Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dead Pan

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 24, 2011

When someone or something is expressed in an impassive, matter-of-fact way, that’s dead pan … expressionless, empty, blank, wooden, straight-faced, vacuous, impassive, inscrutable, poker-faced, and completely inexpressive.

When Snub Pollard, comedian of the pie-throwing days of silent movies, died in January 20, 1962 the headline run the following day in the New York Times read:

SNUB POLLARD, 72, FILM COMIC, DEAD: Dead-Pan Actor Was One of the Keystone Kops Appeared in Recent Movies

The news bite included this additional information:

Mr. Pollard was known to movie audiences of forty-five years ago as a little man with a dead-pan expression whose black mustache twitched and was often reversed.

On November 22, 1939 the St. Petersburg (FL) Evening Independent newspaper reported on Stan Laurel of Lauren and Hardy fame and his wife, Illiana.  It began with:

A charge that the Dead-Pan film comic, Stan Laurel, once ran down a Beverly Hills residential street, clad only in shorts, chasing his Russian-born wife, Illiana, who wore a thin negligee, was injected into their prolonged court battle.  The actress is asking that the Laurel divorce be set aside on grounds she was forced to agree to it.

In Pennsylvania, the Greensburg Daily Tribune ran the Today’s Sports Parade column by Henry McLemore, United Press Staff Correspondent, on its pages.  On April 1, 1935 he wrote about boxer, Joe Louis:

Putting the sport shot here and there: Old-timers say Joe Louis is the first killer of the ring with a dead pan they’ve seen in years … The Detroit negro is as cooly deliberate as a butcher working on a ham hock … There’s no Dempsey snarl, baring gleaming fangs or a mouthpiece … Just a fearsome fish eye as he shuffles in throwing anvils.

It wasn’t the first time Joe Louis had been referred to in this manned.  In New York state, the Rochester Evening Journal of November 8, 1924 ran an article entitled, “Tad’s Tidbits: Dead Pan Louie and the Low Class.”  In this story, he reported:

Mr. L. Angel Firpo is not boxing these days.  He isn’t even training.  In fact, he hasn’t even signed up for a match, and behind it all is a story of uncouth manners and rough-neck tactics.

One hardly thinks of manners and boxing being found in the same room together, but back in the 1920s, manners were important.  The article continues farther down with:

Mr. Romero Rojas, who is also a South American and who made quite a rep down there as a leather pusher, wishing to engage in a bout with Louie, adopted the American tactics of calling his rival names, using such terms as “piece of cheese,” “palooka,” “big punk,” etc. 

That sort of shocked Dead Pan and sent him to his room brooding for two days.  The idea of any one referring to Dead Pan as a piece of cheese was terrible to even think of!  Louie immediately cast Mr. Rojas from his life.  He cut his name off his calling list, and when they pass on the street now Louie doesn’t even give him a tumble.  As for a fight.  No chance.  Mr. Romero will never hear a word from Louie until he apologizes.

The word “pan” meant “skull” or “head” as far back as the 1300s and manuscripts from that era contains words such as “brain pan” and “head pan.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that vaudevillians began using the word “pan” as a slang term for face.  And “dead” means “dead.”

So, dead pan is as emotionless as you can possibly imagine … especially if you’re imagining a corpse.

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