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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Mae Marsh

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1915-16 Black & White American Trading Card featuring Mae Marsh1930 Mae Marsh BAT Cinema Stars Tobacco CardMae Marsh, one of the true legends of the silent screen, was also part of the golden triptych that comprised one of the proudest components of D.W. Griffith’s body of work. Griffith might have been the grandfather of the close-up and one of the early masters of film editing, but he couldn’t have done his magic without his leading ladies, and among them, Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet and Miss Marsh truly held court.

She was born Mary Wayne Marsh in Madrid, New Mexico on November 9, 1895 (it always gives me pleasure to announce a year of birth that coincides with the first ever public film screening!). Her sister Marguerite had grown up wanting to be an actress and found modest success on the stage. It wasn’t long before Mary followed in her sister’s footsteps, and soon the two of them hit the road to try to make it in the film business. It was 1912 when the Marsh sisters landed in Hollywood, and sought their fortunes at Griffith’s Biograph Company.

The order of the day at the time, as we know, involved churning out films at neck-break speed, and Mae found herself cast in film after another, starting with 1912’s A Siren of Impulse. (Note that sources vary on their accounts of her first film; she is also credited elsewhere as beginning her career in 1910 with Ramona.) Biograph was also home to the ravishing, rising star Mary Pickford, so Griffith had Mary Marsh change her name to Mae in order to maintain distinctions between the two actresses, for whom he saw great things on the horizon.

That same year, Mae was already given her first starring role, in Man’s Genesis, having made upwards of 19 films already. As it turns out (and this happens today too), she landed the part after two other actresses – Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet – turned it down, in this case because the wardrobe was deemed by them too lewd. The film was such a hit that Mae was now well on her way to victory and success in the cutthroat world of Hollywood. First up was a highly sought after part in 1912’s The Sands of Dee, also a major hit.

Another strange set of circumstances led to the continuation of Mae’s growing fame. The Biograph Company returned to its roots in New York for awhile, but Mae decided to stay in California; she was not yet one of Biograph’s key players, and she was able to make this decision without completely severing her ties to Griffith. In California, she made a couple of films with the Kalem company. Soon, however, Griffith personally solicited her to New York. Mary Pickford had just told him she was leaving Biograph to pursue a more independent career – the details of her famed collaboration with Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin and the inception of the United Artists studio have been well chronicled elsewhere.

In 1914, then, Mae took off for New York – she made 25 films in 1913, including For the Son of the House and The Girl Across the Way! – where she worked with Griffith at the Majestic-Reliance Studios. She made several films with him during this collaborative period, including The Escape, The Avenging Conscience and Home, Circa 1922 Mae Marsh Color Tobacco Card (Anonymous issue)1923 B. Morris & Sons Mae Marsh Tobacco CardSweet Home (all 1914). The latter went over really well with the public, in no small part due to the dazzling chemistry between Mae and co-star Bobby Harron. Unfortunately this pairing would be cut tragically short when Harron died an untimely death.

It’s amazing to think that all of this happened before Griffith made the first of two films that would immortalize him as one of cinema’s true pioneers, 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. Mae played Flora, the sweet, vulnerable younger sister in this Civil War-set heated tale of racial prejudice. This was the role that really gave Mae her onscreen persona and set her apart from so many of her peers with her ability to be down-to-earth and imbued with the ability to convey so much with so few, understated gestures. Mae was also cast in Intolerance a year later as the wife who has her baby wrested from her in this socially important film dealing with four historical eras; this film is second only to The Birth of a Nation in the pantheon of the greatest of early cinema. Mae continued to work on her naturalistic acting style, helped out and encouraged by Griffith, who would reportedly point out to her when she was doing something – moving her hands in a certain way, for instance – unconsciously, and tell her to keep doing what she was doing. This kind of acting method was all but unheard of at that time, when grand, dramatic gestures were commonplace. But audiences and critics alike ate it up, and Mae was soon praised for gracing the screen with some of the best scenes to date.

Also in 1916, Griffith formed Triangle Studios with Mack Sennett and Thomas H. Ince. The films were now flowing like water. Some highlights for Mae were Hoodoo Ann, The Little Liar and The Wild Girl of the Sierras (all 1916). Mae was now an actress very much in demand, and Goldwyn Studios offered her a then-astronomical $2,500 a week to move over to them. But Mae felt very loyal to Griffith, and told him she didn’t know what to do. She was hoping Griffith would tell her she shouldn’t leave, but instead, he gave her his blessings to make the move and earn the kind of money he couldn’t give her. She reluctantly made the move.

It turns out her reluctance was justified. Griffith, as a studio head and director – not to mention a control freak and perfectionist – lavished Mae with the kind of attention that can only come from a true Renaissance man and visionary. She didn’t get this kind of attention at Goldwyn, and it showed in her films made with them, which lacked the sparkle that caused her to shine so brightly from within Griffith’s frames. She made several films between 1917-19 with Goldwyn, including Field of Honor (1918) and The Bondage of Barbara (1919) but reportedly only stands by three of them: Polly of the Circus, The Cinderella Man and Sunshine Alley, all made in 1917. Perhaps she was growing disenchanted as the years wore on.

Her enthusiasm for making movies was indeed starting to wane. In 1918 she married a member of the Goldwyn staff, Louis Lee Arms, and two years later, when her contract was up, she announced her retirement. Shortly thereafter, Robertson-Cole lured her back to the screen and she made two films with them: Little ‘Fraid Lady (1920) and Nobody’s Kid (1921). Around this time, it was also becoming popular for name actors and actresses to be solicited by moviemakers in Europe, and this is what happened to Mae in 1922. British director/producer team Graham Cutts and Herbert Wilcox, huge fans of Griffith, asked Mae if she would be interested in working for them; they were thrilled at the prospect of working with a Griffith actress. They offered her upwards of 1,000 pounds per week, but after making only two films (Flames of Passion, 1922 and Paddy, the Next Best Thing, 1923), she moved back to the US, where she finally returned to the man who had made her famous. Griffith cast her 1925 Rothman's Ivor Novello Tobacco Cardin The White Rose (1923), co-starring Ivor Novello.

Unlike many of her peers, Mae was happy working under the radar, and chose to make films with smaller companies instead of bigger studios (this is newly trendy today, but was very unusual in the burgeoning, heady days of the studio system). She didn’t fare too well, though. In 1925 she went back to England to make The Rat, based on Novello’s play, and this would prove to be, along with two other less than memorable films, the last of her career in silent films.

Already out of the limelight for the most part, Mae didn’t really have to deal with the transition to sound, and so didn’t suffer too much by the demands placed on her by the talkies. It was only in 1932 that she made a modest comeback, taking a small role in Over the Hill (directed by Henry King). She also did several cameos for several studios, notably Twentieth Century Fox Studios. During this era, it was popular to pay tribute to the huge stars of the silent period by keeping their famous faces littering the films that were also being used as vehicles for the up-and-coming stars. Mae was happy to take part in keeping the very young history of cinema alive, and appeared in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Searchers (1956), all brilliant classics. Her very last appearance was in John Ford’s Two Rode Together, also in a small role.

Mae Marsh officially retired, living a quiet life in Hermosa Beach, California. She died there on February 13, 1968, her face forever remembered in its beauty and subtle grace in some of the most memorable and still-seen silent films to this day.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at  with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Mae Marsh Pages:

Mae Marsh Photo Gallery - Over at Silent Ladies & Gents
Mae Marsh, Motion Picture Actress, a poem by Vachel Lindsay - 5th poem down the page, preceded by Lindsay tributes to Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and John Bunny.
Mae Marsh Silent Film Star - Biography over at Golden Silents
Silent Stereo Scribbles - Mae Marsh's Birthday - Blog posting from Nov. 8, 2005