Marsh, Mae (1895–1968)

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Marsh, Mae (1895–1968)

American actress . Name variations: Mary Marsh. Born Mary Warne Marsh on November 9, 1895, in Madrid, New Mexico; died on February 13, 1968, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Charles Marsh (an auditor for the Santa Fe Railroad) and Mary (Warne) Marsh; educated in public schools and the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Hollywood, California; married Louis Lee Arms, on September 21, 1918; children: Mary Arms (b. 1919); Brewster Arms (b. 1925); Marguerite Arms (b. 1928).

Selected filmography:

A Siren of Impulse (1912); Man's Genesis (1912); The Sands of Dee (1912); Influence of the Unknown (1913); The Wanderer (1913); Judith of Bethulia (1914); The Avenging Conscience (1914); Home Sweet Home (1914); The Birth of a Nation (1915); The Outcast (1915); The Wharf Rat (1916); A Child of the Paris Streets (1916); The Wild Girl of the Sierras (1916); Intolerance (1916); Polly of the Circus (1917); The Cinderella Man (1917); The Beloved Traitor (1918); All Woman (1918); The Glorious Adventure (1918); Flames of Passion (1922); Paddy the Next Best Thing (1923); The White Rose (1923); Over the Hill (1932); Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1932); Alice in Wonderland (1933); The Grapes of Wrath (1940); Jane Eyre (1943); A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); Titanic (1952); Two Rode Together (1961).

Mae Marsh, a silent-film star who appeared in both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, two of the most important early works in American cinema, was born Mary Warne Marsh on November 9, 1895. Her father Charles Marsh was an auditor for the Santa Fe Railroad, and her family moved often when she was a young child; each of her five siblings was born in a different state. After her father's death when she was four years old, Marsh's mother Mary Warne Marsh moved the family to San Francisco and remarried. Her stepfather was killed in the great 1906 earthquake there, and the fire that followed destroyed their home. Marsh's mother moved her family to the Los Angeles area.

Marsh did not enjoy public school or her time at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Hollywood, and she spent her summers unhappily employed as a telephone operator. Looking for new opportunities, she began following her sister Marguerite Loveridge to the film studios, where she landed a job on a one-reel silent film by Mack Sennett in January 1912. She was then signed by filmmaker D.W. Griffith to his Biograph studio. Although she had no training in acting, Marsh appeared as a supporting actress in three silent films over the next three months. No acting credits were listed in films at that time, but her first role was most likely in A Siren of Impulse, a vehicle for Biograph's star performer, Mary Pickford . At Griffith's urging, Marsh changed her first name to Mae to avoid confusion with Pickford, who was sometimes identified as "Little Mary" (and whose own real name was Gladys Smith).

Marsh received her first big break when Pickford, Blanche Sweet , and Mabel Normand all turned down the opportunity to play Lily White, the leading role in Griffith's Man's Genesis, whose costume in the film was considered risqué. Griffith gave Marsh the part opposite Bobby Harron, a successful partnership that Griffith would repeat again and again. Pickford, Sweet and Normand each sought to star in Griffith's next project, The Sands of Dee, which he gave to Marsh both as a reward for her previous performance and as payback to the other actresses.

Marsh worked with Griffith at several different studios until 1916, and these were her most productive years as an actress. Of the numerous films (many co-starring Bobby Harron) in which she appeared, her most popular roles were as Apple Pie Mary in Home Sweet Home (1914), as Flora Cameron, who hurls herself off a cliff rather than submit to rape, in the much-vaunted and enduringly controversial The Birth of a Nation (1915), and as the "Dear Little One" in Intolerance (1916), a role which Pauline Kael described as the epitome of "youth-in-trouble forever." Marsh's ability to project her emotions convincingly brought rave reviews from critics and adulation from fans.

In 1916, the recently established Goldwyn Company offered her a two-year contract at $2,000 per week during the first year and $3,000 per week the second, a far cry from the $85 per week she was earning with Griffith. The director himself encouraged her to grab the opportunity, and she moved with her mother and younger sister to New York. The original "Goldwyn Girl," Marsh made 13 films with the studio, only two of which, Polly of the Circus and The Cinderella Man (both 1917), she considered worthwhile. Her box-office appeal began to fade. She married publicist Louis Lee Arms, whom she had met during the filming of Polly of the Circus, on September 21, 1918. The couple would have three children: Mary (b. 1919), Brewster (b. 1925), and Marguerite (b. 1928).

In 1921, Marsh published Screen Acting, which included both tips for film actors and personal

reminiscences (a book of children's verse, When They Ask Me My Name, would follow in 1932). After a brief run on stage in the English comedy Brittie, she moved to England for a fresh start and soon became extremely popular with British audiences for her performances in Flames of Passion (1922) and Paddy the Next Best Thing (1923). Despite her success, she did not like the country's climate, and returned to New York to work with Griffith again. With the release of his film The White Rose, in which she portrayed Teazie, an orphan seduced by a ministry student, Marsh reclaimed her place in the spotlight. This last pairing with Griffith was one of her most successful films. The era of the silent film was coming to an end, however, and, like many other actors, Marsh found it difficult to make the transition to speaking parts.

With her husband, she lost almost half a million dollars in the stock-market crash of 1929 and was forced into bankruptcy. After surviving this and a near-fatal case of peritonitis, Marsh returned to acting in 1932, appearing in her first talking motion picture, Over the Hill. She admitted that she had trouble memorizing her lines. During the next 30 years, she appeared in cameo roles in more than 100 films, nearly a third of them directed by John Ford. Although the parts were minor, she received praise for her performances in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Jane Eyre (1943), and Titanic (1952). Mae Marsh died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on February 13, 1968, at the age of 72.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Quinlan, David, ed. The Film Lover's Companion. Citadel Press, 1997.

Kari Bethel , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri