Ed. note: This is the second part of a two-part blog on the origins of the Motion Picture Fund. Read part one here.
One of Hollywood’s saddest cases, often cited as inspiration for the hospital and fund uses, is Karl Dane.
A lanky, gawky, charming comedian, Karl was born Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb in Denmark. The sweet, trusting man was said to have a rudimentary grasp on English — he could speak the language well but had trouble always understanding others — and a slight accent. He rose to fame as Slim, in the 1925 epic war film "The Big Parade" (which, though forgotten today, was so epic it was the second highest grossing silent film of all time, taking in over $64 million before 1933, when adjusted for inflation).
In fact "The Big Parade" is a good example of why we so need the Fund and hospital: By 1940, its three major stars would be dead. Gilbert from alcoholism, Adoree from tuberculosis, and Dane well…as you will see. Other parts followed for Karl Dane, including several films with Lillian Gish and his doomed "Big Parade" costars. My personal favorite would be his role as Ramadan in "Son of the Sheik" with fellow accented actors Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky (Valentino would not live to see the crash or talkies; Banky survived the crash and retired after two talkies). In 1927, Karl formed "Dane and Arthur" with British comedian George K. Arthur. The duo straddled the talkie switch and so was moderately successful in both mediums. But the studio was nervous about Karl's accent and mental health.
While many assumed Karl's accent did him in, Karl's biographer notes he had both mental and physical injuries that halted him from filming for several months. Dane and Arthur embarked on a wildly successful vaudeville tour, proving his accent was not holding him back. The stock market crash cleaned Dane out and he spent the early '30s trying to alternately reinvigorate his fame, and find normal work. Neither was successful. One day he was on vaudeville, the next he was a waiter. He was fired from the waiter job as his boss had hoped a "former celebrity" would bring in business. It didn't.
On April 13, 1934, Karl was pickpocketed of the last money he had to his name: $18. The next night he sat down and wrote a letter, "To Frances and all my friends-goodbye." He then took out a gun and shot himself in the head. Reportedly scrapbooks covering his successes were found near his body; though over the years they have never been found. When news of his death broke, Hollywood was stunned. While some of the crueler press mocked his fall, the majority wondered out loud how such a thing could happen.
Dane was set to be put in a pauper's grave. Instead fellow actor Jean Hersholt insisted MGM pay for his grave. MGM agreed. Dane was given a solemn ceremony and small tombstone at Hollywood Forever. Before his death, while working as a dishwasher, Dane told his coworkers he was saving up what money he could to open a Danish styled beer garden in Hollywood. He wanted to call it Karl Dane's Place…so Hollywood would remember him. Though the world would sadly remember Dane (briefly, everything you've heard about a hot dog cart or through Hollywood Babylon is naturally untrue) for something tragic, his death seems to be the point in which Hollywood really tried to turn itself around. While other industries let their stars rot away (vaudevillian star Eva Tanguay, who would be similar to Madonna in our own time, was left blind, penniless and forgotten in her old age); Hollywood vowed to up the ante.
In 1938, Pickford's payroll pledge was upped to every facet of movie making; not just actors. At the same time the aforementioned Jean Hersholt, now president of the Fund, was hoping to find other ways to help actors. With his encouragement, Dr. Jules C. Stein came up with an idea to have stars perform in a radio show, and donate their proceeds to the creation of a retirement home and hospital. Every big name of the day took part, including Judy Garland and Clark Gable. Odd how they could fund a hospital, but Hollywood today can't find $10 million in their extravagant salaries. In 1948, the home and hospital was dedicated, vowing to serve anyone who had taken part in film.
The stories of who the hospital and home has helped are too numerous to count, but there is one final example I feel Hollywood should pay attention to.
It is my personal belief that the silence in Hollywood regarding the home's current situation is the wish to blissfully ignore the inevitable; the belief that we will all be young and rich and famous forever. Or that we'll take the grand old tradition started by Olive Thomas, and flame out before 30.
Either way is not a reliable plan. And every biography of any star from 1910 onward will tell you as such. Ask Baby Peggy. Ask Frederica Sagor Maas. Ask Doris Eaton.
When the Motion Picture Relief Fund was created in 1921, many stars and studio heads were founding members. These stars were earning salaries that would still be quite envious (many were earning several thousand dollars a week). They had fame which even with the internet, we can not imagine. But they too would fall just like Karl Dane.
The silent era was wiped from our memory in 1930, as if these people never existed, and as if talkie stars had nothing to learn from their stories. But history repeats itself. Mae Murray was the original blonde vamp, predating Jean Harlow. "The girl with the bee stung lips" absurdly claimed to never use makeup, and based much of her persona on everlasting youth. Famous in the 1910s, her career reached a zenith in the mid-1920s with films like "The Merry Widow." She married a prince and had a son she named Koran. She had a wonderful home and owned land which had oil underneath it. She also had her own studio, Tiffany Pictures.
But the Prince was a fake, who tried to take over her career and ended up blacklisting her because of his boorish behavior. Mae lost most of her money in the stock market crash, and what she didn't lose the ''prince'' took. He then left her for another woman. She lost custody of her son and was unable to come back in talkies, mainly due to her age and mental state at the time (an American girl, the accent was not a problem). She tried to get her son back, and occasionally got custody.
Screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas — who is remarkably still with us at the age of 110 — recalls in her memoirs living down the hall from Mae and her son in the 1940s. Mae was increasingly becoming dependent on alcohol, rarely had money, and if it weren't for Frederica she and her son would go without food. Her behavior became more and more bizarre; culminating with her being found sleeping on a park bench.
In 1946 she filed for bankruptcy. In February 1964, she began a bizarre tour of self promotion, involving riding the Greyhound bus line around the country. She was found wandering the streets of St. Louis confused and penniless. The Salvation Army paid for her $13 hotel bill and a ticket back to Los Angeles. When she returned she was admitted to the Motion Picture Hospital, the one she had helped found and been a board member for in the 1920s.
Though Frances Marion's historical account may be suspect, Murray reportedly was so delirious when she arrived, the scene mimicked a Norma Desmond meltdown. Murray lived about another year, before dying peacefully in the hospital. Her dresses and memorabilia were put in a box for auction. The contents went for a pittance of $300.
Hollywood has a lot to learn from the past, and they can ignore it if they like, but that does not change the fact the inevitable can and will happen. We need to clear out this crooked board, rally the cause and raise funds to restore the Motion Picture Home and Hospital to its former glory.
At 23, I already suffer from rheumatoid arthritis; which is quite pain inducing and will not get better with age. Though I will soldier on, I hope when I'm a little old lady, if I qualify through my work, that there will still be a Motion Picture Home and Hospital for me if I need it. But if Hollywood continues to turn a blind eye, it won't be.
If the Motion Picture Home and Hospital is said to be the crown jewel of old age care in the United States … what does that not only say of our country, but of our community? We take care of our own. More like 'We take care of our own? Really?' We need a swift and immediate change. Who will help us when we need help the most?