Category Archives: Barbara’s Film Acting Career

Barbara La Marr: Life on Her Own Terms

Classic Movie Hub invited me to contribute a guest blog for their website.  In my post, “Barbara La Marr: Life on Her Own Terms,” I discuss Barbara’s commendable talents and her unbending determination to succeed in life, despite myriad obstacles and frequent association with scandal.  Read it here.

(There are still opportunities to WIN a copy of my newly released biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood, courtesy of the University Press of Kentucky and Classic Movie Hub!  Get the details here.)

Film Synopses Added To Filmography Section

Since I had a window of time between deadlines as my upcoming biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood, nears publication, I compiled and added film synopses for the six films Barbara wrote during her story writing days with the Fox Film Corporation and the twenty-six films encompassing her meteoric career as one of the silent screen’s leading actresses.  They may be viewed on the Filmography page.

In the future, I’ll be writing more blog posts spotlighting specific films comprising Barbara’s screenwriting and acting careers.  Meanwhile, feel free to browse my previous blog posts (see the “Categories” section located on the right—you’ll need to scroll down a bit—and select “Barbara’s Film Acting Career” and “Barbara’s Screenwriting Career” from the drop down menu).  I also have many film stills and other photos pertaining to Barbara’s films in the “Galleries” (see the tab at the top).  Of course, Barbara’s films are additionally discussed at length in my book, scheduled for release in early December 2017 by the University Press of Kentucky and now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Pre-Ordering Information and an Interview/Review of my Barbara La Marr Biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood!

My Barbara La Marr biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood, scheduled for release in early December, 2017 through the University Press of Kentucky, may now be pre-ordered on Amazon.

Writer and cinema historian Annette Bochenek recently read the book and interviewed me about it.  Creator of the Hometowns to Hollywood website, Annette offers a fascinating look at the oftentimes modest beginnings of Old Hollywood’s biggest icons.  Read my interview with Annette and her review of Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood on her blog.

Ascending Star

The news was received with astonishment and sorrow from the front pages of newspapers worldwide: Barbara La Marr, dead at twenty-nine on January 30, 1926, her death attributed to tuberculosis.

As a young girl named Reatha Watson, she performed in various stock theater companies throughout the Pacific northwest and dreamed of one day becoming a great tragedienne.  In the brief span of her life, she accomplished considerably more.  Her dream had not come easily.  Strong-minded and impetuous, she was implicated in several well-publicized scandals and subsequently banned from acting in films by the Los Angeles studios at the age of seventeen.  Dejected but undeterred, she achieved renown as a dancer in some of Broadway’s foremost cabarets by nineteen.  Four years later, in 1920, Barbara was back in Los Angeles, earning the modern equivalent of a six-figure salary as a storywriter for Fox Film Corporation.  Director Bertram Bracken encouraged her to try out for a bit part in Louis B. Mayer’s Harriet and the Piper that same year.  She won the part, and her rise to ascendancy as a superstar of the silent screen was nothing short of spectacular.

Throughout 1956 and 1957, committees including the likes of Hollywood heavyweights Samuel Goldwyn, Cecil B. DeMille, Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, and Jesse Lasky convened at Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant to determine whom to honor with a star on the newly-proposed Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Barbara La Marr was among the 1,558 motion picture, television, radio, and audio recording artists selected.  Her official induction occurred at the groundbreaking ceremony on February 8, 1960.  Today her star may be seen at 1621 Vine Street, a lasting testament to the twenty-six films in which she is known to have appeared, the respect accorded her by her peers, and the artistic excellence with which she inspired the world.

Barbara's star on the Walk of Fame, located at 1621 Vine Street (near the intersection of Hollywood Blvd. and Vine) in Hollywood.

Barbara’s star on the Walk of Fame, located at 1621 Vine Street (near the intersection of Hollywood Blvd. and Vine) in Hollywood.

Barbara was every inch the film star.  She exuded an explosive magnetism that lured men and fascinated women.  Her shapely figure, exotic beauty, and smoldering sultriness earned her the distinction of being one of the silversheet’s most celebrated sex goddesses.  Frequently cast in the role of a stereotypical vamp—a depraved seductress who uses her feminine wiles to undo men—, Barbara, with her versatility, inherent sensitivity, and emotional depth, transcended her typecasting with compellingly “human” characterizations.

Below are but some of the highlights and pivotal points in Barbara’s wide-ranging career as a screen actress.

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The Three Musketeers (1921) – Handpicked by swashbuckling action hero Douglas Fairbanks himself, Barbara portrayed the sinister Milady de Winter in Alexandre Dumas’s classic tale of D’Artagnan (played by Fairbanks), a lowly young Frenchman whose gallantry gains him a place in the king’s regiment of musketeers.  Eternally grateful for the faith Fairbanks and Fred Niblo, the film’s director, placed in her, Barbara credited them with bolstering her determination to succeed as a film actress.  Fairbanks and Niblo weren’t alone in their assessment of her potential.  When The Three Musketeers burst into theaters worldwide, Barbara’s beauty and screen presence evoked gasps and stunned silence.  Critics also took note; “…dazzling…,” “…unusual…,” “…fiery…,” they wrote, applauding her vivid, wholehearted interpretation of the role.

Barbara as Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers, preparing to steal the queen's jeweled buckle from the unsuspecting Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Holding) before D'Artagnan can retrieve it.

Barbara as Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers, preparing to steal the queen’s jeweled buckle from the unsuspecting Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Holding) before D’Artagnan can retrieve it.

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The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Trifling Women (1922) – Not long after The Three Musketeers premiered the end of August 1921, director Rex Ingram was scouring Hollywood for an actress capable of embodying the wicked Zareda in Trifling Women.  After auditioning Barbara in November, his search was over.  He offered her the part with the proviso that she first prove herself capable of handing a leading role by making good in a smaller part in The Prisoner of Zenda, a film he would direct before Trifling Women.  Both thrilled and scared to death, Barbara realized that these films could either make or break her.  She threw herself into the role of Antoinette de Mauban, the adventuress in The Prisoner of Zenda.

Barbara as Antoinette De Mauban in The Prisoner of Zenda; pictured with Stuart Holmes (as Black Michael, on far L) and Ramon Novarro (as Rupert of Hentzau, on R in foreground). As a component of one of the film’s subplots, Antoinette ultimately betrays her traitorous lover (Black Michael) and enables the rescue of the king—all the while evading Rupert’s impassioned advances.

Ingram, filmgoers, and reviewers were impressed by Barbara’s performance.  One journalist deemed her an actress of uncommon ability.  Another contended that, in the midst of a stellar production that in all ways approaches perfection, she alone was worth the admission price.

Trifling Women, a film widely considered to be gruesome and overtly erotic
in its day, earned Barbara similar plaudits.  Among the divergent, often heated reactions the picture generated, she was hailed as one of the most brilliant of the newer screen actresses and the most beautiful vamp on the screen.  She was further noted for delivering an exceptional, flawless performance.

Barbara as Zareda; pictured with Lewis Stone (as the Marquis Ferroni, her husband in the film) and (in upper R corner) Ramon Novarro (as Ivan de Maupin, her lover in the film). Beautiful, beguiling, and fiendish, Zareda plays her lovers like pawns, seeking wealth at any cost—until she meets her match.

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The Hero (1923) and Poor Men’s Wives (1923) – Following Barbara’s electrifying performance as a vamp in Trifling Women, director Louis J. Gasnier sensed more in her than her screen characterizations had heretofore revealed.  He snapped her up for two films, affording her the opportunity to shine in non-vamp roles.

As Hester Lane, a loving, dutiful mother and respectable woman in The Hero, Barbara was entrusted with the task of creating the inner conflict of a woman torn between her feelings for her brother-in-law and remaining faithful to her pallid husband.  Many expressed regret over her appearance in a so-called “drab” role, minus the elegant gowns to which her mounting fan base had grown accustomed.  Others were struck by her.  Critics argued that she was every bit as beautiful in lackluster garments and lauded her dramatic range.  One journalist insisted Barbara was all anyone could desire onscreen or off.

Barbara repeated her success as the heroine in Poor Men’s Wives.  Her depiction of Laura Maberne—a lower-class drudge who envies her wealthy best friend’s pampered lifestyle but realizes in the end that love, not money, trumps all—won her more raves.  Journalists commended her naturalness and believability, citing her portrayal as further validation of the breadth of her talent as an actress.  A few reviewers believed her work in the picture to be the best she had yet done.

A glass promotional slide featuring Barbara as Laura Maberne (with [L to R] Muriel McCormac and Mickey McBan, her children in the film).

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Thy Name Is Woman (1924) – The Hero and Poor Men’s Wives, to Barbara’s eventual dismay, didn’t open the way for her to consistently create more of the reality-based characterizations she most enjoyed.  Audiences adored her as the vamp and she obliged them by playing vamp roles, particularly after inking a starring contract with Associated Pictures in August 1923.  Thy Name Is Woman provided one of her few reprieves.  Barbara lost herself in Guerita, a tormented woman who, in love for the first time—and with a man other than her husband—must summon the strength to follow her heart.  The highly-charged, emotional part both fascinated and exhausted Barbara.

Accolades for her efforts streaked the trades and newspapers.  Her performance in Thy Name Is Woman was said to be one of the most powerful witnessed in any film that year.  Perhaps her highest commendation came from the San Francisco Chronicle newspaperman who likened her portrayal to “having the soul of a woman on the dissecting table, where the scalpel has been used ruthlessly.”

Barbara as Guerita in Thy Name Is Woman. She considered the role her favorite, and her work in the film to be the best she had thus far done.

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The Girl from Montmartre (1926) – Sadly, Barbara’s career was waning by 1925.  Mismanagement of her talent, a series of flops, and public backlash against screen vamps were the main contributing factors.  Her health—undermined by severe weight loss practices, emotional distress, late nights spent in clubs, and excess drinking—was also fading.  Rallying valiantly, she severed ties with Associated Pictures and resolved to reclaim her career.

For her final vehicle under her starring contract with Associated Pictures, she cast her slinky gowns, feathered fans, and bejeweled headpieces aside, insisting upon a genuine character and a story with heart interest.  Against doctor’s admonitions, her parents’ pleas, and all odds, she forced herself to the studio each day, considerably frail and often crippled by pain.  She put her soul into the role of Emilia, a Spanish peasant of noble birth whose past as a cabaret dancer prevents her from marrying the man she loves until the film’s end.

Hellbent on completing The Girl From Montmartre and never one to let her colleagues down, Barbara declined the production team's offer to postpone filming for the sake of her health. (She is seen here with Robert Ellis, her villainous suitor in the film.)

Hellbent on completing The Girl from Montmartre and never one to let her colleagues down, Barbara declined the production team’s offer to postpone filming for the sake of her health.  (She is seen here with Robert Ellis, her villainous suitor in the film.)

While certain critics and exhibitors dismissed the story as weak and the film as ordinary, many saw something more.  People marveled at Barbara’s courage and perseverance.  Some remarked upon how an ethereal, spiritual beauty had surpassed the illness that had diminished her once voluptuous form.  Others attested to the presence of an underlying fire in her, the same vitality that had won her fame.  One journalist, applauding her poignant performance, asserted that her beauty and talent appeared to have blossomed; he assured Barbara she had nothing to regret.  A handful of reviewers called it the best performance she had ever rendered.

Their sentiments were lost on Barbara.  She had passed away a day before the release of The Girl from Montmartre.  Weeks before, the film’s producers, aware of her impending death, had alternately scrambled to get the picture into theaters and contemplated shelving it.  History had convinced them that the general public tended to avoid films featuring dead stars.  Barbara proved them wrong; numerous exhibitors nationwide reported packed houses and capacity business while showing the film.

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Although the majority of Barbara’s film work is unfortunately lost or currently unaccounted for, some of her films (including The Three Musketeers and The Prisoner of Zenda) may readily be enjoyed today.  For a listing of her extant films and where they may be viewed, refer to the filmography page: http://barbaralamarr.net/?page_id=17

©2015 Sherri Snyder

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Of course, much, much more will be told about Barbara’s career in film and every aspect of her incredible, accomplished, turbulent life in her upcoming biography, The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful: The Extraordinary Life Story of Silent Screen Vamp, Barbara La Marr.  For updates, visit: http://barbaralamarr.net/?page_id=28 

Notes:

“having the soul”: San Francisco Chronicle quoted in “Thy Name is Woman,” Film Daily, March 9, 1924, pg. 16.

A Vamp There Was

Vamp

Barbara, photographed by Hoover Art Studios, during her ascension to worldwide fame.

The vamp first emerged on the screen in 1915.  She came in the form of Theda Bara in A Fool There Was, a film inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Vampire.”  She was a shocking figure: a woman who deliberately uses her femininity to ensnare men.  To some, she was a titillating deviation, the antithesis of the standard saccharine heroine.  To others, she was cause for alarm, an additional threat to society’s diminishing Victorian morals.  To film producers, she was gold, the precursor to a new breed of screen goddess.

In 1922, Barbara La Marr secured her launch to superstardom when she played a vamp in Rex Ingram’s Trifling Women.  Her portrayal of a cruel sorceress who plays men like pawns solidified her image as one of the silent screen’s leading temptresses.  At first, Barbara welcomed the opportunity to play vamps.  “I’m not silly enough to pretend I’m an ingénue,” she conceded. “It isn’t my line—on or off the screen.  I don’t want to be an ingénue.  I just want to be a woman.”

Barbara could indeed vamp with the best of them.  Director Fred Niblo once marveled that even a bad dressmaker couldn’t make her look virtuous.  Barbara likewise quipped that a true vamp was not dependent upon her bee-stung lips or the clinging gowns, trailing hemlines, and jeweled headpieces in which she was typically costumed.  “It’s the look in the eye that does it,” she insisted.  Yet Barbara’s style of vamping went beyond the popular conception of the vamp as a dimensionless caricature.  An actress of true substance, she alternately infused her roles with sprightly comedic touches and, more often, gripping, heartfelt emotion.  She, like the women she portrayed, was enshrouded in an aura of mystery.  “She is made for lurking tragedy,” writer Willis Goldbeck mused in the November 1922 issue of Motion Picture Magazine, “..one feels the beat of ravens’ wings about her…her radiance is that of moonlight in the heavy shadows of the night…Calypso she is, burning with the flame of subtle ecstasy.”

Even so, reporters and magazine columnists, upon meeting Barbara in the flesh, were pleasantly startled.  They were hard-pressed to find the slightest trace of the wicked ladies she enacted in films.  Adela Rogers St. Johns recalled how her genuine charm and captivating wit disarmed even the most hardened newspapermen.  When one interviewer pressed Barbara to reveal something unusual about herself, she offered to stand on her head.  Los Angeles Times reporter William Foster Elliot, struck by her sincerity and directness, commented, “She is remarkably straightforward and man to man in her attitude,” and “…really human despite the exotic bunk.”

Barbara eventually tired of playing wayward women and shunned vamp roles altogether.  She yearned to play the more sympathetic roles she had proven herself capable of in Louis B. Mayer’s production, Thy Name Is Woman (1924).  By 1925, public tastes were similarly shifting and fun-loving flappers began eclipsing vamps as the newest idols of the silver sheet.  Barbara, inextricably linked to her naughty onscreen image and declared washed-up in the trade magazines, fought for one final chance.

With her health failing and less than a year to live, she was given that chance.  She was determined to see it through…

©2013 Sherri Snyder

Trifling Women Costume 1922

Photographed in one of her costumes from Trifling Women (1922)

Richelieu Pearls 1924

Promotional image for Sandra (1924)

Heart of a Siren 1925

Film still from The Heart of a Siren (1925)

 

 

Notes:

“I’m not silly enough”: La Marr, Barbara, “Why I Adopted a Baby,” Photoplay, May 1923, pg. 31.

“It’s the look in the eye”: Drummond, Joan, “Beautiful Barbara,” Pictures and the Picturegoer, April 1924, pg. 44.

“She is remarkably straightforward”: Elliot, Foster William , “Not Like the Fan Stories,” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1922.