Nat Clifford is not a household name. In fact, given the scattergun distribution of pseudonyms he favoured he probably wasn’t even a household name in his own household. Yet what we know of the global adventure that was Nat Clifford’s life makes him well worthy of attention under whichever name you prefer.
He was notable as music hall and vaudeville performer who became a gag writer and supporting player in the early days of silent film comedy (he appeared with Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges, among others) but while snatches of his image and strangely refined cockney voice are preserved in the film vaults it is away from the stage and the camera that the Nat Clifford story really comes alive.
He was born around 1870, nobody’s exactly sure when, in New York or in London, nobody’s exactly sure where. Nobody’s exactly sure what his name was either: Nat Clifford seems to be his best-known pseudonym but it’s unlikely to be the name he was born with.
At the age of six he began touring with a troupe of acrobats, spending two years in South America, before joining a travelling circus that gravitated across India, south-east Asia and Australia.
By the time he was twelve Clifford was in Paris as one half of Clifford and Mae, a tumbling double act he’d formed with an acrobat called Harry Mae. Just as the act was developing a promising head of steam a mistimed on-stage fall broke Harry’s neck and killed him, leaving Nat to forge onward alone.
After an abortive 1899 trip to South Africa – the train he took to Johannesburg crashed with many fatalities and he arrived just as the theatres pulled down their shutters at the start of the Boer War – Nat settled in London and busied himself writing songs for the major music hall stars of the day. He married, was financially secure, and the future looked settled and bright.
Then in 1913 there was what his friend Stan Laurel described in a letter as a ‘married woman scandal’. Nat fled to Australia to escape the fallout but managed to land himself even deeper in the soup by, it seems, developing a drink problem that had him marrying just about every barmaid he met. Wanted by the law for bigamy, not to mention having a legion of aggrieved fathers-in-law on his tail, Nat was smuggled out of the country concealed in a meat sack on a ship heading east.
To throw off his pursuers Nat’s acquaintances then put it about that he’d been lost at sea somewhere between Australia and China, news that apparently made the press as far away as London, but Nat was very much alive and even as the death notices appeared he was working his way across China and India fleecing money from all and sundry as a card sharp. When he ill-advisedly hornswoggled a Rajah, even a notorious prison island couldn’t hold him back and soon afterwards Nat showed up in Cairo in the care of an English prostitute.
From there he travelled to the US and re-established himself as a vaudeville comedian, graduating west to Hollywood where he worked as a gag man and bit part actor first for Mack Sennett – under the name ‘Pat Forde’ – and then Hal Roach, where he often worked as ‘Frank Terry’.
Whichever name he went by calamitous adventure was never far away. In 1919 he was working on a publicity shoot with Harold Lloyd for the film Haunted Spooks and handed Lloyd a fake bomb whose fuse he was to light with a cigarette. Except somehow Nat had managed to hand Lloyd a real bomb, one that blew the thumb and forefinger off the star’s right hand and burnt most of the skin off his face.
By the 1930s Nat was a key member of Laurel and Hardy’s gag team (he also wrote the Sons Of The Desert anthem) and was appearing in a range of films, from Laurel and Hardy and Three Stooges two-reelers to James Whale’s Bride Of Frankenstein. For a man effectively on the run from the law of more than one continent appearing in global smash hit films could have been risky, but safety first had never really been the Clifford way.
Then, it seems, in the mid 1930s Nat found religion. He left Hollywood for Hawaii to become a missionary, administered to a leper colony and built a mission hall in Honolulu. He retired to Burbank, California, where there is a 1948 death record for a retired missionary in the name of ‘Frank Ernest Edwards’. This is possibly Nat Clifford’s real name. But nobody knows for sure.
When the histories of music hall, vaudeville and silent film comedy are written Nat Clifford is rarely mentioned. He lurks in the background of some of the greatest progressions in western popular culture, literally in the case of his film appearances, and none of his various pseudonyms trip from the tongue when talk turns to the greats of music hall and silent cinema.
The adventures and misadventures of Nat Clifford would however have made a pretty good film in their own right. The only thing is, you’d probably have had to give it several names.