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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Ruth Roland

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1920s Ruth Roland 5x7 Fan Photo1915 Ruth Roland Trading Card with Ornate Pink BorderThe 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); 1917 Ruth Roland Strand Theatre Program CardJones’ 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).

1917 Ruth Roland Kromo Gravure Trading Card (No Borders)The 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 result.

Between 1915 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.
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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.

1917 Ruth Roland Ink Blotter