Tragic and Untimely Ends
"Remembering Those Silent Stars Who Died Before Their Time"
by Tim Lussier
For some reason, we feel a sting of sadness when we think about those stars who "died before their time."
Something's not quite right about the untimely death of someone who brought so much joy to so many people. We can't help but think of what their careers may have held had they lived a little longer - what sort of "greatness" they may have achieved - what precious gems they could have left in their celluloid legacy.
Oddly enough, there seems to be a disproportionate number of the stars who suffered tragic or untimely ends. Maybe it can be attributed to lifestyle. Maybe some of them were on the road to destruction long before they became movie stars. Maybe it was something genetic that had nothing to do with their lifestyle. Maybe it was directly because of the hazards involved in the profession they chose. . . or just plain bad luck. Whatever the reason, there are far too many, and we can only wonder how much greater our cinematic heritage would be had they lived just a little longer.
The list below is not complete, but these are a few whom we still remember and can enjoy, full of life, through the magic of film.
Wallace Reid was certainly THE "matinee idol" of the late 'teens and early twenties. He was one of the handsomest men on the screen. He was enjoying a happy marriage. He was extremely talented - he could play the violin, as well as any other stringed instrument, and the saxophone - he was a composer and a singer - he was not only an actor, but also directed and wrote. He was extremely well-read. His wife once commented, "The only rival I had after marriage was our library."
In 1919, Reid was filming "The Valley of the Giants." The train taking them on location to the High Sierras wrecked. The injuries which he sustained, some while helping get the women out, caused blinding headaches. His back had also been damaged. To allow him to continue filming, he was given morphine, and, after the picture, he was bedridden for three months. However, a medical source continued to give him the morphine long after the time when he could have withdrawn.
The problem worsened, and Reid began drinking to cover up the addiction. By 1922, he checked into a sanitarium to fight his problem. Just when he seemed to be getting better, he contracted influenza and died at age 31.
Martha Mansfield was one of a group of musical comedy stars who were labeled by photographers after World War I as "the most beautiful girl in New York City." She worked in some of the Max Linder Essanays in 1916 and 1917 which led to feature roles. Her most famous role was as Millicent Carew in John Barrymore's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920).
She was signed by Fox in 1923 and began work on "The Warrens of Virginia" on location in San Antonio, Texas. She had just finished filming a scene and was returning to her automobile when her dress caught fire from a match someone had dropped. She jumped from the automobile in flames, and co-star Wilfred Lytell threw his coat around her to smother the fire. She was rushed to a local hospital, but died less than 24 hours later at 24 years of age.
Bobby Harron was a prop boy of about 15 years of age at Biograph when D.W. Griffith arrived in 1908. Before long he was given parts in many of the early Biograph one-reelers and became Griffith's mainstay for juvenile leads. Harron shone brightly in such Griffith classics as "The Birth of a Nation," "Intolerance," "A Romance of Happy Valley," "Hearts of the World," and "True Heart Susie."
Harron was in New York on the evening of Sept. 2, 1920, for the premiere of "Way Down East" which was scheduled for the next day. He had purchased a revolver at some earlier time from a man who needed money, put it in his dinner jacket pocket and forgotten about it. On that evening, as he took the dinner jacket from his trunk, it fell to the floor and discharged. He died at Bellevue Hospital at 26 years of age.
After years of playing "heavies" or "gigolos," Rudolph Valentino finally made a sensation in Rex Ingram's "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921). With the making of "The Sheik" that same year, his fame as the "greatest screen lover" was sealed. During the next five years, his popularity was unrivaled.
In August of 1926, Valentino went to New York City for the East Coast premiere of "Son of the Sheik." Sunday, Aug. 15, he was rushed to the Polyclinic hospital where he was operated on for a gastric ulcer and ruptured appendix. For almost a week, doctors were sure he was on the mend. Then, Saturday, Aug. 21, his condition took a turn for the worse. On Monday, Aug. 23, 1926, at 10 minutes past noon, Rudolph Valentino died at age 31.
Clarine Seymour began films with the Thanhouser company in New York and came west to work with Pathe. When D.W. Griffith found her, she was working in Christie comedies. He was casting for "The Girl Who Stayed at Home" (1919) and cast her in a secondary role as Cutie Beautiful. She also appeared in "True Heart Susie" (1919) and "Scarlet Days" (1919) before being given the female lead in "The Idol Dancer" (1920)
Unfortunately, she was to live only one month after the premiere of the movie. She died in New York on April 25, 1920, during an operation for strangulation of the intestines. She had just signed a four-year contract that assured her of two million dollars in income during that time. She was only 21 years of age.
Mabel Normand began her career at Biograph, and when Mack Sennett left to form his own company to produce comedies, she went with him and reigned supreme as the queen comedienne of Keystone Comedies. She and Sennett were to be married until, as the story goes, she caught him and Mae Busch together. Things were never the same between the two of them even though he tried many times over the years to win her back and rebuild her career, although unsuccessfully, with films such as "Mickey" and "The Extra Girl." When director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in 1921, Normand and young actress Mary Miles Minter were caught up in the scandal as his "lovers," and this haunted her until her death. Mabel lived recklessly, and her career went downhill. Toward the end of the 1920's, she was making two-reel comedies for Hal Roach. She contracted tuberculosis, and, as one author put it, "Like a meteor which burns itself out by the very speed which gives it light, Mabel Normand had burned herself out." She died Feb. 24, 1930, at age 38.
Barbara La Marr
Barbara La Marr danced professionally and wrote screenplays before becoming an actress. It was Mary Pickford who told her she was "too beautiful" to be behind the camera.
La Marr rose to stardom quickly. Her second film was as Milady de Winter in Douglas Fairbanks' "The Three Musketeers" (1921) followed by Fairbanks' next film, "The Nut" (1921).
During the filming of "Souls For Sale" (1923) she sustained a injury for which studio doctors prescribed addictive medication. La Marr combined this with alcohol, and this proved to be the beginning of the end for her. She was married five times, and lived life recklessly. She once commented, "I cheat nature. I never sleep more than two hours a day. I have better things to do - I take lovers like roses, by the dozen!"
All of this combined with the onset of tuberculosis brought about her end. She didn't even make it through the filming of her last picture, "The Girl from Montmartre" (1926) before collapsing. She died in Altadena, CA., at age 29.
Art Acord was considered the first real cowboy to work in the movies since Broncho Billy Anderson was not from the west. He began making movies in 1909 with the Bison Company. In 1914, he was one of the cast in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Squaw Man." He served in the military for 18 months during WWI and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery.
Acord spent the next 10 years as one of the most popular western stars of the silent era. His greatest nemesis during this time, however, was alcohol. In 1928, during this third marriage, he lost his job, was in several bar fights, was arrested for bootlegging and went to Mexico in hopes of reviving his ailing movie career. He made several stage appearances after this and eventually ended up working in the Gasper Mines. The cause of his death in 1931 has been attributed a stabbing in a barroom fight, and according to the coroner who performed the autopsy on Acord, chronic alcoholism and an enlarged liver. However, the owner of the Gasper Mines claims Acord took enough cyanide to kill 2,500 men. He was 40 years old.
Alma Rubens gained fame in several Douglas Fairbanks movies including "Reggie Mixes In" (1916), "The Half Breed" (1916), and "The Americano" (1916). She even had a minor role in D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" (1916). An early writer compared the beauty of the popular star to "red roses in an onyx jar."
She continued working in films through 1929 and even had time to do stage work, as well. However, much of her life was scarred by failed marriages, alcohol and drug addiction. Her first marriage to Franklyn Farnum lasted less than a month. She was married to her third husband, Ricardo Cortez, when she died as a result of her heroin addiction at age 33.
Larry Semon began as a newspaper artist with a knack for drawing caricatures. He was offered a chance to become an assistant director at Vitagraph and took it. By 1916 he was directing comedies for the company, which was also the same year be starred in his first comedy short. By 1919, Vitagraph had signed him to a three-year contract for a total of $3,600,000 - a sum second only to Chaplin.
In 1924, he was fired by Vitagraph and also entered into the feature film market. By 1926, his type of slapstick comedy had become passé. His films were not successful at the box office, and he began doing some directing at Paramount and some vaudeville work to maintain finances. By 1928, he had declared bankruptcy.
After this, he tried touring vaudeville again. The strain of touring, plus the fact that his wife closed their house and went to live with her mother, led to nervous breakdown. He went to a sanitarium, and, although his condition improved enough to allow him to be moved to a health ranch in Victorville, he was suddenly struck with double pneumonia. His condition went downhill rapidly, and he died penniless in 1928 at age 39.
Olive Thomas was a beautiful showgirl in the "Ziegfeld Follies" and other Broadway revues before becoming a Selznick star. She made 17 films from 1916 to 1920.
Unfortunately, she is best remembered as the ill-fated wife of Jack Pickford. In 1920, she and Pickford were at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. They returned from their nightclub rounds about 3 a.m. About a half hour after going to bed, Thomas supposedly groped for sleeping pills and accidentally swallowed bichloride of mercury. Five days later she died. Some question still exists as to whether it was suicide or accidental. She was 21 years old.
James Murray had been a movie theatre doorman, a dishwasher and a rail rider. When King Vidor chose him for the lead in "The Crowd" (1928), he was playing occasional extra parts in movies. When offered the part, Murray confessed to Vidor that he didn't even know if he could act. However, his performance in "The Crowd"was such a success, MGM gave him leading roles in other films. Success proved difficult for him to handle, though, which, no doubt, contributed to his chronic alcoholism.
As the years wore on, the roles got smaller and the films less important. Finally, at age 35, he was found dead in the Hudson River, cause unknown.
John Gilbert got his start in movies in 1915 and played opposite such stars as Colleen Moore, Marguerite Clark, Louise Glaum, Mary Pickford and even Lon Chaney. Yet, it took until the mid-twenties before his star really began to shine. He made "The Merry Widow" with Mae Murray in 1925 which was followed by his outstanding performance in "The Big Parade" that same year. The next year he co-starred with Lillian Gish in "La Boheme" and then with Eleanor Boardman in "Bardelys the Magnificent." Then came the series of films with Greta Garbo - "Flesh and the Devil" (1927), "Love" (1927), "A Woman of Affairs" (1928).
Tradition has it that Gilbert's voice was high pitched, and his career was ruined by the talkies. However, a contract dispute with MGM was the more likely cause of his decline in the early 1930's. He suffered from depression and alcoholism. He was preparing to make a picture with Marlene Dietrich when he died Jan. 9, 1936, from a heart attack at age 36.
and others . . .
And there were others.
Lon Chaney died in 1930 of bronchial cancer at age 47 after making only one talkie.
Fatty Arbuckle had just signed a lucrative film contract and was on the verge of a comeback when he died in 1933 of a heart attack at age 46.
Max Linder was 42 years old when, depressed over a failed film career, he talked his wife into a suicide pact.
Keystone comedian Fred Mace died at age 39 years old when distress over his unemployment brought on a stroke in 1917.
Eric Campbell, who starred as the "heavy" in so many of the Charlie Chaplin shorts during the 'teens, died at age 39 in 1917 in an auto accident.
Jeanne Eagels died in 1929 at the start of a promising film career from a drug overdose.
Popular cowboy star Fred Thomson, who rivaled Tom Mix in popularity during the twenties, died at age 38 when he contracted tetanus in 1928.
The list goes on and on. But we do have one thing to be grateful for - they will live on in the wonderful films they left for generations to come to enjoy.
copyright 1998 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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