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
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
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
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
In 1915, Griffith released the first of his two greatest
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
In 1916, Griffith, along with Mack Sennett and
Thomas H. Ince formed Triangle Studios. The company
continued making films, with Mae starring in
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
The White Rose, also starring
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
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
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