Barbara La Marr was one of film producer Louis B. Mayer’s favorite actresses. They made four films together (Harriet and the Piper, Strangers of the Night, The Eternal Struggle, and Thy Name Is Woman) in the 1920s. In the late 1930s, over a decade after Barbara’s untimely passing, Mayer discovered a gorgeous, talented, intelligent young actress named Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. He christened her Hedy Lamarr in honor of Barbara.
I recently had the pleasure of discussing the unbelievable life and estimable career of silent screen luminary Barbara La Marr; my biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood; and my one-woman show about Barbara on Yesterday USA Radio with Walden Hughes. Listen to a replay of the live broadcast here (the interview begins after about a minute and fifty seconds of music and is approximately fifty-four minutes long).
“I’ve always had a fascination with Old Hollywood,” admits veteran singer, musician, and songwriter Ronnie Joyner, “and…I have a soft spot for those vulnerable and troubled young starlets who simply couldn’t handle their fame.” Deeply affected by two classic songs, “Candle in the Wind,” Elton John’s Marilyn Monroe homage, and “Celluloid Heroes,” The Kinks’ depiction of fame’s lure, luster, and perils, the Maryland-based recording artist—whose musical prowess encompasses rockabilly, country, blues, folk, and bluegrass—sought to produce his own rendition of such themes.
But Joyner’s song was a long time coming. “I never hit on the right Golden Age actress to use as the inspiration,” he said.
Then he stumbled upon Barbara La Marr. Her story—involving being ordered home to her parents by juvenile authorities at age seventeen for being “too beautiful” to be alone in Los Angeles; skyrocketing to superstardom as a leading silent screen actress; and dying tragically from tuberculosis and nephritis at age twenty-nine in 1926 following a frenzied period of overwork, strenuous dieting, and hard living—called to him. “I knew she was the one!” he enthused. “The girl I’ve been looking for…the girl who embodies those themes I’ve been wanting to write about.”
Using her star at 1621 Vine Street on Hollywood’s iconic Walk of Fame as the centerpiece, Joyner composed his hauntingly lovely song “Girl Too Beautiful” in honor of Barbara, a woman whom, despite her demons and frailties, he describes as “beautiful, talented, and charismatic.”
Listen to “Girl Too Beautiful” here. While you’re at it, check out some of Ronnie Joyner’s other wonderful songs.
I was recently asked by the Palos Verdes Pulse to write an article about Barbara La Marr and the making of her final film, The Girl from Montmartre. Partly filmed on California’s beautiful Palos Verdes Peninsula in 1925, the film was Barbara’s attempt at a career comeback shortly before her untimely passing in 1926. The article, “‘A Last Graceful Gesture of Adieu’: Barbara La Marr and The Girl from Montmartre,” may be read here.*
*(Slight spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t yet read my biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood)
Happy Birthday Anniversary to the one and only Barbara La Marr (July 28, 1896 – January 30, 1926)! Though Barbara passed away at age twenty-nine from tuberculosis and nephritis, it was said that she lived many lives in one.
Thank you to David Heath, host of Cinema Chat, for having me on his podcast to discuss Barbara’s turbulent teenage years; her many matrimonial ventures; her accomplished careers as a stock theater actress, dancer, vaudevillian, and Fox Film Corporation story writer; her ascension to worldwide fame as one of the silent screen’s leading actresses; and more.
Written and directed by Rupert Hughes (uncle of business tycoon, film producer, and aviator Howard Hughes), Souls for Sale gave 1920s film fans a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the motion picture industry. Shots of stars’ hillside homes, aerial footage of Hollywood studios, and appearances by a few dozen of filmdom’s finest are interspersed throughout the story of a young newlywed, Remember (“Mem”) Steddon (Eleanor Boardman), on the run from her no-good husband, Owen Scudder (Lew Cody)—a man who marries, insures, and murders women. Determined to become an actress, Mem ventures to Hollywood.
Barbara La Marr appears in the supporting role of Leva Lemaire, a vampy actress who, though despised as the screen’s leading homewrecker, is actually kindhearted. Rupert Hughes admitted to casting Barbara in the role because he believed Leva’s benevolence to be a direct reflection of Barbara’s nature. His instincts proved accurate. “There isn’t a girl in the picture business who is kinder to all the extra girls than Barbara La Marr,” he noted while working with her on Souls for Sale. “She practically lets them help themselves from her wardrobe and she does other equally kind things all the time.”
Souls for Sale opened in April 1923 to widespread critical acclaim. Variety and Moving Picture World, summarizing the general sentiments, respectively declared: “Rupert Hughes as a director has topped everything he ever did, even as an author, in this picture” and “[the film] grips your attention and holds your interest intensely from the first scene until the final fade-out.”
Souls for Sale airs on Turner Classic Movies at 9:15 p.m. PST on March 31/12:15 a.m. EST on April 1. To view the TCM schedule, click here.
(Photo above: Barbara La Marr in Souls for Sale.)
Souls for Sale Cast: Eleanor Boardman, Richard Dix, Frank Mayo, Barbara La Marr, Lew Cody, Mae Busch, Arthur Hoyt, David Imboden, Roy Atwell, William Orlamond, Forrest Robinson, Edith Yorke, Dale Fuller, Snitz Edwards, Jack Richardson, Aileen Pringle, Eve Southern, May Milloy, Sylvia Ashton, Margaret Bourne, Fred Kelsey, Jed Prouty, Yale Boss, William Haines, George Morgan, Auld Thomas, Leo Willis, Walter Perry, Sam Damen, R. H. Johnson, Rush Hughes, L. J. O’Connor, and Charles Murphy. Celebrity appearances by Hugo Ballin, Mabel Ballin, T. Roy Barnes, Barbara Bedford, Hobart Bosworth, Charles Chaplin, Chester Conklin, William H. Crane, Elliott Dexter, Robert Edeson, Claude Gillingwater, Dagmar Godowsky, Raymond Griffith, Elaine Hammerstein, Jean Haskell, K. C. B. (a.k.a. Kenneth C. Beaton), Alice Lake, Bessie Love, June Mathis, Patsy Ruth Miller, Marshall Neilan, Fred Niblo, Anna Q. Nilsson, ZaSu Pitts, John Sainpolis, Milton Sills, Anita Stewart, Erich von Stroheim, Blanche Sweet, Florence Vidor, King Vidor, Johnny Walker, George Walsh, Kathlyn Williams, and Claire Windsor.
Barbara’s decision to turn down the role of Doña Sol, the mistress opposite screen idol Rudolph Valentino, in Blood and Sand (1922) in order to appear in The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) was a risky one. Director Rex Ingram, in casting her in the supporting role of Antoinette De Mauban in The Prisoner of Zenda, a story of ruses and doomed love affairs, was testing her acting abilities for a leading role as an evil seductress in his upcoming thriller, Trifling Women (formerly Black Orchids; 1922), slated to begin production after The Prisoner of Zenda. Realizing that her performance in The Prisoner of Zenda would either validate or refute Ingram’s faith in her, Barbara was determined to achieve film stardom.
Even alongside a distinguished cast including Lewis Stone, Alice Terry, and Ramon Novarro, Barbara shone in the role of Antoinette, an adventuress who helps vanquish a coup by betraying her traitorous lover. Period critics, enraptured by her whole-souled acting and beauty, declared that she alone was worth the film’s admission price. Long before The Prisoner of Zenda reached theaters, however, Ingram finalized his decision to star Barbara in Trifling Women—a film Barbara later credited with securing her launch to worldwide fame.
Hailed in its day as a sensational triumph and one of Ingram’s best, The Prisoner of Zenda—and Barbara’s acclaimed performance as Antoinette—may be viewed for free online here.
(Photo above: Barbara as Antoinette De Mauban in The Prisoner of Zenda.)