The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
May McAvoy probably isn’t the most well-known name among silent film stars. Her
name doesn’t roll off the tongue as a Mary Pickford,
Mae Murray or Norma Talmadge, much like future generations may not know a Mary Louise Parker or a
Meg Tilly by name as much as a Meryl Streep or a Nicole Kidman. The reason for
this? May McAvoy was a true individual, and her talent allowed her to go against
the grain of the day by not signing on with any one huge studio, and doing a lot
of freelance work instead – almost unheard of at the time! You might say May was
one of the first indie stars, and there was hardly a director out there who
didn’t want to work with her.
It all started
on September 8, 1899 (probably, I’ve seen a few dates on this one), when she was
born in New York on the prestigious Park Avenue family home. Her family was
well-to-do, having acquired a livery stable that paid off handsomely. You
wouldn’t find this stable right in the middle of New York city today, but if
you’re ever walking by the Waldorf-Astoria, you’ll now have a bit of trivia to
share with others: this was where May McAvoy’s father’s business used to be in
May wasn’t even
involved with the theatre, and yet this is how she got her start. She was
actually watching a friend rehearse one day when a talent agent from Fox spotted
her. At first she turned down his request that she audition for Fox, and turned down many other such offers. She had no dreams of being in the entertainment
business, and her mother did have dreams of little May becoming a teacher.
However, sooner or later she did fall into the temptation of imagining a life in
front of cameras and audiences, and she soon began to model, cashing in on the
looks that attracted all the movie scouts. With some gorgeous photos in tow –
she started visiting the studios in New York, and producers were smitten. She
was soon doing extra work, in films like Hate, A Perfect Lady and I’ll
Say So (all in 1918). Her first small part was the same year, in the
memorably titled film To Hell with the Kaiser!
In the next
couple of years, she continued doing bit parts for successful films starring big
names like Norma Talmadge and Florence Reed, including such melodramatically
titled films as The Way of a Woman, The Woman Under Oath and My
Husband’s Other Wife. By 1920, she was
working with giant star
Barrymore in The Devil’s
Garden, which lead to her first lead, in 1921’s Sentimental Tommy.
The public loved this film, and May was now a bonafide star. This success drew
the attention of Paramount, who got her to sign a contract and move to Hollywood
a year later.
When she first
arrived, she worked for a smaller offshoot of Paramount called Realart Studio,
and after paying her dues there, she moved up in the world, coming onto the
“real” Paramount lot. It was there that she met actress Lois Wilson, whom she
would be friends with for life. Among her many distinguished roles for Paramount
include those in such films as 1922’s Kick In and The Top of New York,
directed by William Desmond Taylor; and Only 38 (1923), and Clarence
(1923), co-starring Wallace Reid; others include Grumpy and Hollywood
(for which she put in a cameo appearance). That year she was also named
queen of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena; this, perhaps more than her
movie roles, is testament to her extreme popularity as an actress at the time.
At this point,
legendary director and mogul Cecil B. DeMille came calling, but wanted her to do
nudity in a film; May refused, and was shunned by the industry for a short time,
especially Paramount, to whom she was bound by contract. She was, though, “lent
out” to do a film called Her Reputation in 1923, and at this point May
made the wise decision of buying out of her contract to do freelance work.
Interestingly, she had her first freelance successes at Paramount, making
West of the Water Tower and The Enchanted Cottage in 1924, both on
the East Coast. In the next couple of years, she made some outstanding films by
shopping herself around to some of the best directors working in the business:
she make The Mad Whirl (1924) at Universal; William deMille’s The
Bedroom Window (1924); Tarnish (1924) for Sam Goldwyn; Tessie
(1925); and Ernst Lubitsch’s Three Women (1924) and Lady Windermere’s
Fan (1925) at Warner. She was in such great demand that she was among the
highest paid actresses of the day, making around $3000 per week.
At this point,
May was at the top of her game. She took over someone else’s part to take on the
lead in the enduring hit Ben-Hur (the original, in 1926), and also worked for
acclaimed director Howard Hawks, in The Road to Glory (1926). She was chosen
over Florence Turner for the remake of My Old Dutch (see
Florence Turner’s bio for more details) and made a string of
films through 1927. That year, remember, was the turning point for the movies,
and now you’ll know that May McAvoy was part of the tides of change. She
appeared in Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, the first sound film. May didn’t have a
speaking part, but she goes down in history for this appearance nonetheless.
eventually get to speak, something not all her contemporaries got to do on the
silver screen; first in The Lion and the Mouse (Warner, 1928), with
Lionel Barrymore, and then in England’s first all-talkie, The Terror
(1928). It amazes this
author that these actresses made so many films in one
year, and on more than one continent! But, almost inexplicably, May decided to
retire the next year, while she was still relatively at the top of her game. She
married Maurice Cleary, VP at United Artists. When her son Patrick was old
enough to attend school, May did return to acting for a bit, heading to MGM,
where she stayed from 1940 to the mid-fifties. She never did reclaim her former
glory, however, and after that time she remained out of the spotlight. She died
on April 26, 1984. From now on, when you want to challenge your friends with
movie trivia, when you walk by the Waldorf Astoria or catch The Jazz Singer
on television, think of May McAvoy.
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
firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.