By Tammy Stone
more silent film star biographies I work on, the more I come to appreciate how
many of these screen sirens – featured on these pages – carried the wonderful
medium of film through its formative, experimental years and into the Golden
Age. Ruth Roland is yet another young beauty and great talent who graced the
screen as a starlet of the serials for years before the movies turned to sound
and the world’s most popular form of storytelling to date was changed forever.
Ruth was born in San Francisco,
California on August 26, 1892, making her one of the older actresses among her
contemporaries as she hit her stride during the silent era. Like many of them,
however, young Ruth practically began performing around the same time she was
learning to speak. Her father was a theatre manager in San Francisco and her
mother was a singer who had made quite a name for herself by the time Ruth was
born. At the age of three-and-a-half, little Ruth performed for the first time,
and before long she was making rounds on the theatre circuit as an actress and
singer. She went by the apt moniker of Baby Ruth.
Her idyllic childhood came to and end
when her parents divorced and when her mother died; Ruth was only eight years
old and it was the year 1900 – cinema was then five years old, gauging the first
year of cinema as the year a film was first projected to a public, paying
audience. At that point, she went to live with an aunt in Los Angeles and
started touring with her own vaudeville act. It was while doing this that she
was discovered by a director working for Kalem, a movie company of
ever-expanding prestige at that time. Ruth was thrilled to be given the
opportunity to make her debut in the motion picture business, and even more
thrilled with her steady, $25 per week salary, negotiated at the onset of her
contract. It wasn’t long, though, before she was praised by no less than Mack
Sennett for her comedic talents, and her salary went up to $100 per week.
The year was 1909, and the film was
Old Soldier’s Boy (some sources list her as making her debut in the 1908
film The Scarlet Letter; she is uncredited in both. Both are Kalem
Company films, so it is quite likely that she did appear in the two films, and
they could have been made nearly simultaneously, as films were cranked out very
quickly in those early, heady days). It wasn’t long before her star was being
born and cultivated. She became a regular feature player in Kalem’s films, and
appeared – both charming and exuding in energy – in dozens of comedies, dramas
and western films through the early teens, including:
Her Indian Mother and The Indian Scot’s Vengeance (1910); Arizona Bill and Wages
of Sin (1911); I Saw Him First, Strong Arm Nellie, A
Mountain Tragedy and The Beauty Parlor of Stone Gulch (1912);
Jonah Day, Bill’s Board Bill, The Tenderfoot’s Luck, The
Kidnapped Conductor and The Black Hand, Absent Minded Abe and
While Father Telephoned (1913); The Medicine Show at Stone Gulch,
The Deadly Battle at Hicksville, Ham the Lineman, Ham and the
Villain Factory, Ham, the Piano Mover, The Family Skeleton,
Reaping for the Whirlwind, Sherlock Bonehead and The Peach at
the Beach (1914).
following year, Ruth parted ways with the Kalem Company and went to a lesser
known company – keeping in mind this was pre-studio era, and all the companies
were testing their waters at the time – called Balboa. This is where she made
the first of her serial films for which she would eventually be best remembered.
She ultimately made 11 of these, and became an extremely popular actress as a
and 1919 – the first of these years certainly comprising her most prolific
period – she made many notable films, including The Red Circle and The
Disappearance of Henry Warrington, The Price of Fame, Today and
Tomorrow, The Fruit of Folly, The Pursuit of Pleasure, Told and
Tyranny, Unto Herself Alone and Blue Blood and Yellow (1915);
The Sultana and The Matrimonial Martyr (1916); The Devil’s Bait
and A Message from Reno (1917); Hands Up! (1918); and The
Tiger’s Trail (1919).
In 1919, she
started her own production company, and acted as producer on four films over the
next few years: The Adventures of Ruth, which suggests the extent of her
popularity, in that having a series of films named after her was certain to draw
the crowds in; Ruth of the Rockies (1920); The Avenging Arrow
(1921) and White Eagle (1922). She of course starred in all of these.
By the 1920s,
just when many of her peers were hitting their stride and the peak of their
fame, she started to pull away from the business. In fact, she would make only
ten more films during the course of her career, among them: The Timber Queen
(1922); The Haunted Valley and Ruth of the Range (1923); Dollar
Down (1925); The Masked Woman (1927); Reno (1930); and her
last film, From Nine to Nine (1935); only the latter two were talkies.
Her voice and her extremely animated acting style were simply not easily suited
to the talking screen. It is also rumored that she was becoming quite difficult
to work with on set; one example of this is her having her costar Bruce Gordon
fired on the shoot for Ruth on the Range, a film which also saw her
refusing to speak to director W.S. Van Dyke except to get the film made as
quickly as possible. This cannot have helped her should she have wanted to
gracefully move her way through the medium’s second largest decade yet.
But she had
had enough long before then; in 1923 she didn’t renew her contract with her
company, and she effectively retired a very wealthy woman, not only through the
success of her company but through savvy real estate investments. For awhile
Ruth, who married twice, went back to her first love: vaudeville. She performed
and thrilled crowds while making her last films in between. Tragically, Ruth
Roland had her life cut short when she died on September 22, 1937 of cancer. She
was 45 years old. The only person who rivaled her as Queen of the Serials was
the perhaps better known diva of the silent screen,
Pearl White. Ruth, like Pearl, has the
distinction of making it onto a Top Ten list of Western stars, a list that was
put out annually between 1911 and 1915 – the first heyday of the genre – and
that rarely featured women. She was an actress, a star, a businesswoman, and a
pioneer of the form.
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 email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.