Above: Snub Pollard in 1937. He made over 600 film and TV appearances between 1915 and 1962. Many of those made after the coming of sound were as an uncredited player. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne.
Snub Pollard, born Harold Fraser in North Melbourne, Australia, in 1889, enjoyed a very long career on stage and in the US cinema.(See more about his professional life here) At the height of his success as a film comedian, he returned to Australia on a two month visit in 1923. He was well established at the Hal Roach studio, and told an Australian newspaper that he had a contract with Roach until 1927. Everything seemed to be going well. He was newly married, financially secure – to such an extent he could spend £2000 on a new house in Carlton for his mother.He also paid for her to visit California the following year
Most of his letters home, surviving at the Australian Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne, are addressed to his brother George or to his nephew, also named Harold, who lived in Portarlington, a pretty seaside town south of Melbourne. The collection of letters mostly date from after this visit home, from the 1930s -1950s, by which time he was appearing in supporting or uncredited roles. His letters give no hints about his change in fortunes – the transition from being a major silent screen comedian of the early 1920s to jobbing extra an actor who is taking any work to maintain their career is never mentioned. The correspondence is too late to cover the mid 1920s when Snub left Roach and set up his own production company, which then failed. However, there are other insights to be had from reading his correspondence.
This writer has often wondered how strongly expat Australians working in Hollywood and Britain identified with their new cultural contexts and whether they maintained any sort of Australian identity. The evidence in the correspondence is that although Snub became a US citizen, he still regarded himself as an Australian and Australia as “home”. When he watched US newsreel footage showing the catastrophic 1939 bushfires near Melbourne, he said he felt homesick,Australian Performing Arts Collection, Pollard collection, Letter 24 March 1939 when he went swimming or enjoyed the hot weather APAC, Letter 25 May 1939 he thought it was because he was Australian. He said he read Australian newspapers at the RKO studios to keep up with the news.APAC, Letter 25 May 1939
Snub’s trip home in 1923 remained a powerful memory. The very joyful time spent with brother George and his family at Portarlington seems to stayed with him for the rest of his life.“…Portarlington has a warm spot in my heart” he wrote.APAC, Letter 18 September 1939 Even as late as 1949, he expressed his desire to visit again, “then we will all go swimming together” APAC, Letter 17 February 1949 but soon after he complained that there were now no longer direct ships between California and Australia, “so that’s that” – meaning it was too much effort to travel to Vancouver to catch one.APAC, Letter 14 March 1949
As might be expected, the topics covered in his letters include the mundane, like the weather in Los Angeles and how the seasons in California are the opposite to Australia’s, the opening of the baseball season, and comments about horse racing – a shared family interest that went back to Snub’s father. He also loved receiving family photos and regularly asked for more. He often listed the other family members he had just written to – it’s clear he took his family correspondence seriously.
Only sometimes does professional news feature in Snub’s letters, but several observations can be made from what he wrote. Westerns seem to have given him greatest pleasure; he mentions appearing in films with cowboy stars like Bob Steele and Tex Ritter and occasionally he mentioned the film titles by name. However, he worried that these Westerns might not be shown in Australian cinemas and therefore his family may not see them. Although he did not say so, these Westerns were second features, made quickly and on small budgets, usually with a running time of 60 minutes.
Interviewed in 1973, Tex Ritter seemed to suggest he had a role in Snub’s appearance as his sidekick in a dozen of his westerns made between 1936 and 1938. “I had seen Snub in his own little comedies when I was a kid. He was always one of my favourite comedians when I was growing up…I convinced them to put the old mustache back on him because a lot of people my age would remember him.”John Booker (2017) The Happiest Trails. P142-3. Ent Books. The interview was conducted by Grant Lockhart during Tex Ritter’s last UK tour in May 1973
The film Snub mentioned most often in letters sent during the period 1943-44 is the Pete Smith film Self Defence, one of a string of 10 minute comedy shorts made at MGM.APAC postcards, 12 June 1943, 26 May 1944, 21 June 1944, 4 Nov 1944 Unfortunately, it appears to be lost, although other Smith shorts have survived. Snub makes the point in one letter that as an extra, he didn’t really know how good his part would be until he started work on the picture.APAC Letter 14 March 1949 This may explain why he appears to have little awareness of the significance of some of the films he appeared in – such as the now classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in 1951 or the musical Singin’ in the Rain in 1952. In May 1948, he wrote of working on a Bing Crosby film for two weeks in San Francisco, although what this was seems difficult to identify now – possibly it was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. APAC Letter 15 May 1948
One of the most significant matters alluded to by Snub was his involvement in the Screen Extras Guild, an association he joined in the later 1940s. APAC Letter 23 March 1949 He was on the board of directors of the Guild by March 1949 and remained so for at least ten years, in company with another Australian actor, perennial Hollywood butler William H O’Brien.Valley Times (CA) 14 Jul 1952, P4 via newspapers.com While there is no evidence his politics were as radical as those of another famous Australian-born unionist in the US, Harry Bridges of the International Longshoremen’s Association, the activities of the SEG were designed to protect the rights of worker members who might otherwise easily be exploited. SEG’s efforts included demanding health and welfare benefits for extras Los Angeles Times, 1 June 1955, P16. via newspapers.com and refusing compromising conditions to employment.The Fresno Bee (CA) 24 March 1949 via newspapers.com Snub’s first travel in a commercial aircraft was on SEG business in 1949. He wrote about the experience at some length and posted the United Airlines information packet home to his nephew.
The technology Snub often wrote about in the later 1940s was television – as he was beginning to be employed in TV shows and started to see his old comedies replayed. He seemed to have lived in hope that the new medium might see him making comedies again in his old makeup, and he wrote that he had some good proposals. Television in Australia was still being planned when he wrote to his nephew to explain how the exciting new medium worked: “you sure will like it. After dinner you go in your front room, turn on the television set and see all the pictures you want to, even Snub Pollard comedies.” APAC letter 4 Jan, 1952 “Yes television over here is great I see a lot of my old comedies…”APAC Letter 15 (possibly) July 1952 Television began in Australia in late 1956, when to fill screen time, Australian TV stations no doubt turned to the readily available work of silent comedians like Snub.
Of Snub’s personal life, the surviving letters tell us only a little. After the Second World War he lodged with old friends, including a director of some of his old comedies.But he does not say who the ex director was. APAC Letter 13 May 1949 He spent Christmas and festive occasions with friends and still received fan mail. He had married three times, but by 1944 could assure his family he was no longer married and by 1946 had apparently decided he wanted to stay single.APAC Postcards 30 Sept 1944 and 30 April 1946
Occasionally Snub sent small gifts home in a parcel – combs and pens. He also sometimes posted the comic sections of US newspapers to his nephew, and forwarded on postcards he had been sent by fans, that tickled his fancy. Several of these were fairly risqué for the time, and might tell us something about Snub’s own sense of humour.
Snub Pollard did not return again to see his family, but stayed in California.Several Australian newspapers announced he had returned for a performance tour in 1931, however, there is no other evidence of this Although he never stated it directly, there is a sense of regret about this in his letters. However, he had spent most of his life at a remove from his family – first travelling the world with the Pollard child performers, then with older ex-pollard players, and then in Hollywood, which had more than a sprinkling of former Australian vaudevillians amongst them. Snub worked almost to the time of his death in 1962.
The collection consist of postcards, photos, Christmas cards and letters, the majority are dated between 1939 and 1953. Correspondence from the war years are all postcards. The recipient of most is Harold Fraser, the son of Snub’s older brother George. The Australian Performing Arts Collection purchased this collection in the early 1990s. As noted, Snub wrote to all his family, and we must assume this is only a partial record.
- Claudia Funder, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Melbourne, who convinced me to leaf through their Snub Pollard Collection.
- Kevin Summers and Geoffrey Wright, whose patient persistence demonstrated that I was wrong and Snub Pollard did indeed appear as a taxi driver in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- John Booker (2017) The Happiest Trails. P142-3. Ent Books.
- Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
- Ted Holland (1989) B western actors encyclopedia; Facts, photos and filmographies for more than 250 familiar faces. McFarland & Co
- Kalton C Lahue and Sam Gill (1970) Clown princes and court jesters. Some great comics of the silent screen. A S Barnes
- Brent Walker (2013) “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of his Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel” McFarland & Co
- Matthew Ross. Lost Laugh Magazine, Number 13.
This site has been selected for preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive
|↑1||He also paid for her to visit California the following year|
|↑2||an actor who is taking any work to maintain their career|
|↑3||Table Talk, 22 March 1923, via State Library of Victoria|
|↑4||Australian Performing Arts Collection, Pollard collection, Letter 24 March 1939|
|↑5, ↑6||APAC, Letter 25 May 1939|
|↑7||APAC, Letter 18 September 1939|
|↑8||APAC, Letter 17 February 1949|
|↑9||APAC, Letter 14 March 1949|
|↑10||John Booker (2017) The Happiest Trails. P142-3. Ent Books. The interview was conducted by Grant Lockhart during Tex Ritter’s last UK tour in May 1973|
|↑11||APAC postcards, 12 June 1943, 26 May 1944, 21 June 1944, 4 Nov 1944|
|↑12||APAC Letter 14 March 1949|
|↑13||APAC Letter 15 May 1948|
|↑14||APAC Letter 23 March 1949|
|↑15||Valley Times (CA) 14 Jul 1952, P4 via newspapers.com|
|↑16||Los Angeles Times, 1 June 1955, P16. via newspapers.com|
|↑17||The Fresno Bee (CA) 24 March 1949 via newspapers.com|
|↑18||APAC letter 4 Jan, 1952|
|↑19||APAC Letter 15 (possibly) July 1952|
|↑20||But he does not say who the ex director was. APAC Letter 13 May 1949|
|↑21||APAC Postcards 30 Sept 1944 and 30 April 1946|
|↑22||Several Australian newspapers announced he had returned for a performance tour in 1931, however, there is no other evidence of this|