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.
To commemorate International Women’s Day (March 8), here’s a photo of one of my favorite women, the legendary Barbara La Marr, the subject of my biography, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood.
Before skyrocketing to fame as a world-renowned silent screen actress, Barbara was a successful child actress in stock theater, a celebrated dancer, a headlining vaudevillian, and an accomplished screenwriter with the Fox Film Corporation.
“I could never be idle,” she was quoted as saying at the height of her fame in 1925. “I could never be merely a rich man’s wife. I could never make my life out of the fabric of society.”
Since I absolutely love celebrating Barbara and her story, I’m honored to be giving my self-authored, one-woman Barbara La Marr performance and presenting a slideshow lecture about her life (for a private group in Hollywood Hills) in observance of the day. Although I’ve been presenting my Barbara La Marr program for private groups throughout Southern California these past few months, I have an upcoming performance in the Los Angeles area in May that will be open to the public. More details will follow soon!
Besides capturing the hearts and imagination of top silent filmmakers, film fans worldwide, and hordes of amorous males, silent screen siren Barbara La Marr has been muse to manifold artists, including two who rendered her in comic strip form.
Celebrated American cartoonist Al Capp looked to Barbara’s curvaceous figure when creating Daisy Mae, the beautiful, busty feminine lead in Li’l Abner, a comic strip that achieved unparalleled global fame during its 1934–1977 run. “When Barbara La Marr inhaled,” said Capp, “boys became men.”
Edgar S. “Ed” Wheelan, another American cartoonist, likewise drew inspiration from Barbara when crafting Minute Movies, a beloved comic strip parody of silent films, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Endowing one of the strip’s star players with Barbara’s dark tresses, graceful profile, heavily lined eyes, “piquant expression,” and alluring elegance, Wheelan christened her “Lotta Talent.”
Photo collage: Daisy Mae (top), Lotta Talent (lower left), and Barbara (lower right)
Not long before her passing at age twenty-nine on January 30, 1926, Barbara La Marr, one of Hollywood’s most infamous, misunderstood screen sirens, asked writer Jim Tully, a friend of hers, “Some day, Jim, will you write about me—and tell them that I wasn’t everything I played on the screen?” To those who loved Barbara, she was far more than the debauched women she played, her demons, and the shocking headlines she spawned. Ramon Novarro, famed Latin lover of the silent screen and Barbara’s friend and costar in three of her films, found in her a sincerity, humility, and “kindness that made her lovable.” Actress Alice Terry, Barbara’s Prisoner of Zenda (1922) costar, affirmed, “[Barbara] was as lovely in her personality as she was in her ravishing looks…She was very big-hearted and generous and loved to please people.” Writer Willis Goldbeck was said to believe Barbara’s virtues to be “of the mind and spirit,” and that her weaknesses were “all of the flesh.”
This interesting piece was sent to me by cartoonist Bruce Yurgil after he discovered it in The Funnies #11, a 1937 comic book that features newspaper strips. (The piece originally ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on December 21, 1935.)
While the number of times Barbara read the Bible is not readily known, she was deeply religious. She received some of her childhood education in convents. As an adult, her religious inclinations ran the gamut from Catholicism to Christian Science, and it was said that her fervent interest in spirituality led her to explore the Koran, Confucianism, Buddhism, and the philosophical writings of Rabindranath Tagore in addition to the Bible. Highly intelligent, Barbara proclaimed that she “read omnivorously” and preferred books to any other type of company. Since she furthermore considered becoming a nun at different times in her life, she likely knew the Bible well enough to speak with some authority on it.
Barbara (on right) and Doris Pawn, her costar in The Hero (1923), decorate a Christmas tree for children in a photo published in the December 5, 1924, issue of Picture Show magazine.
Thank you to Kevin John Charbeneau for sharing this photo with me.
Though silent screen star Barbara La Marr and her father, newspaperman and writer William Watson, had their differences—he initially disapproved of her film acting aspirations; clashed with her free-spirited nature; and endured her turbulent, oftentimes scandalous life—, they loved each other very much. When Barbara was allegedly kidnapped at age sixteen by her estranged half-sister, William told the press he would spend every cent he had to find her. He was by her side when she wrote stories for the Fox Film Corporation in 1920, typing her manuscripts as she dictated them to him. And, when Barbara, plagued by incipient pulmonary tuberculosis and nearing her life’s end, struggled to complete her final film, The Girl from Montmartre (1926), William accompanied her to work at the studio to support and watch over her.
(Photo above: Barbara La Marr and her father, William Watson, arrive at United Studios in 1925 during the filming of The Girl from Montmartre.)