11 August 2019

Mary Philbin

Mary Philbin (1902-1993) was an American film actress of the silent film era. She is best known for her roles in two silent horror classics: soprano Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) opposite Lon Chaney, and the blind Dea in The Man Who Laughs (1928), featuring Conrad Veidt.

Mary Philbin in The Phantom of The Opera (1925)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3877/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Deutsche Universal. Mary Philbin as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of The Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925).

Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
German postcard by Bruckmann-Verleih. Photo: Universal. Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925). Caption: "Premiere at the Primus Palast 5 November 1925."

Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin in The Man Who Laughs (1928)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 105/1. Photo: Universal Pictures Corp. Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin in The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni, 1928).

An angelic, sweet, quiet, young lady

Mary Philbin was born in 1903, in Chicago, Illinois, to John Philbin and his first wife and namesake, Mary. The child was regarded as a little beauty from an early age and her mother was exceedingly proud of her and loved to show her off. Her mother was controlling and domineering, to the point of imprinting her strict religious beliefs on the child. Mary took after her shy, quiet and reserved father, whom she adored.

Emily Greene at IMDb: "Many of her contemporaries remarked how she didn't seem to belong to the current age; her personality was a throwback to the 19th century with her mannerisms and religious, quiet and very gentle nature. Being an only child, Mary grew up quite spoiled by her mother. Her father would take her often to see the plays at local theaters and even, on rare occasion, to see an opera at the Chicago Opera House."

She fell in love with the stage and decided that she wanted a career in the theatre. She took up classical dancing (ballet and waltz) and was quite adept at playing the pipe organ and piano, although much to her chagrin, she could not sing. However, she did not train in an acting school and this would ultimately impact on her later career.

Her best friend was Carla Laemmle, the daughter of Joseph Laemmle, brother of Universal Studios mogul Carl Laemmle. Through her friend's uncle, Mary became interested in films and put her stage career on hold. Upon seeing her first "Nickelodeon", she was bitten by the film bug and eagerly awaited any new ones that came out.

She was particularly fond of the films of Erich von Stroheim, so much so that at the age of 16, when she heard that the director was making his new film Blind Husbands (1919) and a contest was set up to search for talent for the film, Mary tried to sign up. At first she could not find the right photograph worthy of submission, but her mother had taken a picture and submitted it. The contest was held in Chicago at the Elks Club and was sponsored by her church, with Von Stroheim himself as the judge. The Teutonic director was smitten with her beauty and her eagerness to behave and speak well, and gave her the leading role in one of his films.

When finding out she was to move to Los Angeles to make the film, Mary at first had reservations and consulted her parents. Her parents refused until they found out their old family friends, the Laemmles, were moving out to Los Angeles as well, and they gave consent for Mary to go but only with her parents as her chaperons due to their fear that the 'sheiks' of Los Angeles would corrupt Mary's moral character.

When arriving at the studio, she found out that she had been replaced in the leading role in Blind Husbands. Mary was deeply hurt at the time and felt cheated, and was considering going home had it not been for her friend Carla who recommended her to her uncle, the owner of Universal City, Carl Laemmle, and the man in charge of production, Irving Thalberg. Although Carl Laemmle had met Mary some time earlier and always regarded her as an 'angelic, sweet, quiet' young lady, he was none too impressed with her at the time to consider her for a contract, owing mostly to her moralistic and reserved disposition. Thalberg held the same reservations about her.

However, after being persuaded by Mary's family and Carla, Carl caved and gave 17-year-old Mary her first big part: Talitby Millicuddy, the leading lady, in the melodrama The Blazing Trail (Robert Thornby, 1921) starring Frank Mayo. Mary caught on in films very quickly and was considered by the public, initially at least, in the same league as her bigger contemporaries - Mary Pickford, Florence Lawrence, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish, one of those 'child-woman' actresses particularly noted for her subtle but extraordinary ethereal Irish beauty.

In 1922, Philbin was awarded at the first annual WAMPAS Baby Stars awards, a promotional campaign sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers, which honoured thirteen young women each year whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom.

Mary Philbin
French postcard in the Les Vedettes de Cinéma series by A.N., Paris, no. 49. Photo: Universal Film.

Mary Philbin
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 381.

Mary Philbin
Austrian postcard by Iris-Verlag, no. 837. Photo: Universal Pictures Corporation.

The wildly extravagant Erich von Stroheim

After the moderate success of her first film, Mary Philbin was cast in Danger Ahead! (Rollin S. Sturgeon, 1921), the one-reel comedy Twelve Hours to Live (William Watson, 1921), and the Western Red Courage (B. Reeves Eason, 1921), starring Hoot Gibson. In all, she made six films in 1921.

After seeing her work in Danger Ahead, Erich von Stroheim cast Mary in a small part as the crippled girl for his next film, Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim, 1922). It would become the most expensive production ever for Univeral; the costs rising up to a million dollars. Mary can be seen in the film as the little girl on crutches with her back turned, and you only quickly get a darkened glimpse of her face through her curly ringlets. Although her role in the film was just a bit part, Mary relished being under Von Stroheim's tutelage and it was from him, as she always said, she learned about 'true' acting in comparison to stage acting.

Emily Greene at IMDb: "It has always been said of Mary Philbin that when the director was really good (such as von Stroheim, Paul Leni and William Beaudine), people noticed she could be equally as good an actress as her colleagues. However, in the hands less talented directors such as Rupert Julian, who would partly direct her later in Merry-Go-Round (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera, her lack of acting training became a real handicap for her (this is clearly evident in some of her later films)."

Mary began to get more notice from Carl Laemmle and Irving Thalberg, after Erich von Stroheim's high recommendation of her. After a minor film, The Trouper (Harry B. Harris, 1922) starring Gladys Walton, she was given the role of Ruth in Human Hearts (King Baggot, 1922). Mary began to get even further recognition, but her personal life was darkened by her father's divorce and remarriage to Alice Mead. Mary was shattered by the event, and as a result became closer to her mother.

Mary made two more films before she received her first big break as the heroine Agnes Urban, in von Stroheim's The Merry-Go-Round (1923). The casting for this film, set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the time of Emperor Franz Josef, was impeccable and in particular with her leading man, Norman Kerry, she would be reunited in several films. The production came to a standstill when the perfectionist von Stroheim insisted that some of the actors wear underwear embroidered with the Imperial Austrian Royal Family insignia, which infuriated Carl Laemmle. After an intense argument with Laemmle the wildly extravagant director was dropped from the picture.

The cast was stunned and the two most affected were Wallace Beery (cast as Agnes' father) and Mary Philbin. Beery, infuriated with Laemmle's decision walked out, as did many others. Laemmle hired Universal actor Rupert Julian to direct. Not having met or worked with Julian before, Philbin decided to stay, and Cesare Gravina was re-cast in Beery's role. However, it became clearly evident that Julian was a novice compared to von Stroheim, and much of the original footage was cut or re-filmed upon its release. However, Merry-Go-Round (Rupert Julian, Erich von Stroheim, 1923) launched Mary as an official Hollywood star.

During this time, Mary met the love of her life, Universal Studio executive/producer Paul Kohner - through the Laemmles. Paul Kohner was only a year older than Mary and born in Teplitz-Schoenau, Austria-Hungary (now Teplice, Czech Republic). They were immediately smitten with each other - but due to Mary's parents' religion (Roman Catholicism) and the fact that Paul was a Jew - they kept their relationship, in the early years, secret as much as possible.

Mary's film career took off with such films as the comic Western Where Is This West? (George Marshall, 1923), the drama The Age of Desire (Frank Borzage, 1923), the fantasy The Temple of Venus (Henry Otto, 1923), and the action comedy The Thrill Chaser (Edward Sedgwick, 1923) with Hoot Gibson. Paul Kohner sometimes was the producer, which afforded her more time to be with him, under the protection from her parents observance. But it wasn't until 1924, after she made good in the role of Marianne in The Rose of Paris (Irving Cummings, 1924) that Mary was to be cast in her next, most famous and best-remembered film role of her entire career.

Mary Philbin
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 554/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Roman Freulich/ Unfilman.

Mary Philbin
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 968/1, 1925-1926. Photo: Roman Freulich / Filmhaus Bruckmann.

Mary Philbin
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3239/1, 1928-1929. Photo: United Artists.

Mary Philbin
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4211/2, 1929-1930. Photo: Universal.

Universal's biggest money maker of the decade

In 1924, Carl Laemmle was searching among the elite list of Hollywood starlets for the role of the young Swedish soprano Christine Daaé in the film adaption of Gaston Leroux's novella 'Le Fantôme de l'Opéra' (The Phantom of the Opera) starring in the leading role of Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, was one of Hollywood's best actors Lon Chaney, fresh from his success in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923). Much to the concern of the cast and crew, the director hired for the picture was the temperamental Rupert Julian. Julian remembered Mary and Norman Kerry from Merry-Go-Round and hired them.

Mary was cast in the key role of Christine, the chance of a lifetime. But the production was one of the most difficult for the cast to endure. Although Mary was working alongside of many of her former colleagues and friends (Norman Kerry, Cesare Gravina, and Carla Laemmle), she had never met Lon Chaney personally before and, in keeping with her nature, was initially very shy and nervous around him.

During the filming Chaney and Julian exchanged heated arguments. Chaney would direct his own scenes including several scenes with Mary. Her big test with Chaney came for the climactic unmasking scene - there was a shot of Mary on the floor screaming after Christine unmasks the Phantom and is supposed to cry. Julian had gone through several takes of the scene with Mary, but all takes failed to satisfy Julian. This angered the cast and crew and Julian called it a day and they shut down early. But Lon Chaney remained behind and asked Mary and the crew to stay and reshoot the scene themselves. His approach was a success. From then on Chaney would always be on the set when Julian was directing Mary in future scenes, even if he was not in it.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was Universal's biggest money maker of the decade, launching not only Chaney to stardom but Philbin as well. Her next big role was the dual part of Stella Maris/Unity Blake in a remake of Mary Pickford's Stella Maris (Marshall Neilan, 1918). The new version,  Stella Maris (Charles Brabin, 1925), was received with moderate success with Mary being complimented on her ability to change from the beautiful Stella into the hideous outcast Unity Blake so well that many didn't recognise her.

When Mary was filming The Man who Laughs in the role of the blind girl Dea, her secret fiance Paul Kohner was acting as production supervisor and interpreter for Conrad Veidt who played Gwynplaine. On opening night, the film was hailed as a box-office success and Mary was praised for her the role as Dea. It was then that Mary announced her engagement to Paul Kohner. But her family was outraged at the news and called a meeting to meet Kohner. Paul admitted then he was a staunch Jew and Mary's mother would have none of it. In the end, Mary gave the devastated Paul back the ring. Mary also was devastated, even so much that she would never marry.

At the dawn of talkies, Mary's film career nose-dived along with her personal life. Because of the inadequacy of early recording equipment - Mary's voice recorded as high pitched and squeaky. However, she did dubbed her own voice when The Phantom of the Opera was given sound  and re-released in 1929.  New scenes with Norman Kerry were intercut with footage of the 1924 version with Chaney.

In retrospect, all of her post-Phantom films were mediocre. She received good notices in D.W. Griffith's otherwise pathetic Drums of Love (1928), co-starring Lionel Barrymore and Don Alvarado. Her final film was the sound film After the Fog (Leander De Cordova, 1929). Mary decided to abandon her film career and took up a life of self-enforced celibacy, becoming a virtual recluse in her father's home. Mary virtually vanished off the face of the earth and Hollywood forgot her.

In the 1960s, it was discovered that Philbin was still alive, living in the very same home in Huntington Beach, she had bought in the 1920s. She had never married and had spent much of her life looking after her parents. It was remarked at how youthful and beautiful she still looked even though she was in her 60s and how her voice still had that youthful girlish quality. She had been a faithful member of her parents' church and only went out to visit friends and family, shop, and go to church. During that time, she admitted that she refused interviews and photo shoots, although she replied to her fans and sent them autographs.

In the late 1970s, Philbin experienced the first symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease. In 1988, Mary made her first public appearance since 1931 at a memorial service for Rudolph Valentino. Another blow came when it was announced Paul Kohner had passed away. Shortly after his death, workers cleaning out his office at his agency found Mary's love letters close at hand in his desk, more than 60 years later. When she was informed, Mary cried and revealed the letters Paul had sent to her and even a few after the 'family incident'.

After that Mary's memory lapses grew worse, and her old friend Carla Laemmle came to help her. At her insistence - Mary made two more public appearances - the first at the Los Angeles opening night of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical 'The Phantom of the Opera'. And the second to help promote author Philip Riley's study 'The Phantom of the Opera'. After that, Mary was never seen in public again. In 1993, Mary Philbin died of complications from pneumonia. The original Christine Daaé was dead at age 91.

Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Italian programme card for Il Cinema Ritrovata 2011. Photo: Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925).

Sources: Emily Greene (IMDb) Wikipedia and IMDb.

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