Merkel, Una (1903–1986)

views updated

Merkel, Una (1903–1986)

American actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Summer and Smoke. Born on December 10, 1903, in Covington, Kentucky; died in 1986; daughter of a traveling merchant; married Ronald L. Burka, in 1932 (divorced 1946).

Selected plays:

Two by Two (1925); Pigs (1944); Coquette (1944); Three's a Family (1944); The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1953); The Ponder Heart (1956); Take Me Along (1959).

Selected filmography:

Abraham Lincoln (1930); Private Lives (1931); The Maltese Falcon (1931); Red-Headed Woman (1932); 42nd Street (1933); Blonde Bombshell (1933); The Merry Widow (1934); Cat's Paw (1934); Biography of a Bachelor Girl (1935); Riff-Raff (1936); Saratoga (1937); On Borrowed Time (1939); Destry Rides Again (1939); Road to Zanzibar (1941); My Blue Heaven (1950); The Kentuckian (1955); The Parent Trap (1961); Summer and Smoke (1961).

Una Merkel, a character actress of the 1930s, was usually cast in jaunty female supporting roles. Born in 1903, she was the daughter of a traveling merchant who took his entire family on the road with him; as a result, Merkel did not begin attending school until the age of nine. She grew up in Philadelphia and later in New York City, where she took dance and acting classes. As a teen, she modeled for movie magazines, which led her to roles as an extra in motion pictures being filmed at various New York studios. She bore a resemblance to Lillian Gish , a great screen star of the day, and was cast to play her sister in a film that was never made. Merkel's first speaking part came in the Broadway play Two by Two in 1925, and she spent the next few years as a cast member in two long-running stage productions, Pigs and then Coquette, alongside Helen Hayes .

Merkel made her film debut in the role of Ann Rutledge in Abraham Lincoln, a D.W. Griffith epic that starred Walter Huston, and after a role in 1931's Private Lives was signed to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract. She was an attractive actress, but not glamorous, and this somewhat limited her roles in the Hollywood fantasy factory of her day. She appeared in such films as Blonde Bombshell, Cat's Paw, Riff-Raff, Saratoga, and On Borrowed Time, all made between 1933 and 1939. In them, Merkel appeared alongside some of the greatest stars of the era, among them Clark Gable, Jean Harlow , Jack Benny, and Lionel Barrymore. For the 1939 movie Destry Rides Again, she engaged in a memorable on-screen fight with Marlene Dietrich .

After a 15-year hiatus from Broadway, Merkel returned there in 1944 with Three's a Family. She won a Tony Award in 1956 for her role on Broadway in The Ponder Heart, and received her only Academy Award nomination for her performance as Geraldine Page 's dissipated mother in the 1961 film version of Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke. Tragedy blighted her life in later years: her mother killed herself in 1945, nearly poisoning Merkel with gas in the process, and the actress herself survived a suicide attempt in 1952. In the early 1970s, she was living in Los Angeles with her father, who was then in his 90s. Una Merkel died in 1986.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 3rd Series. NY: Crown, 1970.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

More From