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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
BARBARA LA MARR

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“What a looker Barbara LaMarr was. She was very popular and one of the biggest stars of her era.” – Bob Hope

“Seventy years after her death it comes to light that Barbara LaMarr was more than Hollywood’s original tragic icon of youth and beauty flung by decadence into an early grave. Behind the impossible glamour was a human being and woman whose talent and complexity were far greater than many of her era were willing to see.” – Karen Pedersen, Librarian, The Writers Guild Foundation.

1923 Barbara LaMarr MPDA PhotoBarbara Lamarr Large Cuban Premium CardIn a bizarre twist to the adage that one can’t be too rich or too thin, it seems one can be too beautiful. Known around the world in her day as “The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful”, Barbara LaMarr, in her short life, created a body of work that would truly immortalize her. As ethereal as she appeared on the screen, her many admirers pointed repeatedly to her intelligence, compassion, humour and her exceptional beauty off screen as well. Her contemporary, and another star of the silent screen, Mary Philbin, says of her: “Barbara LaMarr was a true and rare beauty. I remember seeing her at a Hollywood premiere wearing a lovely silver beaded Madame Frances gown. She was stunning. Her glaring beauty almost made me faint.” Perhaps, after reading her story and viewing some of her photos, you’ll almost faint as well.

Barbara LaMarr was born on July 28, 1896 in Yakima, Washington, just a year after cinema was “born” in Paris. She was christened Reatha Dale Watson, and would eventually come be known by many names throughout her career, from Polly Lytell to Barbara Deely to Barbara La Marr Deely, to the name we most often associate her with today. By the age of seven, Barbara was already acting, dazzling audiences all over the West Coast with her prodigy-like acting ability; the uncanny bond she had with audiences would stay with her throughout her career, and luckily, the glitzy world of the twenties would be more than ready to receive her with open arms.

From child acting, Barbara moved on to become one of the youngest vaudeville stars. Her startling beauty was just beginning to emerge, and would soon be one of the most noticeable features of any act she was featured in. With Barbara on board, even at the tender age of 14, the world of nightclub, theater and vaudeville entertainment would never be the same: a generation of American audiences were most deeply seduced by this emerging superstar. But Barbara was no mere entertainer. While busy performing, she also found the time to start a parallel career: as a writer! She wrote several short stories in newspapers – perhaps inspired by her foster father, William Watson, who was a newspaperman – and also became a theater and film critic, magazine writer, and even a scenarist for the movies! Her stamp, either as script writer or “doctor”, is all over at least eight films that can still be traced today.

By 1913, Barbara made the natural progression and started making movies. Her first forays into cinema were roles in Arizona-filmed westerns. Although her filmography is a little sketchy, it’s also believed that she made several “dance shorts” in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles with such distinguished actors as Clifton Webb and Rudolph Valentino. None of these efforts have survived, although the search for this footage is still ongoing. Barbara enters the official records in as late as 1920 (much later than many of her peers), when the famed Louis B. Mayer, mogul extraordinaire, “found” Barbara along with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Mary Pickford. Those three had an exceptional mind for business and eye for spotting talent, and they were right on the nose with Barbara.

1925 Barbara LaMarr Lambert and Butler Tobacco CardApril 1923 Photoplay Magazine featuring Barbara Lamarr on the coverTuning into Barbara’s star-potential wasn’t much of a stretch. As we already know, she was devastatingly beautiful – exotic, young, shining, brimming with enthusiasm and energy. Her years spent dancing complemented a natural grace; adding to the mix her fierce intelligence, it became obvious that Barbara had the perfect elixir for success. Very soon, Barbara was to the cinema world what Babe Ruth would become to the baseball world. People were simply mad about her, whether she played naïve women or vamps. The early twenties saw the emergence of the art deco movement of ultimate decadence, and Barbara was its banner face. Critics and audiences loved her with equal fervor. Some of her biggest hits inspired fawning fans and critical praise: “The Three Musketeers” (1921); “Arabian Love” and arguably her best film, “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1922); “The Eternal City” (1923); “Strangers of the Night” (1923); “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (1924), and the famed “The Heart of a Siren” (1925) to name a few.

She became an international star as well, although it was her lighter fare that was deemed appropriate for screenings around the world. Some of these hits include “The White Moth” (1924), “Sandra” (1924) and “The White Monkey” (1925) – apparently, her charm and incredible looks amounted to a cross-cultural appeal. Barbara didn’t make nearly as many films as many of her colleagues who churned out upwards of 150 films each. But her films were all deeply memorable, and as she said herself, “Each characterization I create chips a little piece of my very soul.”

She took her acting very seriously, and she also wrote, and had a busy offscreen life. She threw lavish parties at which she loved playing pranks on her guests; and, in addition to being “too beautiful”, she was also considered to be too generous for her own good. Her friends, family and industry people all knew Barbara couldn’t say no, and she was often taken advantage of – she was aware of this, but knew she wouldn’t change. She continued to work hard and to be there for everybody, although her personal life did suffer for it – she was married several times, and these failed relationships involved some very ugly incidents, of suicide, perjury and other things on the part of the men who fell deeply in love with this most beautiful of women. No man captured her heart, however, as much as her baby boy, known today as Don Gallery, a true champion of his mother and her career.

Eventually, Barbara seemed to have tired herself out; she died of tuberculosis and nephritis at the age of 29, on January 30, 1926 – the year before the very first talkie film. In many ways, she can be bracketed perfectly with the era of the silent screen as one of its most enduring icons. Film historian Kevin Brownlow expresses her talent and the sadness of her passing best: “Barbara LaMarr personified Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem about burning one’s candle at both ends. And she exemplified the extravagance of the early Twenties – incredible dresses, astonishing hats – all worn with the insouciance of the great beauty. But she could be a feisty gangster’s moll, and her tougher performances suggest what a marvelous actress she might have become if she and the movies had been allowed to develop together.”
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here on things-and-other-stuff.com in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Barbara La Marr Pages:

Denny Jackson's Barbara La Marr Page -- The Actress Who was Termed "Too Beautiful!"