His face was so large he appeared to be in close-up even when you could see his feet.
He played Moriarty, Captain Hook and Steamboat Bill Snr to Buster Keaton’s Jnr.
Born in Edinburgh in 1878, Torrence and his brother traveled to America in 1911 and developed their acting careers. The Broadway experience they gathered marked Ernest: he could be subtle onscreen but he could never be small. His hands were great, long, fronds of meat, waving before him: he’d retract his arms to try to shrink the performance, and emphasize further his extraordinary digital reach.
He was a big man. The gigantic hands and face were all the more extraordinary for protruding from a figure already tall and broad.
His nose and chin, thrusting forth in a pincer movement, like a Punchinello grown gargantuan, set him on the course to play bad guys, and in a role like Hook in the 1924 Peter Pan, he could release all his pantomimic tendencies. The film is shamelessly theatrical, with a dog played by a human in costume, and Peter played by a girl (Betty Bronson) in drag. Torrence seizes the chance to raise the rafters with a performance of such outsize, smirking villainy that one wonders how children of the era survived exposure to it. The solution is in the sheer magnitude: nothing so enormous could be wholly sincere, and by overplaying until each nuance rang like a cannon-blast, Torrence conveyed to his pleasurably cowering little fans that this was all make-believe.
It’s miraculous that they let Torrence play Clopin in the Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame: Chaney must have been confident indeed to suppose that his makeup effects could trump the startling kisser nature had supplied to Torrence. In Steamboat Bill Jnr he’s terrific, as bewildered father of a foppish college boy Buster Keaton: we know Keaton thought the partnership so successful he tried to sort-of reprise it in a wagon train movie where Marie Dressler would play his mother. The bets outsize actors can scale down their performances, and Torrence needed to in order to enter Keaton’s world, where a narrowing of the eyes can register as thunderously as a collapsing house front.
As Moriarty in 1932’s Sherlock Holmes, he scales back to thinner slices of ham, fixing co-stars with a glinting, unblinking gaze, like a serpent or a corpse. Everything is still colossal — stupendous! — but slowed down and focused more tightly. It’s always possible to be scared by Torrence, since his face threatens to burst through the screen and seize you between nose and chin, but here it’s also possible to believe, just about, that he’s playing a person. Bringing Chicago gangsterism to Holmes’ London (in the misshapen form of pre-code plug Stanley Fields, fresh from Little Caesar), Moriarty at times seems like a supernatural force, escaping from prison using nothing more than an expressionistic montage.
All the film’s highlights involve Torrence, threatening his accusers from the dock as a series of black veils lift mysteriously from the lens, or recruiting hired guns in a carnival shooting gallery. His presence seems to inspire director William K. Howard to heights of delirium, while Clive Brook as Holmes drags his scenes down with that grudging staunch quality he would dust his scenes with if not feeling inspired. Together, they generate some sparks, not least with their matching chin/nose arrangement: were they to touch profiles, the shape created between jaws and schnozzles would be a perfect rectangle, across which a screen might be stretched: upon which to project such marvelous images…
by David Cairns