By Tammy Stone
Mae 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
Sweet 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
in The White Rose (1923), co-starring
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
Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.
Other Mae Marsh Pages:
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
Mae Marsh Silent Film
Star - Biography over at Golden Silents
Silent Stereo Scribbles - Mae Marsh's Birthday - Blog posting from Nov. 8,