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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Mary Miles Minter

#23 Most Popular - 1917

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1916 Mary Miles Minter St. Louis Supplement1917 Mary Minter Miles Kromo Gravure Trading CardMany of her films, like those of most silent film stars, have not survived the test of time. The few that do remain bear testament to the skills and talent of an actress admired by the likes of Mary Pickford, who was allegedly instrumental in getting Paramount to sign her. We’re talking about Mary Miles Minter, who when remembered is most often associated with the mysterious and scandalous murder of filmmaker William Desmond Taylor. She is truly the stuff of Hollywood legend.

It all began with a child star full to the brim with verve and potential. Mary was born April 1, 1902 in Shreveport, Louisiana, and her mother, a frustrated actress, got her into showbiz at a very young age. Mary was five years old when her parents split and the matriarch of the family took her two daughters to New York. Little Mary began doing plays (notable “The Littlest Rebel” with William Farnum), and did this tirelessly for years – allegedly without vacation, according to the lore. She may have been ahead of her time in both age and manner; it seems she was referred to in a New York newspaper as “ … a ragged, straight-haired, woman-faced little one.” Doesn’t sound quite like a compliment – if it is it’s a veiled one – but it’s certainly an intriguing comment. A little star is born.

By 1915, the time had come to venture into the new era of the mass-produced moving image – or photoplay, as they were then called. She had outgrown her more famous stage roles, but the timing was right because her mom was ambitious and wanted Mary to move on. Her first significant cinematic effort was The Fairy and the Waif, which earned rave reviews … and a contract for Mary at Metro Pictures. This contract was good for six films. The first five were released and did really well. But then mother Charlotte pulled a diva stunt and did something to get on Metro head Louis B. Mayer’s last nerve. This resulted in Mayer pulling that last film. After making such films as Rose of the Alley and Dimples (both 1916), Mary’s last film with Metro was the aptly-titled Lovely Mary (1916). In virtually all of these films, she played the role of innocent, sweet girl – the titles of these films alone speak to the persona she adopted with ease.

Next for Mary was the American Film Company, for which she made many films, including A Dream or Two Ago and Innocence of Lizette (1916), 1923 Mary Miles Minter Neilson's Chocolate Trading CardThe Gentle Intruder, Annie-for-Spite and Charity Castle (1917), Beauty and the Rogue (1918) and A Bachelor’s Wife (1919). In 1919 she signed with Realart/Paramount, run at that time by the would-be mogul Adolph Zukor. This is where she met the soon-to-be notorious Desmond Taylor, to whom she would refer as her favourite director. Here, she made films like the famed Anne of Green Gables (1919, and the first film she was in that was directed by Desmond Taylor), Judy of Rogues’ Harbor, Jenny Be Good and A Cumberland Romance (1920), and Sweet Lavender and The Little Clown (1921).

She was becoming very famous, as “a sweet, pretty little girl with an abundance of blonde curls, a picture actress slightly bigger than a faint recollection, a little queen with delicate features and endearing young charms,” according to the press of the day. Her pay went up from $150 a week in 1915 to $2,250. William Desmond Taylor, who directed Mary 1916 Mary Miles Minter Water Color Premium Photoin four consecutive films starting with Green Gables, had become very enamored of her. The details of their courtship remain unclear; in a sense it might have been professional – with Taylor wanting to make sure Mary was taken care of, since she was very much bread and butter for the company at the time – or more intimate than that. For all we know, it could have been nothing more than a schoolgirl crush for the little blonde beauty.

And then it happened. February 1, 1922. William Desmond Taylor was found dead, shot, in his Hollywood home. Investigations abounded, with no definitive results. As discussed elsewhere in these pages, this was a huge scandal; one of the first to rock Hollywood. Years and years before McCarthyism, names all over Hollywood were being slandered and thrown around amid vicious circles of gossip. Media frenzy was as of then unprecedented.

It seems Mary was never really a suspect, but the fact that there was some kind of involvement between the two of them tarnished her image for good. She was much, much younger than Taylor, and he was known for his shady encounters with women. There was a movement afoot to shut Mary out, the media butchered her, and the public started boycotting her films. Don’t forget that films were made and released a lot quicker then, which means that careers could also be made or broken much more quickly. And then, when investigators found some of Mary’s things in 1910's Mary Miles Minter Motion Picture Magazine Premium PhotoTaylor’s home, including a love letter Mary wrote to Taylor, it was all over. She was still reeling over all of this and had plunged into a dark period of grief; she didn’t see anyone for a long time. The public was not going to be able to swallow their innocent starlet embroiled in such a dark affair.

She tried to stay in the game throughout all of this, but it was becoming increasingly difficult. She made four films in 1922 – Tillie, The Heart Specialist, South of Suva and The Cowboy and the Lady – as the scandal was just beginning to unfold. After two films in 1923, she made her final feature in 1924: A Sainted Devil, starring Rudolf ValentinoNita Naldi was the starlet on this picture, and Mary had a supporting role (the film has not survived). She had lived in a lavish home with her mother throughout her Hollywood career, but their relationship had always been strained. Charlotte, who never succeeded as an actress, was virtually the prototype stage mother. Eventually, there was dispute over how Charlotte handled Mary’s money, which resulted in a lawsuit.

Years later, Charlotte passed away, and Mary married real estate investor Brandon Hildebrandt, in 1957. But she became increasingly reclusive, and also developed severe diabetes, which made it difficult for her to protect herself from exploitive staff. She did, though, keep up her correspondence with her fans from decades earlier, before dying of heart failure on August 4, 1984. She might always be tied to the Taylor scandal, but scant opportunities to see her at her best – as the sweet, nubile beauty on the big screen – should be taken with relish.
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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 in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at tammystone444@yahoo.ca with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Mary Miles Minter Pages:

Denny Jackson's Mary Miles Minter Page -- Probably America's first true child star.