Growing Up in the Twenties

part three of the Virginia Lee Corbin biography

Because of her talent, though, Virginia's popularity continued by way of vaudeville appearances. An undated article states, "Golden-haired Virginia Lee Corbin, diminutive emotional star of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' and the series of fairly tales popularized by her marvelous work on the screen, will appear as the chief attraction on the Orpheum's last vaudeville bill of the season which opens tonight and ends with three shows on Sunday. This juvenile film star sings, dances and talks her way into the hearts of her audience, it is said, through her superb histrionic ability, versatility and radiating personality. . ."

Apparently, Virginia was no stranger to personal appearances. A "Christmas Programme" for the Hotel Granada dated Dec. 23, 1916, lists a varied program which is headlined by "An Interpretive Act by Baby Virginia Corbin, Emotional Star, the youngest and highest-salaried screen star in the world." She also served as "Baby 1917" in a New Year's Eve performance at a Los Angeles area Elks Club.

At one point during the war, she assisted with the Los Angeles American Red Cross Society with a benefit for Belgian relief work. She appeared on stage every half hour from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., and it was noted, "her name proved a very strong drawing card at the ticket office." She not only received a letter of thanks from the Belgian Red Cross Society in Antwerp, she also received many requests for photos from Belgian and French soldiers "and has granted every one."

An advertisement for the Advertising Club of Los Angeles dated Tuesday, Sept. 14, 1920, states, "First, the youngest screen celebrity between here and the Antipodes, with a world of admirers, an actress of such dramatic ability that she has been cast in parts requiring the greatest emotional display, and now, about to make a world tour in vaudeville, after which she will star in her own producing company. She is Virginia Lee Corbin in her own version of the Floradora Sextette, and 'A Cute Little Way of My Own'."

From "The White Dove" which was released in March, 1920, to the release of her next film, "Enemies of Children" in December, 1923, is somewhat of a lost period in Virginia's life. As noted, she did vaudeville work, and certainly she was well suited for that since she could sing and dance and had an excellent memory for recitations. Although fan magazines refer to the fact that she spent some time in vaudeville, no details on the 1920-1923 period can be found.

"Enemies of Children" appears to be the only picture ever produced by Fisher Productions and distributed by Mammoth Pictures, however it did boast Anna Q. Nilsson, George Siegmann and Claire McDowell as stars along with Virginia. It is described as a melodrama about a street waif who is adopted into a wealthy home. It is not known if Virginia portrayed the street waif or some other character in the story. This was her only picture in 1923.

The August 9, 1924, issue of Movie Weekly says, "Virginia L. Corbin, who used to play baby roles in Fox pictures, is a young lady now. . . . she has been engaged by James Cruze for a regular grown-up young lady role in 'The Café of the Fallen Angels'." The movie's title was changed to "The City That Never Sleeps," and it was one of five movies in which she appeared in 1924, by far her most active year since the Fox Kiddie Features of 1917.

Virginia's first movie of that year, "Wine of Youth," made for Metro-Goldwyn, was a comedy-drama starring Eleanor Boardman, and it is significant in that this was Virginia's first flapper role, a portrayal for which she was destined to see more of in the coming years. The is one of the few movies of hers that still exists.

"Sinners in Silk," which was also made for Metro-Goldwyn, was a romantic drama that again starred Eleanor Boardman, along with Adolphe Menjou, and again had Virginia cast as a flapper.

The description of Cruze's "The City That Never Sleeps" indicates Virginia was given a more significant role, albeit still a flapper. This melodrama casts her as the daughter of Mother O'Day who runs a bowery saloon. Virginia is taken in by a society woman, and years later pops up in her mother's saloon with a shady character from whom her mother has to save her. No less than Louise Dresser played the mother, and Ricardo Cortez as the unsavory character.

A review of the film from a 1924 Movie Weekly says, "Leroy Scott, who wrote the story, . . . got able assistance from the cast with the exception of Virginia Lee Corbin who presented as annoying an ingenue as it has been our luck to see. She is the sort who wears her corn-colored hair well frizzed, slides down bannisters, and wears a lot of clothes which look as though they were made by loving hands. She is the sort who should be suppressed. Of course, we mean the character, not the young lady who plays the part."

"Broken Laws" was a social drama, and, once again, Virginia is a flapper. The stars of the film were Dorothy Davenport (Mrs. Wallace Reid) and Percy Marmont. The final film for 1924 was "The Chorus Lady," a comedy which was directed by Ralph Ince. Although Margaret Livingston was the star, she and Virginia played sisters who were chorus girls in the follies.

Although few of her films appear to have survived, the Library of Congress does have a print of the Banner Production, "The Three Keys" which was released on Jan. 1, 1925. In "The Three Keys," Virginia plays the younger sister of Miss Dupont. Gaston Glass stars in the photoplay as George Lathrop, a wealthy young man who loses his fortune and steals from a friend to hide his poverty.

Virginia only has a few scenes in the movie, but at 15 years old, she plays them well. In one, her romantic advances are snubbed by Glass who is in love with her older sister. At one time, she is hurt, and in another scene she flippantly puts her hands on her hips, lifts her nose in the air, and turns haughtily away to leave the room.

By the end of the film, she has fallen in love with Jack Mulhall's character. Thinking Jack is dying (she doesn't know it's a ruse to save friend George from going to jail), she cries, kisses his face all over and confesses her love for him. Virginia does a fine job in an emotional scene that is actually being played for comedy.

"The Three Keys" is not a great film, but it shows Virginia maturing and proving to be a very capable actress at only 14 years of age.

It is interesting to note that, although she was said to be younger than she actually was in her child actress days, by 1927, an article in a fan magazine had her born in 1905, which would have made her 22 rather than the 16 or 17 she actually was!

Her next 1925 feature, "The Cloud Rider," co-starred her with stunt man Al Wilson. This is described as a typical Wilson melodrama in which there was the usual quota of aerial stunts. It would be interesting to see what stunts Virginia may have been included in!

"Lillies of the Field," released in May, was the next 1925 feature. This melodrama was the first picture to list Virginia as the star since her days at Fox. In this, she played a "wild young flapper"who gets involved with a small-time hood who is killed. Thinking her mother did the deed, Virginia confesses to the crime to protect her. Wheeler Oakman played the hood while Johnnie Walker played a lawyer who saves Virginia and with whom she falls in love.

"Headlines" starred Alice Joyce. It was described as a melodrama in which Virginia plays Joyce's "jazz baby" daughter. It is interesting to note that although Virginia was only 15 at the time, she was playing the role of an 18-year old in this film.

Two films were released in December, "The Handsome Brute" and "North Star." In "The Handsome Brute," she plays the sweetheart of William Fairbanks, who is a policeman at odds with a gang in the city. "North Star" was another melodrama and had Virginia searching the Canadian Northwest for her brother who fled the United States because he thought he killed a man during a wild party.

Virginia's increased activity during 1924 and 1925 must have contributed to a renewed popularity. A Dec., 1925, Motion Picture Magazine poll ranked her 16th in popularity behind such luminaries as Gloria Swanson, Betty Bronson, Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, Norma Talmadge and Bebe Daniels but ahead of such stars as Constance Talmadge, Barbara La Marr, Lillian Gish, May McAvoy and Alice Terry. Also in 1925, she was selected as a Wampas Baby Star, a high honor, but a little unusual for someone who had been in films as long as Virginia.

1926 began with a first-rate comedy, "Hands Up!" in which Virginia and Marian Nixon play sisters, both in love with confederate spy Raymond Griffith. In this film, which is available for viewing today, she is Alice Woodstock, one of two daughters of Silas Woodstock (Mack Swain) who has the gold mine which will save the Union from losing the Civil War. Griffith plays Jack, a Confederate spy, who charms both Alice and her sister, Mae (Nixon). Virginia and Marian Nixon aren't given very challenging acting roles in the movie (it's all Griffith's film), but at 15 years old, Virginia continues to be very beautiful and show a knack for comedy, as well.

Three more pictures completed 1926, "The Whole Town's Talking," a Universal farce starring Dolores Del Rio and Edward Everett Horton, "The Honeymoon Express," a Warner Brothers domestic drama starring Irene Rich, and "Ladies at Play," a First National bedroom farce starring Doris Kenyon and Lloyd Hughes.
From its description, "The Whole Town's Talking" sounds as if it was a hilarious picture. Horton portrays a WWI veteran who returns home with a steel plate in his head, and therefore must avoid all excitement. Since Virginia finds him unexciting as a lover, a story is concocted about his supposed love affair with a movie star (played by Del Rio). However, the movie star's jealous husband hears the story, and, believing it to be true, goes after Horton.

"The Honeymoon Express" was a return to the flapper role for Virginia and has her being saved from suicide over a love affair gone bad.

Apparently, Virginia's role in "Ladies at Play" was small as her character is not even mentioned in the AFI description of the film.

It is interesting to note that although Virginia was very active during the previous three years, she was obviously not under contract to any one studio and was "freelancing" with both large and small companies. During 1924-26, she had worked for Metro-Goldwyn, Famous Players-Lasky, Thomas H. Ince, Regal, Banner, Van Pelt-Wilson, Belban, Columbia, Howard Eastbrook, Paramount, Universal, Warner Brothers, and First National ­ quite an array of studios!

Virginia started 1927 co-starring with up and coming Ben Lyon in "The Perfect Sap." Lyon is a wealthy young man and a "would be detective" in this comedy mystery, and Virginia is his girlfriend.

In "Driven From Home," Virginia is turned out by her father because she married a poor secretary rather than the titled foreigner he had picked out for her.

The comedy "Play Safe" with Monty Banks was probably an experience similar to "The Cloud Rider" with Al Wilson since Virginia was once again participating in some wild stunts (although Banks used much more trick photography than Wilson). This hilarious comedy has survived, and a very exciting sequence from it is available in the 1961 Paul Killiam compilation "The Great Chase." A 20-minute version entitled "Chasing Choo Choos" is included on Kino International's "Slapstick Encyclopedia" series.

In this movie, Virginia plays an heiress who is saved from criminals and a forced marriage by Banks, identified only as "The Boy." "The Great Chase" shows the climax of this movie, which is a wild ride on a runaway train while they are being chased by the crooks. Banks performs some hair-raising stunts transferring from a speeding car to the train, transferring from one train to another, hanging from the side of the train, narrowly slipping through a tunnel, riding atop the train, and all the while being helped by the somewhat inept Virginia!

The 17-year old's final film for 1927 was a romantic comedy entitled "No Place to Go." It starred Mary Astor and Lloyd Hughes who are friends with Virginia and her boyfriend, played by Hallam Cooley, who end up on an island inhabited by cannibals.

An article in the April, 1928, issue of Motion Picture magazine entitled "Grooming Them for Stardom," lists Virginia as one of ten "youngsters" under contract to First National "who may be that company's stars within the next year or two." It goes on to say, "None has yet reached the assured stage in development, but each is at the door of Oportunity." The other nine are Molly O'Day, Paul Vincenti, Donald Reed, Alice White, Larry Kent, Yola d'Avril, Lucien Prival, Loretta Young and Frances Hamilton. It is odd that Virginia should be included in this group since, by 1928, she was a 12-year "veteran" of the motion pictures.

Apparently Virginia's comedic talent was being noticed and taken advantage of because three of her four films in1928 were comedies.

The first of these,"Bare Knees," is one of the best examples of a flapper movie from the Jazz Age available today. She plays carefree Billie Drury who is constantly chastised by her older sister, Jane, about her dress and behavior. "Your bare knees and bare back are going to get you into trouble," she tells Billie. Billie responds, "It's not what you wear on your body - it's what you wear in your head." Later, when we learn that Jane is having an affair and plans to leave her husband for another man, it becomes apparent that the younger sibling is the more level-headed of the two. As a matter of fact, it's Billie who saves her sister's marriage in the end.

Virginia seems perfectly suited for the part of Billie Drury, and although "Bare Knees" is not what one would term a "deep" story, Virginia is given some range in her part. She plays the coquette as she is chased by boyfriend Larry (played by Donald Keith). She is at once incredulous and flippant as she encounters the dull characters at her sister's lifeless birthday party. She is serious without being silly when she admonishes her sister about her misbehavior. At the end when she and Jane's lover are trapped in a fire at the pier, her wisecracking and "c'est la vie" attitude foreshadow the "tough dames" of films in the early thirties. And although she is very much blonde, she is never the dumb blonde.

Even though Virginia is surrounded with a strong supporting cast which includes Donald Keith, Jane Winton and Johnnie Walker, the film is all hers.

It is not known how successful this film was (it was made by a small company - Gotham Productions), but it does seem to be perfect for the period and, on viewing today, certainly seems good enough to rank with the best of the "programmers" of the day.

Although a Dec., 1927, review in Moving Picture World was praiseworthy of the film as a whole, it was reserved in doing the same for Virginia's performance. "Despite many improbabilities and absurdities, 'Bare Knees' is a first rate Gotham release, with breeze and sex. . . Virginia Lee Corbin does well as flaming youth, but needs to be steered away from certain stock mannerisms of conveying flippancy. She has been kept pretty busy doing flaps since graduating from pinafores."

An incident recorded in a 1927 Photoplay is exemplary of the "flapper persona" that was attributed to Virginia around this time. Supposedly, she was at a dinner where a young admirer was swooning over her. "A boy from Maryland began showering the pastel Virginia with soulful sighs and glances," it said. "Virginia gazed at him coldly. 'Take off the mask and play yourself,' she said scornfully. The boy continued to protest his love, his affection, his all. 'Aw, count yourself,' wisecracked Miss Corbin, 'you're not so numerous.'"

The next 1928 release, "The Little Snob," starred May McAvoy and Robert Frazer. In it, Virginia and Frances Lee portray McAvoy's "worldly" boarding school friends.

"The Head of the Family" has Virginia as the flapper daughter of William Welsh. She is "tamed" by William Russell who is a plumber left by Welsh in charge of his family while he goes away to pursue a health cure.

"Jazzland," her final 1928 release, was a return to drama with Bryant Washburn and Vera Reynolds in the leads. Virginia plays Reynolds' younger sister who gets involved with some ruffians at a nightclub.

Copyright 2000 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

Personal Problems, Marriage, The End of a Career

part four of the Virginia Lee Corbin biography

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4

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