Monday, February 22, 2010

February 22: Marguerite Clark, Film Fantasy Queen

She had a beautiful, waiflike quality that came across well in the silent films of the early 20th century. She was a contemporary of actors and actresses still recognized today, such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Lillian Gish. Despite the competition, or perhaps because of it, she was voted America’s top female star in 1916, and again in 1920. Her film career would voluntarily end in 1921 when she married a Louisiana plantation owner.

Marguerite Clark was born on an Ohio farm on February 22, 1883, near Avondale in the southwest corner of Ohio. Not much is known about her childhood, early education, or parents, but it is known that she was sent to the Brown County Convent, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Cincinnati, when she was about twelve. Her father died when she was around eleven, leaving the family in financial difficulties. She would eventually be watched over, and later have her career managed, by her older sister, Cora.

She finished school when she was sixteen, already having decided to pursue a career in the theater. The 4’10”, 90 pound actress would quickly show herself to be a talented actress..

Clark could sing, dance, and act at a young age. She would start her stage career as a chorus girl in Baltimore in 1899, and within a year, when she was seventeen, she was discovered by DeWolf Hopper Sr. and taken to New York. Clark made her Broadway debut in The Belle of Bohemia. She would receive positive reviews for her work in Mr. Pickwick in 1903, The Wishing Ring and Baby Mine in 1910, and starred opposite of theater legend John Barrymore in the 1912 production The Affairs of Anatol.

Clark’s popularity led to into a new venue for her talent: she signed a contract in 1914 with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, with whom she made all of her movies during the next seven years except for the last one – which she made with her own production company. Thirty-one was then, as it is now, relatively late in life to start a film career. However, Clark had a waif-like, little girl quality that made her look much younger than her actual age, and she would specialize in playing young girls and fantasy roles. Her film debut would be in a movie short titled Wildfire, and the reviews would claim that her debut was “the best screen performance to date.”

Edward S. O’Reilly interviewed Clark in 1918 for Photoplay magazine. He stated about her:
“My impression of Miss Clark, formed by viewing her pictures, was that she was a happy hearted little elf smiling her way through the sour old world. She is all of that and something more. She is a serious minded little person intent on doing her work well. Even the directors say that she is less trouble than anyone in the cast, and obeys orders like a little soldier.”
She would work on forty films during her seven-year movie career, starting with Wildfire, and ending with Scrambled Wives in 1921. She was ready to give up the hustle and bustle of movie life, and settle for the quiet and serenity of living in the country in Louisiana. Also, her ambition had been to end her career when she was at the top, which she achieved in 1920 when she was recognized as America’s top female star.

Clark met Harry Palmerson Williams during a War Bond Drive in 1917, and married him in 1918. She would take up residence in his home in Patterson, Louisiana. She divided her time between her Louisiana home and New York – where she made most of her movies. Clark did have a new rule to follow in her movies: her husband forbade her to kiss any of her leading men, a demand that she met willingly.

Harry Williams grew up in Louisiana, owned and managed a lumber yard (one of the largest in the world), plantation, and other interests there, and in the late 1920s entered the budding aviation industry, using his managerial skill and business know-how, combined with skilled aeronautical engineers, to develop a series of racing aircraft. Williams would eventually die in when an airplane he was piloting crashed in 1936.

Clark returned to New York after the death of her husband in 1936 to reunite with her sister Cora – who had been her manager during her stage and film career. She would be the model for the cartoon image of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney’s 1937 masterpiece. Disney had seen Clark in the 1916 silent film version of Snow White and, he later confessed, the film made a lasting impression on him. A brief film clip of that film is here.

She would die in New York on September 25, 1940, after a brief bout with pneumonia. Her ashes are buried with her husband’s in the Williams mausoleum at Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans.

Most of Marguerite Clark’s films have disappeared, yet the legend of the little girl in the fantasy films still continues.


All Movie
Find A Grave
Golden Silents
Google books
Interviews with Marguerite Clark
Louisiana State Museum


Frontal view of Marguerite Clark, Louisiana State Archives
1916 Publicity Photo, Wikipedia
1919 Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch publicity photo, New York Public Library
Harry Williams, husband to Marguerite, Louisiana State Archives
Gravesite, FindAGrave photo by Rob Leverett

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