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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Viola Dana

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1910's-20's Viola Dana 5x7 Fan Photo1916 Viola Dana Water Color PremiumOne of the lesser known divas of the silent screen, Viola Dana is perhaps most remarkable for the fact that she led a rather unglamorous life – especially compared to many of her contemporaries who became more famous and scandalous starlets of the day. Still Viola entered the movie industry when the movies were young, the time was ripe, and above all, when another gorgeous face was always welcome. From here, a legacy was born.

Many of the early film stars, and even up to the Technicolor era, emerging actors and actresses were advised to change their names to more ordinary, less foreign or hard-to-pronounce surnames (often the first names were kept). Viola Dana was no exception to this rule. She was born Virginia Flugrath on June 26, 1897, just two years after the earliest Lumiere Brothers documentary shorts screened in Paris to mark the occasion of the first public motion picture screenings ever. Again like many of her acting peers, she was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, where a vital movie industry was blooming.

Viola was the middle sister of three actresses; her sisters were known as Edna Flugrath and Shirley Mason. Little Virginia’s upbringing was fairly “normal”, and certainly without the poverty and tragedy that marked the early years of so many other young men and women who ultimately turned to the escapist world of the movies. Between 1910 and 1912, Viola made four small appearances in the movies, using the name Viola Flugrath – her transitional name. And then, at the age of 17, she had attracted the attention of the important film producers in New York, and made her “Viola Dana” film debut in the movie “Molly and the Drummer Boy”, in 1914. With just this project under her belt, she was chosen to play the leading, top-billing role in 1915’s “Gladiola” – she played the eponymous Gladiola Bain.

Although less has been written about Viola’s life than other starlets of the silent screen, some notable facts emerge: remarkably, Viola stood at just 4 feet, 11 ½ inches tall. But her exotic dark hair and jovial, piercing eyes gave her the screen presence and aura of a giant. What’s more, gossip about her aside, Viola’s acting credentials speak for themselves. In 1916, she was given another title, starring role, playing Ruth in “The Innocence of Ruth.” From here, she played great role after great role. One of Viola Dana Fan Photo from the 1920'sViola Dana as the Ace of Clubs on a MJ Moriarty Playing Cardthe most memorable was as Katie O’Doone in “Bred in Old Kentucky” (1926), although there were many other memorable films: “The Match-Breaker” (1921), “Love in the Dark” (1922), “Revelation” (1924), and “Winds of Chance” (1925).

By 1923, she was famous enough, and had made enough star vehicle movies, to be included in the cameo cast of the wildly popular comedy, “Hollywood”, where she appeared alongside the likes of Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford. As a big player at the height of the silent era, she also acted alongside many other names who are known today as legendary figures of the era, among them:  Charles Sutton, Edward Earle (I), George D. Melville, Augustus Phillips, Grace Williams, Robert Walker (II), Emmett King, Jack Perrin, Jack Mulhall, Gloria Swanson and Will Rogers.

Films were made a much faster pace in the silent era than they are today. Still, Viola’s filmography is impressive. Throughout her career, she appeared in a total of 95 films, including a 1980 documentary mini series called “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film”. Her last real film role, however, came in 1929. She went out with a bang in “The Show of Shows”, before the coming of sound destroyed her career as it did so many of her friends and colleagues.

Romance, drama, comedy … Viola did it all. What’s more, she survived. A life un-rocked by turbulence probably contributed to her longevity. She died in California on July 3, 1987, at the age of 90. The year of her death, she made one final appearance, in a documentary about one of the most famous of her acting contemporaries: the hilarious genius Buster Keaton. The film, also featuring Eleanor Keaton, Louise Dresser, Charles Lamont, Lindsay Anderson, and many more, was called “A Hard Act to Follow”. Keaton may indeed have been a hard act to follow, but Viola did a splendid job of carrying all her films with gusto and pizzazz. She will not be forgotten.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto.  Look for her article about Lillian Gish in the next edition of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.