Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, no. 829. Photo: National / Mondial A.G., Wien. Collection: Didier Hanson.
Jazz-Age baby and party girl by nature
Mary Nolan was born as Mary Imogene Robertson in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. in 1902 (according to Wikipedia and 1905 according to IMDb). She was one of five children born to Africanus and Viola Robertson. Her mother died of cancer at the age of 46. Unable to care for five young children, Africanus Robertson placed Mary in a foster home. She eventually went to live in Catholic orphanage in Missouri where she earned the nickname 'Bubbles'.
The beautiful blonde arrived broke in New York in 1919. Eve Golden at Films of the Golden Age: "She really was breath-taking with her perfect bone structure, cloud of thick blonde hair, and china-blue eyes. It wasn't long before Mary got work as an artist's model for such big shots as James Montgomery Flagg and Arthur William Brown."
Famous Broadway producer Oliver Morosco launched her stage career in the choruses of Daffy Dill and Lady Butterfly (1923). Bubbles proved to be a Jazz-Age baby and party girl by nature. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. signed her up for his Follies shows on Broadway. As a show girl, she performed under the stage name Imogene 'Bubbles' Wilson.
For the next several years, she started a violent love/hate relationship with Ziegfeld comedian Frank Tinney. Tinney was married to the comedy star Edna Davenport. Tinney set Mary up in a West 72nd Street apartment and showered her with expensive gifts, but he also showered her with bruises, both physical and emotional. The abusive affair stirred up a major sex scandal in 1924. The tabloids exposed the tumultuous relationship when Mary was seriously hospitalized after one of their many arguments.
Mary was fired by Ziegfeld and set sail for France where she was scheduled to appear in vaudeville. She made her way to London in October where she reunited with Frank Tinney. By December 1924, Tinney had resumed drinking and began to physically abuse her again.
In early 1925, Nolan finally ended the relationship. She then travelled to Germany where she began to work in the film industry under the new stage name Imogene Robertson.
Her first German film was Verborgene Gluten/Hidden Fires (Einar Bruun, 1925) with Alphons Fryland. Later that year, she appeared in the title role of Die Feuertänzerin (Robert Dinesen, 1925) for the Ufa. She received good reviews for her work in the film which prompted the Ufa to offer her a contract for $1500 a week.
Nolan worked steadily in Germany from 1925 to 1927, and continued to receive favourable reviews for her acting. Her best known films include the mystery Das Parfüm der Mrs. Worrington/The Parfum of Mrs. Worrington (Franz Seitz, 1925) with Ernst Reicher as detective Stuart Webbs, Das süße Mädel/The sweet girl (Manfred Noa, 1926) with Nils Asther, and the drama Die Abenteuer eines Zehnmarkscheines/The adventures of a 10-mark note (Berthold Viertel, 1926).
Dutch postcard by Croese Bosman. Sent by mail in 1932. Photo: publicity still for Young Desire (Lew Collins, 1930).
Carnival Sideshow Dancer
While in Germany, Imogene Robertson received offers from Hollywood producers to appear in American films but turned them down. She finally relented after Joseph M. Schenck offered her a contract with United Artists. She returned to the United States in January 1927.
To solve the problem of audiences connecting her with her scandalous past, United Artists suggested she change her name to Mary Nolan. For United Artists, she appeared in an uncredited bit part in Topsy and Eva (Del Lord, 1927), and a supporting role in Sorrell and Son (Herbert Brenon, 1927).
In 1928, Nolan was signed to Universal Pictures. Her first film for the company was Good Morning, Judge (William A. Seiter, 1928), starring Reginald Denny for which she received good reviews. Universal loaned her out to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for West of Zanzibar (Tod Browning, 1928), about the vengefulness of a cuckolded magician (Lon Chaney) paralyzed in a brawl with his rival (Lionel Barrymore). Nolan played Chaney's defiled daughter Maizie. The film was a hit and Nolan received favourable reviews for her work in the film.
The following year, she was loaned to MGM again for the romantic drama Desert Nights (William Nigh, 1929), with John Gilbert. Two thieves (Noland and Ernest Torrence) victimize a diamond mine and kidnap its manager (Gilbert), but he gains the upper hand (and falls in love with Nolan) when they flee into the hostile desert. Desert Nights was another financial success and served to boost Nolan's career.
Shortly after signing with Universal in 1927, Nolan had begun a relationship with another married man, studio executive Eddie Mannix. Mannix used his clout to further Nolan's career and was responsible for her loan outs to MGM. Shortly after Desert Nights was released in 1929, Mannix abruptly ended the relationship. This angered Nolan who threatened to tell Mannix's wife Bernice of their affair. Mannix became enraged and beat her unconscious.
Nolan hospitalized for six months and required fifteen surgeries to repair damage Mannix inflicted on her abdomen. While hospitalized, Nolan was prescribed morphine for pain. She eventually became addicted which contributed to the decline of her career.
In the Universal production Young Desire (Lew Collins, 1930), Nolan plays Helen Herbert aka 'La Belle Helene', a carnival sideshow dancer. She falls in love with wealthy, wet behind the ears Bobby Spencer who whisks her off to his hometown of Spencerville and stakes her to an apartment and a job. But Helen's sordid past catches up with her...
By then, Nolan's acting career had begun to decline due to her drug abuse and reputation for being temperamental. She was fired from the film What Men Want (1930). Nolan got into an argument with the film's director, Ernst Laemmle, after she learned she was the only cast member who hadn't received a close up shot. Laemmle banned Nolan from the set and she was subsequently fired. After threatening to file a lawsuit against Universal, the studio bought her out of her contract in January 1931.
She married stock broker Wallace T. McCreary on 29 March 1931. One week before they married, McCreary lost $3 million on bad investments. The couple used McCreary's remaining money to open a dress shop in Beverly Hills. The shop went out of business within months and Nolan filed for bankruptcy in August 1931. Nolan divorced McCreary in July 1932.
After her exit from Universal, she was unable to secure film work with any of the major studios. Nolan spent the remainder of her acting career appearing in roles in low-budget films for independent studios. She made her final film appearances in File 113 (Chester M. Franklin, 1933), for Allied Pictures Corporation. From then on, Nolan appeared in vaudeville and performed in nightclubs and roadhouses around the United States.
Later, Mary Nolan suffered several nervous breakdowns and her health declined. She turned to heroin, and it spelled the end. In 1948, she died of cardiac arrest and liver problems (according to IMDb, but Wikipedia writes she died of a barbiturate overdose). Gary Brumburgh at IMDb: "Mary became just one more Hollywood tragedy -- an incredible beauty whose life turned absolutely beastly."
Austrian postcard by Iris Verlag, no. 5829. Photo: Universal-Film.
Source: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Eve Golden (Films of the Golden Age), Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Wikipedia and IMDb.