Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Final Living Silent Stars

Carla Laemmle
This past Thursday, Hollywood lost one of the last great links to the Silent Era, Carla Laemmle.  If you're a film fan or even a noted cinephile, you'll be forgiven for not knowing who Laemmle is, as she's not what you'd consider a headliner (this isn't like Ruby Dee or even Martha Hyer, both of whom passed away this week as well).  Laemmle, though, had multiple significant films in her filmography before largely retiring in 1939 (she'd enjoy a brief renaissance in her nineties in largely unseen horror films).  Most prominently, she was in the original Bela Lugosi Dracula, and actually has the first spoken words in this classic movie.  She also had an uncredited appearance in The Broadway Melody, the second film to win an Oscar (and from what I can tell, was the last living person to appear in that film).

But for the purposes of our article today, she also was one of the last surviving people to star in a film created for the Silent Era.  While The Artist and Silent Movie attempted to bring back the silent film (or at least throwback to them), the true Silent Era largely ended in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer.  Several major Silent Era films were released in ensuing years by Charlie Chaplin (principally City Lights and Modern Times) but by-and-large the Era ended and most of the stars of that time period either had to adapt or quit the business.  As a result of this, most actors of that era (which ended roughly 85 years ago) have long since past.  Yet Laemmle, who was 104, appeared in three silent films of note: The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, as well as two adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927's Uncle Tom's Cabin, as well as 1927's Topsy and Eva).

So that got me thinking, with the death of Laemmle and Mickey Rooney earlier this year-are there any remaining Silent Film actors with us?  I went over to Wikipedia (so take this with a slight grain of salt), and discovered that there are still exactly one dozen actors from that era still with us (there are also five listed that are "unknown" if they are still alive, and sadly I'm guessing if we ever find out that they're still alive it will be because we hear about it in an obituary-thus is the fleeting face of stardom).  But of the dozen, let's take a look at who they are and what their careers ended up being.  We'll start with the oldest.

Manoel de Oliveira
1. Manoel de Oliveira (born December 11, 1908)

I find that the longer someone lives, the more impressive their life becomes (the lesson here-exercise more).  Manoel de Oliveira barely makes this list (he was an extra in the silent film Fatima Milagrosa, a  film by Rino Lupo), but he went on to have an extraordinarily long career as a director.  Primarily known for his work in directing documentaries in his early days, he has since the 1970's become a widely known director and won awards from numerous film bodies.  He has had five films compete for the Palme d'or (he won the Jury Prize in 1999 for The Letter at the age of 100) and won honorary awards from Venice, Mar del Plata, Locarno, Montreal, and Munich.  Portugal notably has never been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (with thirty submissions, it's the country with the most submissions to have never been nominated-trivia!), but if they had their nomination would have almost certainly been for one of de Oliveira's films as he directed nine of the thirty movies they submitted, including 2007's Belle Toujours, which (had it been nominated) would have been nominated the year de Oliveira turned 100.  At nearly 106 years of age, he's still working, and has a short film out later this year.  De Oliveira is notable as the only living person to have appeared in a Silent Era film as an adult.

2. Mary Carlisle (born February 3, 1914)

Carlisle celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year, and also had an impressive life in the early era of cinema.  Her only film in the Silent Era happened to be at the age of nine, when she starred opposite Jackie Coogan in Long Live the King, but she enjoyed some success in the early 1930's when she returned to MGM.  Her most notable roles were opposite Bing Crosby in films like College Humor, Double or Nothing, and Doctor Rhythm, but she also had a small role in the 1932 Best Picture winner Grand Hotel starring Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo.  One random fact about her: she is the last living WAMPAS Baby Star.  This was a list of women that came out each year from 1922 to 1934 of the "up-and-coming" actresses in Hollywood.  Amongst the other women that joined Carlisle in 1932 as a WAMPAS girl were Titanic star Gloria Stuart and film legend Ginger Rogers.

3. Fay McKenzie (born February 19, 1918)

Like all of the remaining stars on this list, McKenzie appeared at an extremely young age in the Silent Era films, appearing in four Silent Era films before the age of six (most notably in 1918's Station Content as Gloria Swanson's baby, which makes Station Content the oldest film to have a confirmed living cast member-bring that fact up at your next dinner party).  McKenzie would take a ten-year break from acting after appearing in 1924's The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, but would find much success as an adult actor in the 1940's starring as Gene Autry's leading lady in five different movies.  She frequently went on USO tours in with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and late in her career she appeared in several Blake Edwards films, including Breakfast at Tiffany's and S.O.B., which is her final film to date.

4. Diana Serra Cary (Born October 29, 1918)

Almost certainly the most prolific living actor from the Silent Era, Cary was most well-known as Baby Peggy, one of three major child stars of the Silent Era (the others being Jackie Coogan and Baby Marie, both of whom has since passed).  She made her early career in short films for Century, and frequently made films that satirized movies.  She went on to make feature length films in the Silent Era, and was so popular that they sold Baby Peggy dolls (a young Judy Garland was a huge fan, and Cary would later note that she believed Garland's mother pushed her into stardom because she wanted her to be like Baby Peggy).  Though she was making $1.5 million a year in 1923 (the equivalent to over $20 million today), her parents recklessly spent the money leaving her with nothing to show for her work (she, along with Jackie Coogan, was the principle reason for the Coogan Act, though unlike Coogan she did not sue her parents).  In her adult life she has become a writer about her experiences and film history in general from that era (she's frequently written about child stars, including Coogan, Garland, and Shirley Temple), and an advocate for the working conditions of child stars.

5. Dorothy Morrison (Born January 3, 1919)

After four people with long or at least noted careers, we land our first person on the list to not have much known about her.  Morrison made only a handful of movies, most notably appearing in some of the Our Gang pictures of the 1920's, but retired from cinema in 1936.

6. Louise Watson (Born November 22, 1919) and 9. Billy Watson (Born December 25, 1923)

The Watson children are on this list because of that great real estate maxim "location, location, location."  J.C. and Golda Watson had nine children through the years, and thanks to living 600 feet from Keystone Studios, their children were frequently called upon for bit parts in the Keystone movies. As a result the Watson family starred with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Jimmy Stewart, Shirley Temple, and Spencer Tracy.  Louise and Billy didn't get any of the classic film roles like brothers Delmar (who was in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Heidi) and Bobs (who was in Boys Town) did, but they definitely made films in the Silent Era.  They also have a younger brother Garry who is still alive, but was born after the Silent Era had ended.

7. Lassie Lou Ahern (Born June 25, 1920)

Lassie Lou (I do believe that was really her birth name) and her older sister Peggy appeared in a number of the Our Gang pictures for Hal Roach.  She also appeared during the Silent Era in Uncle Tom's Cabin opposite Carla Laemmle.  Though she largely retired from film as an adult, she went on to be a guest actor on a number of television shows, including The Odd Couple and The Magician with Bill Bixby.

Jean Darling
8. Jean Darling (Born August 23, 1922)

The third of our actors to have starred in Hal Roach's Our Gang series, Darling was a star of fifty Our Gang films, most of which were filmed during the Silent Era.  She went on to play a number of parts in the 1930's, including a young Jane Eyre in 1934 with Virginia Bruce.  She would have her biggest success as an adult actress on Broadway, however, where she would originate the role of Carrie Pipperidge (a role that would fifty years later win Audra McDonald one of her many Tony Awards).

10. Kathleen O'Malley (Born March 31, 1924)

The daughter of vaudeville star Pat O'Malley, she made her film debut as a toddler in 1926 in My Old Dutch.  O'Malley, while certainly never a star, went on to play opposite a number of them as a character actor in film and television, along the way starring opposite John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Bette Midler.

11. Mildred Kornman (Born July 10, 1925)

While certainly not as famous in the Our Gang films as her older sister Mary (who was probably the most well-known member of the films at the time), she did appear in several of the later Silent Era films for Hal Roach.  Kornman never had a speaking role in a motion picture (some film history-aware movie director should call her up and see if she'd be interested in one!), but did appear in movies up until 1935 when she retired from acting at the age of ten.

Dickie Moore
12. Dickie Moore (Born September 12, 1925)

Keeping with the theme, our final actor was also a star of the Our Gang films, though Dickie Moore is on this list not due to the Our Gang films (he appeared in them when they had sound), but instead due to one film released in 1927 called The Beloved Rogue, which starred John Barrymore and Conrad Veidt (of Casablanca fame) in which he has an uncredited cameo as Baby Francois.  As a child star he would appear opposite Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus and in the first sound era telling of Oliver Twist.  He is probably best known, however, for his long marriage to screen actress Jane Powell.

And those are the only twelve remaining.  Wikipedia lists five other actors who may still be alive (Maggie Calloway, Virginia Marshall, Vonda Phelps, Helen Rowland, and Mauel Silos-if you have any proof of their whereabouts, share in the comments!) and I know of at least one living actor who may have appeared in Silent Era films (Lupita Tovar, who did not appear in any Silent films but her earliest films may have been released in silent versions because the theaters weren't equipped with sound yet).  What are your thoughts?  Have you seen any of these actors' movies before?  Do you have a favorite Silent Era performer?  Share in the comments!


Anonymous said...

Don't Forget Lupita Tovar

John T said...

Anonymous-I actually mentioned Lupita Tovar in the article. From what I can tell Ms. Tovar did star in films during the end of the Silent Era, and some of her films may have been released in theaters that didn't come equipped with sound, but she didn't star in any specifically silent pictures.