Marshall "Mickey" Neilan - Silent Star of March 1999

by Kally Mavromatis

"Unlike Griffith or von Stroheim... Marshall Neilan's tragedy had little to do with the cost, style, or box-office success of his pictures. His story cannot be read as a failure of the system but only as the inability of one talented, undisciplined, and self-destructive individual to adjust to the success he had wrested from the system itself."
- An Evening's Entertainment: The age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928, by Richard Koszarski

Handsome, witty, arrogant - Marshall "Mickey" Neilan was one of the more talented directors of the early era of motion pictures. But his excesses and happy-go-lucky approach to life led to the tragic downfall of a warm, comedic genius.

Mickey was born in San Bernadino, California on April 11, 1891. His father was a civil engineer who died soon after his son's birth. To support herself and her young son, his mother ran a boarding house and worked in small hotels, while Mickey delivered milk and sold newspapers. Eventually Neilan left school at age 11, becoming a messenger for the California Fruit Growers Association, an office boy for the Santa Fe railroad, and a blacksmith's helper. His first contact with show business was playing boy parts for the Belasco Stock Company in Los Angeles.

By 1905 Mickey was playing bit parts with the Barney Bernard Stock Company in San Francisco, acting alongside fellow player Lawrence Griffith - later more commonly known as David Wark Griffith. His first big role was the juvenile lead in The Financier.

He eventually left the troupe, once again bumming around in a succession of jobs, at one point operating a hackstand in Van Nuys. After a brief stint as a salesman, Mickey became a chauffeur for Oliver Morosco, in addition to smuggling drinks to John Barrymore, shifting scenery, and playing bits in The Heart of a Geisha, The Girl and the Judge, and Sherlock Holmes.

In 1909 and 1910, he once again met up with D.W. Griffith who had brought his Biograph players to California to film. At first also Griffith's chauffeur, he was encouraged to act, and in 1911 got a job at Kalem Studios in Santa Monica for $5 a day. He was given the male leads in the Ruth Roland comedies How Jim Proposed, The Romance of a Dry Town, and The Pasadena Peach. Later, at a Griffith party in Los Angeles, Neilan met Allan Dwan, then a director at the American Film Company unit in La Mesa (better known as the Flying A). The two became fast friends, and Neilan joined Dwan, acting under the name Steve Neilan.

When the studio decided to look for a new location, Mickey found an ideal site in Santa Barbara. The first film, The Greaser and the Weakling, was shot at the studio's new spot - a leased ostrich farm. Dwan made two 1,000-foot films each week, westerns and action dramas, shot from scripts sent from Chicago. In 1912 Neilan made 50 films for American, including The Stranger at Coyote, Father´s Favorite, The Reformation of Sierra Smith, The Wanderer, and Nell of the Pampas.

In November of 1912 Dwan was fired after a fight with J. Warren Kerrigan, who objected when Dwan organized a second unit starring Wallace Reid. Neilan accompanied Dwan to Universal, where he charmed Carl Laemmle into giving Dwan a job as director.

In the interim, Neilan returned to Kalem and acted in more Ruth Roland comedies, including The Manicurist and the Mutt, The FIRED COOK, The Hash-House Count, The Rube and the Boob, and When Women are Police, often billed as Horace Peyton. Returning to Dwan in early 1913, by spring Neilan and Reid were named co-directors on films such as The Harvest of Flame (although Reid was given sole credit), and THE WALL OF MONEY, which Neilan finished for an ailing Dwan.

In the meantime, Griffith had returned to California to shoot Judith of Bethulia. Neilan, who had fallen in love with Gertrude Bambrick - a (very) young woman in Griffith's troupe - asked to return to New York with Griffith to be close to Bambrick, and a few weeks later Neilan left for New York. For Griffith and Biograph he appeared in Two Men of the Desert and The Sentimental Sister, both starring Blanche Sweet, but after Griffith's dismissal from Biograph, Neilan stayed, and under the direction of James Kirkwood played the lead role in William C. de Mille's Classmates. His acting highly praised, he continued in films including The House of Discord, The Wedding Gown, The Billionaire, and Men and Women.

Thanks to the introductions of old friend Alice Joyce, Neilan got a contract with Kalem's New York Studio. With a contract in hand he and Gertrude eloped, marrying in Hoboken, New Jersey on December 21, 1913.

At Kalem Neilan directed the Ruth Roland comedies he had starred in, often writing his own scripts. Eventually made production chief, Neilan teamed massive Lloyd Hamilton and diminutive Bud Duncan for a successful series of "Ham and Bud" tramp comedies. The duo appeared in films such as THE TATTERED DUKE, DON'T MONKEY WITH THE BUZZ SAW, SI'S WONDERFUL MINERAL SPRING, and HAM AND THE VILLAIN FACTORY, with Neilan and Ruth Roland providing romantic interest.

At the end of his contract, Neilan worked for Jesse Lasky as the lead in THE COUNTRY BOY, directed by Fred Thomson, as well as Dwan's THE COMMANDING OFFICER, and MAY BLOSSOM. With an idea and a script, he went to visit Mary Pickford, whom he had met when she was with Griffith, and was given the lead in LITTLE PAL (1915), directed by James Kirkwood. Their chemistry together was appealing, and Mickey continued to appear as her leading man in RAGS, A GIRL OF YESTERDAY, and MADAME BUTTERFLY.

Despite his success as a matinee idol, Neilan decided to return to directing, and in October 1915 began working for Selig in California. He began writing and directing a series on life in a country town, "Bloom Center," with titles such AS LANDING THE HOSE REEL, THE COME-BACK OF PERCY, and SPOOKS. Transferred to Chicago in 1916, he wrote and directed THE CYCLE OF FATE, as well as starring in THE CRISIS, THE PRINCE CHAP, and THE COUNTRY THAT GOD FORGOT.

Unhappy in Chicago, he refused to direct a series of Tom Mix westerns and was fired. Returning to New York, Blanche Sweet prevailed upon Sam Goldwyn to hire Neilan as her director. His time at the Lasky Company yielded such films as THOSE WITHOUT SIN starring Sweet, THE BOTTLE IMP with Sessue Hayakawa, TIDES OF BARNEGAT, again with Sweet, THE GIRL AT HOME with Jack Pickford, THE SILENT PARTNER (Sweet), FRECKLES, another Jack Pickford film, THE JAGUAR'S CLAWS, also with Hayakawa and Marjorie Daw, all box office successes that established him as a versatile, imaginative, and talented director.

But Mary Pickford, now with her own Artcraft unit, insisted on Neilan to direct her REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM. Pleased with the result, the two continued to work together on THE LITTLE PRINCESS, STELLA MARIS, AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY, and M'LISS. Only while working with Pickford was Neilan allowed to let his inventiveness run riot, despite his heavy drinking. At 26, he was one of the highest paid directors, earning $125,000 per picture. Pickford and Neilan worked well together because Mickey handled Mary the way no one else could. His productions (whenever he was actually working) were marked by a genial atmosphere, behind-the-scenes gags, practical jokes, and laughter. Anything but autocratic, Neilan let Mary, who was uncomfortable submitting to anyone else’s will but her own, run the show.

Neilan continued directing films such as HIT-THE-TRAIL HOLLIDAY (1918), HEART OF THE WILDS, OUT OF A CLEAR SKY, and THREE MEN AND A GIRL (1919), returning to Pickford for 1919's DADDY LONG LEGS. Buoyed by his success, Neilan tried to produce an independent film starring Blanche Sweet and written by Rupert Hughes, but the war was over before THE UNPARDONABLE SIN was. With war movies unpopular, Neilan couldn't find a distributor and lost quite a bit of money on the failed production. Broke, he signed with Louis B. Mayer to direct Anita Stewart in HER KINGDOM OF DREAMS and IN OLD KENTUCKY. But Mayer and Neilan clashed, and in 1920 Neilan signed a contract with First National to direct THE RIVER'S END, DON'T EVER MARRY, GO AND GET IT, DINTY (with Colleen Moore and protégé Wesley Barry), BOB HAMPTON OF PLACER (1921), BITS OF LIFE, THE LOTUS EATER, PENROD (1922), FOOLS FIRST, and MINNIE.

Despite a lucrative contract with First National that was estimated to have netted him $8 million dollars, Neilan was infamous for his spendthrift ways, and was chronically broke and in debt. After his contract with First National expired, he signed with the Goldwyn Company in 1922.

Divorced from Bambrick in 1921, he married Blanche Sweet in Chicago on June 8, 1922. The three films for Goldwyn, THE STRANGER'S BANQUET, THE ETERNAL THREE (1923), and THE RENDEZVOUS, were not particularly successful, and were marred by Neilan's habitual absences. After her unhappiness with ROSITA and her experience with Ernst Lubitsch, Mary Pickford decided to revive her plans to film DOROTHY VERNON OF HADDON HALL (1923) and hired Mickey to direct. However, with Mickey more often than not drunk, Mary essentially directed the picture.

Unfortunately for Neilan, Goldwyn merged to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and once again Mickey found himself working for Louis B. Mayer. But Mayer hated Neilan, angered over his quip "An empty taxi drop up to the studio today and Louis B. Mayer got out." As retribution, Mayer forced a happy ending on Neilan's production of TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES (1924) with Blanche Sweet. Unhappy, Neilan and Sweet went to Europe to film the exteriors for THE SPORTING VENUS. Neilan finished out his MGM contract with THE GREAT LOVE (1925) with Viola Dana and MIKE (1926) with Sally O'Neil.

Free, he once again formed his own independent unit, making THE SKYROCKET (1926) with Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Distributed by Associated Exhibitors, but barely recouping its costs, Neilan made a final film for Associated, WILD OATS LANE (1926) again with Viola Dana. Purchasing the old Harry Garson studios in Edendale, he sunk ever penny into its renovation and negotiated an arrangement with Paramount, releasing DIPLOMACY (1926) with Sweet, and EVERYBODY'S ACTING, a film that was partially financed by Howard Hughes and starring Betty Bronson.

In 1926 Neilan re-signed with First National, making VENUS OF VENICE (1927) with Constance Talmadge, HER WILD OAT with Colleen Moore, and THREE-RING MARRIAGE with Mary Astor. Neilan was only making $50,000 per picture - a fraction of his previous paychecks, but by this time his drinking was beginning to get out of control, and the contract was not renewed. He began working around the studios, doing TAKE ME HOME (1928) with Bebe Daniels for Paramount, and in 1928 he made his last two silents for FBO, TAXI 13 with Chester Conklin, and HIS LAST HAUL.

With sound making inroads, and with his reputation preceding him, Neilan took what he could get - in this case, a directing job with a British company. His first talking picture was Black Waters (1929) with James Kirkwood and Mary Brian. His next film, directed for Pathe, was The Awful Truth, and at RKO worked with Ann Pennington on Tanned Legs and The Vagabond Lover with Rudy Vallee.

But Neilan's career came to a crashing halt: "I was making $15,000 a week one year - the next I couldn't get fifteen cents." He and Sweet were divorced in 1929, and instead of selling or leasing the Edendale studio left it abandoned and boarded up, selling it in 1933 for a fraction of its original cost.

He continued to direct, but only on handouts and charity work such as Social Register (1934) with Colleen Moore, The Lemon Drop Kid, Gentle Julia, and This is the Life. He rallied one last time, giving a fine performance in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd. On October 27, 1958, Mickey Neilan died of throat cancer at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital.

Sources: Hollywood: The Golden Era, by Jack Spears; Mary Pickford: From Here to Hollywood, by Scott Eyman

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1999 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431