Mae Marsh - Silent Star of July 1997

by Kally Mavromatis

She was the archetypal Griffith actress, the very embodiment of his ideal: the spirituelle, feminine, ethereal, pure. Only three actresses were able to effectively portray the type of woman director D.W. Griffith idealized: Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh.

Mary Wayne Marsh was born November 9, 1895, in Madrid New Mexico. She drifted into acting by following her older sister Marguerite, a stage actress who decided to go West to try film acting. According to Mae, it was on January 8, 1912, that she and her sister first walked into the West Coast Studios of the Biograph Company.

Mae's first film was A Siren of Impulse, released in March of 1912. She was rechristened Mae by D.W. Griffith himself, who felt that another Mary -- in addition to Mary Pickford -- would be too confusing.

She achieved her first starring part in Man´s Genesis, released in July of 1912, by default. The part, initially slated for Blanch Sweet and then Mary Pickford, was turned down by both when they discovered the costume consisted of a grass skirt and bare feet. Mae's performance, and willingness to do the role despite the unusual costume, won her the highly coveted part of The Sands of Dee, also released in 1912.

When the Company returned to New York, Mae remained in California, acting in two Kalem productions under the direction of Kenean Buell. She was recalled to New York, however, when Mary Pickford gave notice to Griffith that she was leaving the Company. In 1914, Mae went with Griffith to the Majestic-Reliance Studios and acting in The Escape, Home, Sweet Home, and The Avenging Conscience. Home, Sweet Home, the story of a girl-next-door who waits for her boyfriend to make good, marked the first teaming of Mae with Bobby Harron. By all accounts the screen chemistry between the two was superb, but was unfortunately short-lived with Harron's early death.

In 1915, Griffith released the first of his two greatest masterpieces, The Birth of A Nation. As Flora, "the little sister," Mae gave a sensitive, touching portrayal. It was to be a hallmark of her acting: A naturalistic style, with small, delicate touches that rendered her dramatic performances so real.

This style develops in Griffith's second masterpiece, Intolerance. According to Mae:

The hardest dramatic work I ever did was in the courtroom scenes in Intolerance....I quite unconsciously began to wring my handkerchief, and press it to my face. 'Great,' he (Griffith) said, 'Keep it up'.

Yet it certainly paid off; for many film critics these scenes are considered to be some of the greatest acting scenes in the silent cinema.

In 1916, Griffith, along with Mack Sennett and Thomas H. Ince formed Triangle Studios. The company continued making films, with Mae starring in Hoodoo Ann, The Little Liar, The Wild Girl of the Sierras,1916), and The Wharf Rat. In 1917, however, she was offered a contract with Goldwyn Studios for $2,500 per week. She went to Griffith, hoping he would beg her to stay, but instead he told her to accept the offer and earn the money she deserved.

It was a decision she came to regret; while with Goldwyn the luminous quality that she had achieved under Griffith's direction was unmatched by any other director. Of the period 1917-1919, Mae could point with pride to only three films: Polly of the Circus, directed by Charles Horan and Edwin L. Hollywood; The Cinderella Man; and John Noble's Sunshine Alley.

In 1918, she married Louis Lee Arms, a Goldwyn publicity man, and once her contract expired announced her retirement from films in 1920. She was coaxed back to the screen by the team of Robertson-Cole, and starred in Little 'Fraid Lady (1920) and Nobody´s Kid (1921).

In 1922 she received an interesting offer from English director Graham Cutts and producer Herbert Wilcox. Devotees of Griffith and his work, they were anxious to hire a Griffith actor. Mae went to London at a salary of 750-1,000 pounds per week, making Flames of Passion and Paddy, the Next Best Thing. Unhappy in London, she gladly returned to the States for the opportunity to work with Griffith again in The White Rose, also starring Ivor Novello.

Mae continued to make films for minor companies, including Daddies, directed by William A. Seiter in 1924, a film that made little use of her talents. In 1925 she returned to England to make the film version of Novello's play The Rat, which was to be the final film of her silent career.

In 1932 Mae returned to the screen for a small part in Henry King's Over the Hill, and continued to do small cameo appearances in Films, mostly at Twentieth Century Fox Studios. Speaking roles were done for only two directors, including John Ford, and her final screen appearance was in Ford's Two Rode Together.

Mae Marsh died at her home in Hermosa Beach, California, February 13, 1968.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1997 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431