Mae Marsh's Birthday
Mae Marsh was one of D.W. Griffith's top actresses. Like her co-workers, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, she was raised in a fatherless environment. Under the father figure of Griffith, she became one of the first movie stars and had poems and songs composed in her honor. But by the early 20s, her career was winding down and by the time sound came to the industry she was reduced to mostly cameo and bit parts.
Mary Marsh was born in 1895 in the New Mexico territory. Her father died young, and her family moved to San Francisco. Bad luck struck again as her step-father was killed in the 1906 earthquake. According to Mae, she always wanted to be an actress, and she ended up following her sister Marguarite into the movie business. She started out in small parts, but got her big break when she took a part in the movie Man's Genesis. The story goes that the role was offered to Mary Pickford, but she turned it down because the costume required her to show her bare legs. Mae was asked if she would do it and had no problems with exposing her limbs. Now back in that time, women wore dresses down to their ankles. Soon after Griffith changed her name from Mary to Mae because he didn't want two Marys in his film company.
From 1912 to 1916 she worked for Griffith. This period was the birth of the feature length film as the transition was made from shorts to longer movies. She appeared in all of Griffith's groundbreaking feature length movies such as Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, The Avenging Conscience, and Judith of Bethulia. This period was also the birth of movie stars and the movie industry. As Griffith's pictures gained more respect for the movie industry and sold a lot of tickets, the various players were leaving Griffith for more money. In 1917 signed with Goldwyn as the company's first star. She went from $85 a week to $2500. This was the height of her stardom: Mae had a poem composed about her by the poet Vachel Lindsay, a waltz written for her by Sadie Kominsky (a female ragtime composer and maybe the topic of a future blog posting), and strangely had a young Ernest Hemingway writing friends that he was engaged to her (although Mae denies ever meeting him). Her pictures at Goldwyn didn't match her previous successes, and after marrying and having a child she scaled back her acting career. In the early 20s she re-teamed with Griffith for the movie The White Rose, and she also went to England to make a few movies. By 1925 she had retired from the industry. She was forced out of retirement in the 30s after the stock market crash. The Depression wiped out her finances so she needed to return to acting to support her family. In Miriam Cooper's book, she writes how she visited Mae and that she was so broke that there was no food in the house. Miriam was better off, and ended up buying her groceries. Miriam also says that her husband was drinking away the family's money, so maybe it wasn't just the Depression sapping Mae's finances.
Up until the 60s Mae acted in small parts. She lamented the change in the industry from what she saw start as an artform and then turn into a "match factory". She described working with Griffith as being part of a family and staying true to a vision, and admitted that as the industry changed she accepted playing cameo roles because she "didn't care to get up every morning at five o'clock to be at the studio by seven."
As for her legacy, Mae Marsh brings an excting screen presence to any scene she is in. You can see why Griffith took a liking to her because she definitely stands out and catches your eye. Miriam Cooper described her as not attractive in person, with more tiny wrinkles than a 50 year-old man, but someone who photographed beautifully. Mae has a specific way of moving and acting that separates her from other actresses on the screen. Critics may describe it as goofy, but I think of it as a nice contrast to the more elegant styles of Lillian Gish or Blanche Sweet. Where Lillian Gish appears very noble and a little cold, Mae is like the girl you would pal around with. As for recommended viewings, any of Griffith's major works mentioned above offer great examples of Mae's acting. Intolerance is probably her best performance, although the movie's 3+ hour running time can be a little daunting. Best to absorb that movie in chunks. Unknown Video offers Hoodoo Ann, a post-Griffith movie from 1916 that is nice light-hearted romp. It is in the Mary Pickford mold of orphans and rags to riches and is worth checking out. Sadly outside of the major Griffith releases, there aren't many other opportunities to see her work.