Rod La Rocque - Silent Star of August, 1998
by Kally Mavromatis
Rod La Rocque was born November 29, 1898 in Chicago,
the son of an Irish mother and French father. In his early teens he was
far more interested in hanging around stage doors than school, and
during summer vacation began performing with Willard Mack and Maud
Leone's stock company. For $1 per performance he performed "boy parts,"
appearing in Salomy Jane and Samson Valley. The next
summer he performed with the Gus Forbes Stock Company, with parts in
The Middleman, When Knighthood Was in Flower, and
The Professor's Romance.
In 1914, while performing in Jim Carroll's vaudeville show, La Rocque
decided to make a visit to Triangle Studios on Argyle Street to earn
extra money. He got a bit part in The Snowman, directed by
E.H. Calvert, earning $3.25 for one day's work.
Encouraged, La Rocque took to haunting the studio daily for work.
Essanay (named for producer George K. Spoor and "Broncho Billy"
Anderson) was a thriving studio, at one time employing
Charles Chaplin, Gloria Swanson,
Bryant Washburn, Ruth Stonehouse, and
Francis X. Bushman. La Rocque continued to get bit
parts at Essanay from 1914-1917, working under the Black Cat
Productions moniker, a brand name for the melodramas and comedies that
the company was churning out. He began earning better parts and better
pay, starring in
The Alster Case (1915),
Efficiency Edgar´s Courtship (1917),
Money Mad (1918), and
Uneasy Money (1918).
When Essanay ceased production, he followed Calvert to New York,
living in a room at the YMCA with fellow actor Ralph Graves.
Following Graves' advice, he signed with Eddie Small, agent for May McAvoy and Norma
Shearer. La Rocque began haunting all the area studios: Vitagraph,
Paramount, and the New Jersey studios, eventually getting a bit part in
a Billie Burke picture
Let´s Get A Divorce (1918).
Despite his success in films, La Rocque still wanted to keep a foot
in theatre, obtaining the lead in Up the Ladder with producer
William Brady and starring his daughter Alice. The play was
unsuccessful, and La Rocque returned to films, starring in three films
for Sam Goldwyn:
The Venus Model (1918);
A Perfect 36 (1918); and
A Perfect Lady (1918). For the next four years he
continued to freelance between films and theatre, starring in such
The Trap (1919) for Universal;
The Garter Girl (1920) for Vitagraph;
Easy to Get (1920) for Famous Players-Lasky;
The Stolen Kiss (1920) for Webb;
Paying the Piper (1921), again for Famous Players;
What´s Wrong With Women? (1922) for Equity;
Notoriety (1922) for Weber/North; and
The Challenge (1922) for Star.
In 1922 La Rocque was approached by Robert Z. Leonard
and Mae Murray to star in a Tiffany production of
Jazzmania (1923), which in turn led to a call from
Cecil B. DeMille. In 1923 he starred in Cecil B. DeMille's
The Ten Commandments, the film that made him a star. He
spent the next five years working for both DeMille's Producers'
Distribution Corporation (PDC) (which filmed at the old Ince Studio in
Culver City) and Famous Players-Lasky in a number of films, including
Code of the Sea (1924);
A Society Scandal
Feet of Clay (1924);
Night Life of New York (1925);
The Fighting Eagle
Hold ´Em Yale (1928).
In 1925 La Rocque was asked to be the "extra man" at a dinner party
at DeMille's, where he met actress Vilma Banky, recently
imported from Hungary by MGM. They married in 1927 in a lavish church
wedding, with bridesmaids Constance Talmadge,
Bebe Daniels, and Rod's sister Mildred; best man
DeMille; and ushers Donald Crisp, Harold Lloyd, Ronald
Colman, and friend Victor Varconi. After a reception for 2,000 Beverly
Hills Hotel, the couple honeymooned in Banff.
La Rocque did not follow DeMille to MGM, and after his contract with
the director and Famous Players-Lasky expired he continued to
freelance, acting in
The One Woman Idea (1929) for
The Man and the Moment (1929) for First
Let Us Be Gay (1930) with Norma Shearer. In 1930 he and Banky were asked by
producer Archie Selwyn to star in a play, Cherries are Ripe,
written by Anita Loos and husband John Emerson. Despite the couple's
popularity, the play was not a big success.
In 1933 the couple travelled to Germany, where Banky made her final
The Rebel and La Rocque filmed
S.O.S. Eisberg (a/k/a S.O.S. Iceberg) (1933) with
Leni Riefenstahl. Despite Banky's retirement, La Rocque
continued acting with films such as
Frisco Waterfront (1935),
Taming the Wild (1936),
The Shadow Strikes (1937),
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and his final
Meet John Doe (1941).
After retiring from the screen, La Rocque and Banky continued to
live in Hollywood, where Rod La Rocque died October 15, 1969.
Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1998
by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis