The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
VIRGINIA LEE CORBIN
This 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.
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
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.
Virginia starred in four “Kiddie Features”; the first, Jack and the Beanstalk,
did amazingly well with audiences and got fantastic reviews as a direction
the 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
(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.
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
email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.