a “Day At The Races,” he arrives with a telegram for horse doctor “Hugo Z. Hakenbush,” aka Groucho Marx, from his perennial “love interest” Margaret Dumont. Jenks passes by Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in “Saratoga” and is the “rube” gulled out of his money by Will Rogers, as a fast talking snake oil salesmen in “Steamboat Around The Bend.” In “Topper” Jenks is a surprised passerby finding lead Reginald Owen talking to a ghost that he, Jenks, cannot see.
“I have even heard he had a face in the crowd scene in Atlanta in “Gone With the Wind,” but I haven’t been able to find him yet,” says Schmidt, who has a DVD of a few of Jenks' appearances.
But the staple of Jenks’ movie making career was Westerns. One was “Stagecoach,” the John Ford classic that made John Wayne a star. Jenks is the bartender on the porch with two other gents hoping to get a glimpse of female lead Claire Trevor’s petticoats as the “fallen woman” is being given the bum’s rush out of town. When Trevor obliges by lifting her skirt while getting on the stagecoach, exposing a lot of lace and a well turned ankle, Jenks rolls his eyes. In “My Little Chickadee” with W.C. Fields, he plays a love struck deputy sheriff who a devious Mae West manages to flatter and get the six guns out of his holster.
Jenks' other roles were in less well-known “horse operas,” the kind of films that were the staple of the Saturday afternoon matinees of the era. While Hopalong Cassidy or Gene Autry went after the outlaws at the ranch, Si Jenks could be counted on to provide comic relief of one sort of another. Like Gabby Hayes, a fellow and better known actor who often played a similar role, and who was a friend, Jenks-usually bearded and befuddled-was a humorous character of the old West. In fact that role became so common that it was satirized by comedian Mel Brooks in his film “Blazing Saddles.”
But Jenks had a life before Hollywood. Born on September 26, 1876 in Norristown, Pennsylvania he got his early training in vaudeville. In his early years he was a part of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, one of the major theater chains of the early 20th century.
Allentown’s Orpheum Theater was built circa 1910, converted to the State, and torn down in 1954 to make way for a parking lot. It was located next door to the Lyric- now the Miller Symphony Hall. It was a part of the chain and Schmidt believes Jenks played in vaudeville there.
How or exactly when Jenks got to Hollywood is unknown. Searching the Internet Schmidt found the first film listed for her great uncle was in 1924. It was a silent movie called “Picking Peaches,” in which he appeared as a beauty contest judge. She speculates that perhaps it was just the lure of finding a place for himself as an actor in the then new medium of movies that took him west.
If Jenks was unhappy with being constantly typecast as a grizzled old western character, Schmidt never recalls hearing anyone in the family talk about it. Being physically thin and “wiry” with a jutting chin, he was not about to get a role as the romantic lead.
At that time Hollywood studios tended to have certain roles for certain characters. Actors like Clark Gable or Tyrone Power got those roles, actors that looked like Gabby Hayes and Si Jenks did not.
Ethnic stereotyping of African-Americans, Italian Americans and Irish Americans, a trait left over from the vaudeville stage, was common in movies of the 1930s, 40s and 50’s. It was also common to portray rural people as rubes, hicks and hillbillies who were not very intelligent. And Si Jenks happened to look and know how to play that part.
But from all that is known Si Jenks was comfortable with the roles Hollywood had him playing. He was to continue making movies into the early 1950s, the last one being something called “Oklahoma Annie” in 1952. His role was listed as “Old Man.” Like many of the movies he was in, Si Jenks went uncredited.
Jenks died on January 6, 1970 in Woodland Hills, California. Schmidt has a photo of him taken a few years earlier, sitting in a director’s chair with a pipe in his mouth, looking quite satisfied to be at retired. “I know he was not a big Hollywood star,” says Schmidt, “but I just think it is interesting to have had him in the family.”