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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone


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1916 Mae Murray Water Color Company PremiumMae Murray on the cover of October 28 1920 Mid-Week PictorialIt’s a funny thing about silent film stars. They will always go down in history as the first big screen legends, stars, starlets, and matinee idols. They were the ones who got the world hooked on the movies, who brought the best of the theatre world to screens projecting to millions. Yet now, when all our movies are talkies and so many of the great oldies have disappeared, few of us have access to the personalities behind these earliest photo-plays. There is, however, a loyal fan base for several of them to this day, and these fans are seriously devoted to the stars of yore. Most often, each fan tries to claim that their star is the most underrated of all; this is nowhere more true than with Mae Murray, an early dancing queen, splashily known as “The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips.”

Before Renee Zellweger became known her own lips of kind, before Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly became the great dancers of the next generation, Mae Murray was there to pave the way and create her own brand of starlet. Born on May 10, 1889 in Virginia, USA, Mae loved performing; her professional debut came in 1906, when she sang “Comin’ Through the Rye’ in “About Town”. She garnered enough attention to become a Ziegfeld Follies girl in the 1910s, where she honed her craft, more in the showgirl skills than acting. This was an era, however, when musicals, along with melodramas, were the most popular form of entertainment, be it stage or screen – Judy Garland would later become another famous Ziegfeld girl. Audiences wanted to pay money to be transported to other words of glamour, fashion, and escapism – Mae Murray was able to provide this in spades.

Her moment of fame came when she filled in for Irene Castle in Irving Berlin’s “Watch Your Step”, in 1910, and worked regularly from there. By 1915, she had caught the attention of Paramount Pictures’ Adolph Zukor, who was scouting for screen contract players, and saw her in the Follies – he particularly noticed Mae’s hysterical impersonation of Mary Pickford. Within a short time, Mae was on her way to achieving a new kind of fame she could have never before understood: movie stardom. But modesty was not one of her strong suits, as we can see in this quote, in which she takes instant superstardom to celestial heights: “Once you become a star, you are always a star.” Perhaps, but the story doesn’t end there.

Mae wasn’t the type to graciously accept the good things that came her way. She soon wanted out of her Paramount contract to attain more 1910's Mae Murray Trading Card of unknown originfreedom, but the studio lords were more powerful than she was. Not that she was altogether miserable, as the life of a major star suited her very well. Where she lacked in straight acting skills, she shone as magnetic performer, especially in the dancing arena. She was perfect for the mid-1910s era of the ultimate melodrama and silent musical. The name of her star vehicles alone indicate the type of films she excelled at: Sweet Kitty 1931 Jasmatzi Mae Murray German Trading CardBellairs (1916), Princess Virtue (1917), Her Body in Bond (1918), Danger, Go Slow (1918), The Delicious Little Devil (1919), Idols of Clay (1920), Jazzmania (1923), and The French Doll (1923), are some of the titles in which she gestured and danced her way into the American psyche.

Many of her films were versions of the classic fairytale Cinderella, and her real life – at least on the surface, followed suit. In 1919, while on break from a film shoot, she married her favorite director, Robert Z. Leonard – the wedding was grand, as was her first wedding, which publicists tried to keep under wraps (this marriage, to New York high society man Jay O’Brien only lasted a few days before ending in divorce).

In 1923, Mae starred in “Peacock Alley”, which did very well with audiences, and was released by Metro, the company that would soon merge with Goldwyn and Mayer, to become MGM – Mae Murray was their first big contract star. And they didn’t do wrong by her, either. Her biggest role came in 1925, when Mayer decided to make a screen version of “The Merry Widow”, to be directed by Erich von Stroheim, a huge talent. The film was unbelievably successful, and would be the biggest movie of both star and director’s careers. They didn’t get along though – Mae often called Stroheim a “dirty Hun” – an attitude that reflected her less than congenial attitude toward people in general.

Known for her biting tongue and as an actress difficult to work with, she did stay at the top of her game for awhile longer, mainly because the box office figures were way too good to ignore. By then, she had divorced Leonard, and married someone she thought befitting her status: she 1920's Mae Murray Strip Cardmarried Ukrainian Prince David Mdivani, and became an official Princess. Her ego now rapidly getting out of control, she turned down the lead in 1927’s “Women Love Diamonds”, after which she was more or less blackballed in the industry. She did manage to eke out a few more films, but 1931’s “Bachelor Apartment” and “High Stakes” were highly disappointing, verging on humiliating, and Mae was revealed for the aged, former star she had become. Her looks had by and large disappeared, and she had never had enough talent to work as a ‘character actress’, especially in the sound era.

She tried to save her career, and many former silent stars did, by going back to her theatre roots. She had periods of modest success here, and managed to get a biography about her made, “The Self-Enchanted.” It came out in 1959, but no one much cared for it, or remembered who she was – although it is widely believed that she was the inspiration for the starring role in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. The star she had been was gone, relegated to an older era. Still, in 1964 she went on a publicity tour of her own initiative, and failed miserably. She was found, sickly and homeless, in St. Louis, and was carted back off to Hollywood. She didn’t go down without a fight; she insisted everyone call her “Princess”, and was found humming refrains of the Merry Widow Waltz on the streets of Tinseltown. She succumbed to heart failure in 1965.

Mae Murray might have been the first to invent the “movie-star-temper-tantrum-and super-inflated-ego” syndrome (one which countless others would one day assume), but will be recorded in history for her charisma, sensuality, and awe-inspiring dance routines. People might forget now how popular silent musicals were, but to revisit those days would be to meet the charm and sheer force of “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.” With Mae Murray, a diva was born.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at with any questions or comments on her column.