One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley wrote the “very touching little story” of how Ruby Lafayette got her break in Hollywood at age 73 with the film Mother o’ Mine. Miss Lafayette had a fifty-year long career as a respected stage actress who toured the Midwest with her own company, performing plays like Pygmalion and Galatea* and Damon and Pythias. She and her husband, fellow actor John T. Curran, retired to a ranch in Lampasas, Texas. Kingsley picked up the story from there:
But she lost her husband and things went wrong on the ranch. Not long ago, without giving anybody any inkling of what she intended to do, she packed up and came West, making her appearance early one morning at Universal City. Rupert Julian had long wanted to put the Kipling poem into celluloid drama. He chanced to be passing through the office. He saw the little old lady, turned and took another look, and began to talk with her. She told him of her experience, her eagerness to work. Julian wanted to put Mother o’ Mine right on, but the powers-that-be wouldn’t let him at that time. So Miss Lafayette went back to the Texas farm. Then one day when things were looking the darkest for the brave little old soul, who was trying to make things go all alone and having a hard time of it, she got a letter from Mr. Julian. Mother o’ Mine was to be filmed after all, an nobody would do for the part except Miss Lafayette! So out she came again, and everybody who saw the tender, appealing, delightful characterization which she gave at the Garrick a couple of weeks ago, will rejoice that she is to appear on the screen in other pictures.
Kingsley didn’t know how right she was: Lafayette appeared in at least 30 films over the next 15 years (her Motion Picture Herald obituary estimated it was 200). She billed herself as “the oldest actress on the screen” and she played lots of grandmothers. She died in 1935 when she was 90, after a great third act.
Funnily enough, the same Sunday column opened with observations on how leading ladies were becoming younger and younger. Kingsley wrote “sixteen years old seems to be the popular age, just now,” then she recounted the story of a 22 year old actress “who was told, when she asked for a certain part: “Why my dear, you can’t have that part. You’re older than Methuselah!”
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Polly of the Circus, which was “a huge success. Never in its palmist stage days did the play achieve the brilliant triumph which its film twin promises, with Mae Marsh in the leading role…And what a wonderful little girl Polly was! We never knew just how wonderful until we saw Mae Marsh play the role…what a creature of imaginativeness, of sensibility, of sturdy loyalty and affectionateness Miss Marsh has made her!”
The audience in Los Angeles were big fans of Miss Marsh, too; “all day and all evening huge crowds waited outside the theater.” Kingsley also appreciated the script that transferred the “quaint charm” of the play to the screen, the photography, and the orchestra and lighting effects. It told the story of a young circus horseback rider who is injured in an accident and stays with a minster while she recovers. Polly was the first film produced by Goldwyn Pictures, and it was the first appearance of the Goldwyn lion mascot that later became the MGM lion. The film was once considered lost, but it was one of the films found in the permafrost of Dawson City, Yukon in 1978.
Kingsley reported that Thomas Ince tried to buy the rights to make Peter Pan from Sir James Barrie. Even though he offered “a fortune,” Barrie refused because he’d had a bad experience with a British production company and he decided to never allow one of his plays or stories to be filmed again. Luckily he changed his mind in the early 1920’s; the 1924 film starring Betty Bronson has become a favorite of silent film fans and was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry in 2000. It’s available on DVD.
Kingsley repeated claims that William Desmond Taylor and his Tom Sawyer cast and crew managed to sneak into St. Petersburg, Missouri, film several scenes and leave before anybody knew they were filming. Townspeople thought that the equipment belonged to government engineers surveying the area, and the hotel proprietor said that the company was so quiet that he couldn’t have known they were film folk. She reported that locals were irritated because they missed the chance to see Hollywood in action.
*Pygmalion and Galatea was written by W.S. Gilbert. It debuted in 1871, just before his first collaboration with Arthur Sullivan. It was a big hit, and it inspired other authors to do their version of the myth, including George Bernard Shaw in 1913.
Note: My profile of Elizabeth McGaffey is up at the Women Film Pioneers site. She was the first studio librarian. I learned about her when I wrote my February 10, 1917 blog post, and of course I needed to know more. Since she was on the WFP “unhistoricized” list, I wrote up what I found and they accepted it. However, now they have new rules: you must apply and submit your CV before you write for them. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.