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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
VIRGINIA LEE CORBIN

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1917 Virginia Lee Corbin Kromo Gravure Trading CardThis series has been devoted to excavating the past and discovering more about the stars that shone brightest in the first form of truly mass entertainment – the movies. So far, we’ve seen that the legends of the past inspired much of the behavior of today’s actors and actresses, with their diva ways, partying lifestyles, and also their sometimes fierce devotion to their craft. But what happens when you come late onto the silent scene, and become the most popular child star of the silent era? Could there be a Shirley Temple before Shirley Temple? If there could, Virginia Lee Corbin, labeled “The Youngest Emotional Star”, was it.

Born Virginia LaVerne Corbin in either 1910 or 1912 in Arizona, she quickly gained attention as she bulldozed onto the acting scene – by the time she was famous, much written and published about her early years to please her scores of adoring fans: according to this literature, Virginia could talk by 11 months, cry on cue very early on, and could sing in tune anything she had heard more than one time, by the age of three. She was not only, according to the magazines, the most gifted child on earth, but she was also stunning, having started modeling by age two.

By three, Virginia was doing plays, including “Human Hearts.” Apparently her wonderful ability to emote did not go unnoticed, and she appeared in that play for its three-season run. After that, it was time to go off to Hollywood. Other rumors have it that Virginia became ill when she was only three and moved her to California for its better climate. Despite everything that had been written about her, no one really seems to know when Virginia began working in the movies; but she was known to have moved around a lot as a little girl.

There are at least five or six versions circulating about when she actually made her first movie, and how she was “discovered”, but suffice it to say her mother was eager for her to become a star, and made sure little Virginia was getting noticed. Whether she was spotted at a hotel, or in a play, will probably never be known. What is known is that she is associated with emotional plays and then films – melodramas, for which she could cry endlessly – it’s also known is that Virginia’s first feature-length film listed in the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films is called Heart Strings, and dates to 1917, which would have made her five or seven, depending on what year she was born; her parents kept insisting she was younger so as to render her more unbelievable as a talent. By the time that film wrapped, she had signed with the Fox Film Company – she had made it, and most people thought she was four, and Fox was happy to keep that myth going.

In 1917, Virginia starred in four “Kiddie Features”; the first, Jack and the Beanstalk, did amazingly well with audiences and got fantastic reviews as a direction forward in 1920's Virginia Lee Corbin Fan Photothe art of filmmaking. One review in particular highlighted Virginia’s performance: “The acting of Virginia ... in her love scenes with Jack, who has come to slay the giant, is simply way ahead of anything any other child ever had accomplished.” Of her third film, Babe in the Woods, a review remarked on her performance: “Virginia Lee Corbin, the dainty maiden who can weep to order and continue indefinitely, is tragically charming ... .” It was around this time that Fox gave her her “subtitle” as “The Youngest Emotional Star” and also “The Dresden Doll of the Movies” – I use the name “subtitle” for those phrases attributed to these stars in attempts to encapsulate the most endearing or infamous aspects of their persona.

At this point Virginia’s contract with Fox was more than secure, and they also made sure to put her in the limelight as much as possible – thus she could be found at the time endorsing such children’s products as Palmer cord tires and Peggy Jeans for Kiddies. Kids were in such high demand at the time in the movies that Fox made sure they were well-provided for, so in addition to money, they were also given their own beds, dressing rooms, play rooms and gym facilities on the lot. While at Fox, Virginia made such films as Treasure Island, Six-Shooter Andy, Ace High; her last film at Fox was 1919’s The Forbidden Room.

It’s a bit unclear as to why she left Fox since she was so adored, but after she made the 1920 film The White Dove elsewhere, her career flagged, and she didn’t appear in the movies again for another three years – a long period of time for someone whose youth was so valued and marketed. But she was extremely popular, and she returned to the stage at this time, and also maintained her popularity by making such personal appearances as headlining a “Christmas Programme at the Hotel Granada and assisting the Los Angeles American Red Cross Society in their benefit for Belgian relief work during the First World War.

In 1923 she finally appeared in the movies again, in a film called “Enemies of Children,” the only film ever made by a company called Fisher Productions; this was to be Virginia’s only film of that year, strangely enough. The next year, her image was worked over so that she was publicized heavily as becoming a gorgeous young woman; with this new image, she made the film The City that Never Sleeps, and also did another four films – it appears that her career, which had so mysteriously flagged, was back on track. Now she was a flapper in the roaring twenties, and some of these films were made for another big studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Funnily enough, now that she was playing more adult roles and doing extremely well with them, publicity surrounding her age had changed its tune – whereas she was initially promoted as younger than she really was, the rags now started citing her year of birth at 1905 – which, in 1927, would have made the 17-year-old 22. At around this time, with Virginia so busy acting again, she was more popular than ever: a Motion Picture Magazine poll ranked her 16th in popularity after such notable leading ladies as Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge and ahead of Barbara La Marr and Lillian Gish. Not bad for someone who had completely disappeared from the scene for three years!

Virginia was also gaining a reputation for being extremely versatile; from kiddie pictures to melodramas to comedies, she was able to excel at them all. But for someone reason, she had never signed a contract with a studio, which was very unusual at that time. Instead, she somehow managed not to offend any one studio and worked for them all. Also strangely, she hadn’t quite made the transition from child to adult star, despite a slate of successful movies in her late teens; in fact, in 1928, she was listed in a magazine as one of ten young starlets destined for stardom in the coming years, as though she hadn’t reached her potential as an actress yet. Audiences didn’t seem to notice; she did comedy after comedy in 1928, and was more popular than ever.

And with fame comes misfortune, as they say. For Virginia, the problems were primarily with her mother, who was allegedly taking all of her money away from her 1930's Virginia Lee Corbin Z-Series Tobacco Card from Chile(sound familiar? Macauley Culkin had the same problems a decade ago). She even threatened to stop making movies, but thankfully she became a little less hot-headed and persevered with what she loved best – performing. But she did get a new manager, Mark C. Gilchrist, a friend of Virginia’s now-deceased father.

1929 – the talkies. What killed the careers of so many contemporaries proved no obstacle for Virginia, who was a seasoned singer with a good, solid voice. Her first sound film was 1929’s Footlights and Fools. That year she also married a stockbroker, Theordore Elwood Krol – she was only 18 at the time (we think!). She only made one film that year, allegedly due to the fact that she had been playing flappers for so long, and this character was rapidly losing its popularity once the Jazz Age reached its end. She moved to England temporarily with her husband, determined to acquire an English accent that she felt would help further her career.

Over the next couple of years she made a few films that didn’t fare too well. She was continually cast with older men who didn’t have good chemistry with her, and the studios even changed her to a brunette, despite her enormous success as a blonde. At the time she was also focused on her personal life, and had two sons in 1932 and 1935. This couldn’t help save her marriage; her husband filed for divorce, allegedly because Virginia was drinking too much and was an unfit mother. By 1940, once her life was a little less tumultuous, Virginia wanted to try to revive her career again, and made one brief appearance in Flotsam, stating she was happy to work her way back up to the top, no matter how low a position she had to start from.

But her popularity had waned and Flotsam was, according to the records, her final feature film. Almost her entire life had been chronicled in the magazines, to the extent that these surviving records are the only testimony of who Virginia Lee Corbin was or might have been – we all know that these magazines are not known for their virtue as arbiters of truth. On June 5, 1942, it was her death notice that made headlines: tuberculosis or heart disease were the cited causes. Although Virginia had such a long and distinguished career, she was always known best as a child star, and is remembered today for that, if at all. She never quite made it to the A-list that boasted the likes of Pickford, Swanson and Gish. But thankfully a few of her films endure, and with them, her magnetic charisma as the first major child star of the movies.
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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 stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.