Four Dallas Silent Film Stars – A Grave City Retrospective

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Dorothy Janis

This is a (mainly) photo essay about four Dallasites that made it big in silent film: Dorothy Janis (above), Bebe Daniels, Mary Brian, and James Hall. Brief biographical notes are also included.

Dorothy Janis

Although it wasn’t uncommon for her peers in the 1920s to appear in literally hundreds of movies (Dallas-born Bebe Daniels was in at least 230 films, for example), Dorothy Janis is remarkable because of how famous she became in spite of one of Hollywood’s shortest careers. She made only five films.

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Dorothy Janis was born Dorothy Penelope Jones in Dallas in 1912. (Some sources say she was born 1910.) Going by the 1912 birth date, she was only 16 when visiting a cousin in Los Angeles, and it was there that she was noticed by a studio executive at Fox. She was quickly cast in the Western movie Kit Carson (1928) while only 17 years old. In Kit Carson, Janis played an Indian maiden named “Sings-in-the-Clouds”; this started a studio trend of promoting her as an exotic half-Cherokee actress and typecasting her into other “exotic” roles.

MGM’s tongue-in-cheek publicity still, below, reads:

Introducing a girl named Dorothy Penelope Jones, who is fifty per cent pure American. Dorothy is half Cherokee Indian and Jones is an old tribal name. The movies have re-christened her Dorothy Janis, and it is under that name you will find her in the cast of “The Pagan.” Incidentally, she is one of the smallest girls in pictures, being only four feet, eleven inches tall and weighing ninety four pounds.

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More Dorothy Janis images:

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It’s not hard to fathom Janis’ visual appeal to the film studios: In a few of the photos above (viz. the one where she’s with the dogs, and the one with the fur-lined coat) she resembles a young Natalie Portman. The head shot at the top of these photos doesn’t even look like it’s from the 1920s.

Janis abruptly ended her film career and retired at the ripe old age of 18 (or 20, if you believe the 1910 birth date). She married the Vice President of MCA, bandleader Wayne King. “After I met Wayne,” Janis would tell author Michael Ankerich nearly six decades later, “it was to heck with it all.” Janis’ only talkie, and her fifth and final film, United Artists’  The Lummox from 1930, “now only exists as a single nitrate print at the British Film Institute,” according to Wikipedia, with sound discs housed separately at UCLA.

Despite her short film career, Janis lived to the long age of either 98 or 100 (again, depending on whether you believe the 1910 or 1912 birthdate!) and died in 2010 in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

Bebe Daniels

 

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Bebe Daniels

Of the four stars covered here, Bebe Daniels is probably the most well known. One of the first bona fide child stars of cinema, she starred in a 1910 version of The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy while only 9 years old. The Texas State Historical Association mentions that Daniels “was born by chance in Dallas, Texas, on January 14, 1901, the only child of Danny and Phyllis (Griffin) Daniels.”

The colorful entry at the TSHA website continues, noting that in the early 1920s Daniels starred in

The Affairs of Anatol (1921), in which she portrayed vamp Satan Synne. Bebe Daniels spent ten days in jail for speeding in 1921 and capitalized on the publicity with the hastily written The Speed Girl (1921). Texas governor Pat. M. Neff asked that she use her growing popularity to aid growers who had lost heavily on their 1922 crops by wearing dresses made of Texas cotton.

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In The Affairs of Anatol, Bebe Daniels played a vamp named Satan Synne

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Bebe Daniels on the cover of the Police Gazette after being arrested for speeding.

From the above Police Gazette: “Miss Bebe Daniels, whose rapid rise from slapstick comedies to stardom in the silent drama has been sensational… [is] most alluring in ‘vampire’ roles, in which she has frequently appeared.”

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Bebedaniels

 

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Bebe Daniels and Gloria Swanson

 

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In this Ralph Barton caricature for The New Yorker, Bebe Daniels is portrayed in a striped dress.

Daniels retired from Hollywood in 1935 and moved to London, England, with her husband, the actor Ben Lyon. In 1971, after several strokes, Daniels died of a brain hemorrhage.

Mary Brian

Okay, so, technically, Mary Brian was born 50 miles south of downtown Dallas, in the small town of Corsicana. But after her father passed away when she was was one month old, the family did move up into Dallas proper. Brian was born in 1906 as Louise Byrdie Datzler. According to IMDB, Brian “went to high school in Dallas. Her widowed mother had big plans for young Louise and took her to California in 1923, with the intention of getting her into the film business.” It worked.

Although Bebe Daniels may be better remembered overall today (of the four actors covered here), in her time Brian was one of Hollywood’s big guns, rivaling silent era leading ladies like Clara Bow and Jean Harlow. She co-starred with luminaries of the likes of James Cagney, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant (The Amazing Adventure and others);  in fact, Hollywood tabloids had her romantically involved with Cary Grant off and on.

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Mary Brian in a photo I’ve seen some wesbites mislabel as Fay Wray.

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Brian was dubbed “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures,” echoing earlier starlet Mary Pickford’s appellation “America’s Sweetheart,” and Mary Brian’s reputation throughout the 1920s and early 1930s seems to have been something like that of Jennifer Aniston’s today — an attractive, well-respected girl-next-door type. As well, Brian is usually given credit as one of the actors most successful at navigating the watershed transition from silent film to talkies in the 1930s, although by the mid-30s her career was flagging.

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Mary Brian in Photoplay

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Mary Brian in Vanity Fair

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Mary Brian and Cary Grant

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Mary Brian on the cover of Photoplay

 

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From the Photoplay blurb below:

“Most of the fan mail Mary receives is written on fraternity letterheads. She is the Dream Girl of the Younger Set. Heart-whole, fancy free and devoted to her Art.”

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By 1928, Mary Brian’s good girl status was so unquestioned that Photoplay poked fun at the idea of her in a femme fatale role.

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Richard Arlen and Mary Brian

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A rare racy shot of Mary Brian

Brian married twice — never to Cary Grant — and passed away at the age of 96 in 2002 in Del Mar, California.

A fan letter to Photoplay about Lon Chaney and Mary Brian shows the general goodwill with which she was regarded by movie-going audiences in the 20s:

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James Hall

Of the four actors covered here, Dallas-born James Hall’s story is the saddest. His life had all the ups and downs of a Scorcese biopic: From his leading man height in the late 1920s, when he could command an unthinkable $2,500 per week in unadjusted dollars (IMDB says he was paid $10,000 per week for the movie The Fifty-Fifty Girl in 1928!), to his final days in obscurity, entertaining barflies in dismal little New Jersey nightclubs, Hall’s story is a classic Icharus-like tale of getting famous early on, being unable to cope with the fame, and then going down a self-destructive path of alcoholism and drug abuse, ending with his death from cirrhosis of the liver at age 39. In 1940.

Hall was born in Dallas as James E. Brown in 1900 and during the late 1920s and early 1930s was one of the most sought-after leading men. And speaking of Scorcese biopics, Hall actually co-starred in Howard Hughes’ infamous Hell’s Angels in 1933, about which the Martin Scorcese biopic The Aviator was made in 2004.

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Dallas-born James Hall with fellow North Texan Mary Brian in Manhattan Tower.

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Jean Harlow and James Hall in Hell’s Angels

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Clara Bow and James Hall

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SilentHollywood.com writes:

“A blossoming student athlete in his home town of Dallas, James Hall left home at the age of 14 to join a theatrical company. Four years later he put his career on hold to serve as an artilleryman in World War I. Thriving as a musical performer in the 1920s, the boyish, ingratiating Hall was signed to a Paramount movie contract by studio executive Jesse Lasky.”

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James Hall, second from left.

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From the Photoplay blurb above:

“James Hall is the boy who has the difficult task of keeping up with [fellow Dallas-born] Bebe Daniels in her strenuous comedies. He is what producers are looking for — an ideal leading man. His presence in a picture assures the girls that the romantic interest will never lag. To steal the Answer Man’s thunder: He was born in Dallas, Texas, of Irish-American ancestry; he is twenty-seven years old and married to a non-professional.”

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James Hall in Photoplay, 1928

James Hall’s obituary in a Brooklyn newspaper in 1940 mentions he “died in obscurity yesterday at 39”:

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All words above copyright 2016 Grave City, except where otherwise noted. No reproduction in whole or in part without permission. All rights reserved.

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