Note: There is now a new follow up post here which features information on other living silent actors.
Carla Laemmle has passed away, at the age of 104. Others have written glowingly and wonderfully about the woman and her unique life. Not only was she the niece of Universal Pictures found Carl Laemmle, she most notably appeared in the 1931 Dracula. Her connection to the horror genre through film led to her making a few film appearances in the final decade of her life, after not appearing in a role for around 70 years. There is another notable item about her as well– she was one of the remaining silent movie actors still alive. Her roles weren’t major by any stretch of the imagination (she was uncredited in her first appearance, The Phantom of the Opera), but she was one of the dwindling few left alive who appeared in silent films. Mickey Rooney, another member of that small group, passed away earlier this year as well. The number now is extremely small, and all of them were child actors. All of them are worthy of being discussed and remembered, as they are a final link to that bygone era. Let’s look at the lives and careers of all of them, going from oldest to youngest.
Mary Carlisle (101) also only made one uncredited silent appearance, as a child in the Jackie Coogan film Long Live the King. By 1930, at the age of 16, she began appearing in films more regularly. These too were very small roles– it wasn’t until 1932 that she even played a character with a name. By that point, the size of her role began to depend on whether it was a b-movie or a bigger picture. While she had small roles in big pictures like Grand Hotel and Smilin’ Through in 1932, she also played more major parts in b-movies like Down to Earth and Her Mad Night.
By 1933 she received top billing for the first time in The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. As the years went by, she continued to work in a similar fashion, starring in smaller films while taking on supporting roles in bigger films. Through all of the 1930s she was active, sometimes appearing over half a dozen films per year.
When the 1940s hit, her work slowed down. But in the few films she made in that decade before retiring, all but one of them features her in a starring role. All of them fall into a b-movie specific genre as well: two gangster movies (one a partial comedy), a war film and a horror movie. She has not appeared in a movie since 1943.
Carlisle is also the last living member of another group: the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS) Baby Stars. The group named young actresses each year who they felt were approaching high points in the motion picture industry. When it ran from 1922 to 1934, it did indeed choose many major stars like Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Mary Astor and Ginger Rogers.
The person who is definitely alive is Shep Houghton. Houghton has appeared in minor and insignificant roles in a number of major pictures, most notably The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. IMDB gives him credit for three silent films: Underworld, The Last Command and Ramona. But was he actually in those three films? That is where the issue gets a little trickier. Houghton’s roles are all listed as uncredited, which should come as no surprise. Silent films are notoriously bad at giving full cast lists in credits. Anyone outside of the main stars usually didn’t get a mention. The kinds of roles Houghton is listed as playing (strangely, both a Russian and a Mexican youth) never would usually get a screen credit.
At the very least, there is further confirmation that he appeared in the latter two films. Houghton was interviewed in an article about his hundredth birthday earlier this year. The article references both The Last Command and Ramona as early film roles. As that article was compiled from interviews with him and from an unreleased manuscript, those roles can pretty much be confirmed. Houghton is another silent film actor still living.
Fay McKenzie (97) made the earliest film appearance by a living person as Gloria Swanson’s baby in the 1918 film Station Content. Throughout the 1920s, she played five other roles, most notably a young Sarah Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother) in The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln.
By 1934, McKenzie began a steady stream of bit parts and slightly larger roles in low budget movies like the drug scare film Assassin of Youth. After six years of small work like that, 1941 marked her biggest year on the silver screen. Between that year and the following one, she starred in five Gene Autry westerns. In each film, she played in the lead female role and sang with Autry. This peak of her career came right before she mostly retired from film.
After a few smaller roles in the following years where she sang, McKenzie mostly retired. The 1960s saw her make very sporadic appears, mostly in minor roles. She last appeared in very small role in the 1981 film S.O.B., also the the final film William Holden appeared in.
Diana Serra Cary (Baby Peggy)
Cary (96), also known as Baby Peggy, was one of the top child stars of her time. For a three year run beginning in 1921, dozens upon dozens of Baby Peggy shorts were produced, fueling her popularity. 1924 saw her debut in features, but also saw the end of her time as a major film star. Reportedly due to poor financial and negotiating decisions by her parents, she ended up out of films the following year and moved to vaudeville.
She would appear as an extra or in bit parts throughout the 1930s, but that marked the last time she appeared in film. Since that time, she has continued to be active in the public eye. She wrote for radio for a time, and has written several books about her time as a child star, along with the dangers of child stardom.
For a four year period starting in 1922, Priscilla Moran was a major child star. Her debut, The Toll of the Sea, was one of the first technicolor features, and 1926 saw her star in her first and only leading role. Her time in the spotlight was short-lived due to no fault of her own. A custody battle that lasted for years pulled her from various homes and left her unable to appear in films. Long after the dust settled in that regard, she played several bit parts in 1937.
Moran is likely still alive at the age of 96. There are no death records for anyone with her date of birth, and Young Hollywood Hall of Fame lists her as still living.
Dorothy Morrison, 95, only made six film appearances as a child, three of them in Our Gang shorts. Her most notable appearance is in the 1929 film Hearts in Dixie, an early talkie musical that was one of the first to feature an all African-American cast.
Louise and Billy Watson
Louise (95) and Billy (91) are two members of the very large Watson Family. All told, there were nine siblings, all of whom acted at some point or another. A complete filmography for all the members of the family, including Louise and Billy, appears to be incomplete. It’s known they both were in silent films, but sources show very few appearances.
Billy had several small roles throughout the 1930s, many of them in major pictures starring the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Will Rogers and Jimmy Stewart (the latter in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). His last appearance was in 1940. Louise, if what filmography available is believed to be complete, made no more than a couple of appearances in the 20s and 30s. She did, however, make several small appearances in TV shows in the 1990s.
A third Watson child, Garry, is also still living. He did not appear in any silent films.
Sometimes known as Baby Helen Rowland, she appeared in a total of nine films over a span of five years. Despite being a few years old at the time, it looks like she may have played an actual baby in some of her films. Unfortunately, only two of her films survive, so there is very little footage of her around. Not much information about her outside of these films are available.
Rowland may be alive. Multiple sources list her birthdate as October 23, 1919. The Social Security Death Index does show a Helen Rowland who passed away, with a birthdate that is six days off. It does seem likely that this is a different person. This other woman is listed as having died in Ohio, which connects with a woman of the same name in Ohio in 1940 census records. An Ohio news article from 1938 discusses a highly successful local decorator of the same name.
Given that the actress Helen Rowland was born in New York, it looks like she is more than likely still alive. If that is correct, she is 94.
Lassie Lou Ahern
Ahern (93), along with her sister Peggy, were in a few Our Gang shorts in the mid 1920s. After those appearances, the two formed a nightclub act for several years. Ahern made small appearances in films in the 1940s, and later landed one episodes spots on Love, American Style and The Odd Couple in the 1970s. Peggy died in 2012.
You’ve probably seen O’Malley (90) in something, even if the name isn’t familiar. Her only silent film appearance was as a baby, but she was very prolific in her adult life.
O’Malley made small film small film appearances in the 40s and 50s, but the number of TV shows she’s made guest appearances on is staggering. She’s appeared on all of the following shows: Dragnet, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, General Hospital, Leave it to Beaver, Perry Mason, Bonanza, Hazel, Twilight Zone, The Munsters, The Fugitive, Family Affair, Gunsmoke, Mary Tyler Moore, Columbo, The Waltons, Barnaby Jones, Dynasty, The A-Team and Beverly Hills 90210.
Kornman (88), is yet another Our Gang member. She is the younger sister of Mary, the female lead in the Our Gang shorts. Mildred never played a prominent role in any of the shorts, and typically only appeared in large groups or background shots.
Some of the actors previously featured in this post have passed away. Below are their bios.
Manoel de Oliveira
Oliveria, now 105, is the only person known to be alive that was an adult in silent films. It’s only one role, an uncredited part in a Portuguese film that has more than likely been lost to the ages. His connection is small as can be, but Oliveria can lay claim to one of the most amazing careers in film history.
Since that first uncredited role, Oliveria has made very few other acting appearances. He has, however, gone on to become a prolific director who’s only gotten more active the older he gets.
From the 1930s through the 70s, he directed a grand total of 19 films. As he headed into his 70s, he amazingly had a huge uptick in productivity. Since 1980, he has made 40 films. In this decade alone, he has released five films, three in 2012. Two more are currently in development. At the moment, he is more than likely the most prolific working director. Oliveria does have the occasional year without a film release, unlike Woody Allen. But Allen only releases one film a year, whereas Oliveria sometimes produces several. As of 2014, they have each made the same number of films in this decade.
Working at such advantaged age has led to him either passing, or becoming very close to passing many age records. Not only he is the oldest director working today, but it is believed he is very close to becoming the oldest director to have ever lived. There are two known directors who lived to be older: Miguel Morayta (who also lived to 105) and George Abbott (107). In the cases of both the others, they had quit working decades before hitting the age of 100. Oliveria is also the only person to appear in a silent film who has gone on to direct using modern digital technology.
Oliveria’s work has also received a wealth of critical acclaim. He most recently was nominated for a Portuguese Golden Globe for Best Picture last year. His films are often nominated at the Cannes Film Festival (including winning the jury prize in 1999), and he received a special lifetime achievement award at the 2008 festival. It’s safe to say he is one of the hardest working men in the history of film. And considering the bulk of his work has been in his 70s and later, that is pretty amazing.
Darling (93) is another Our Gang member, and is still active to this day.
Her run in the Our Gang shorts was a fairly lengthy one, dozens of films over a three year period from 1927 to 1929. Her film career ended nearly right after that with a few small appearances in the 30s. Her career outside of film has been very good, however. Following her film exit, she began a successful run as a Broadway performer in the 40s, including the original performance of Carousel. In the ensuing decades, she also wrote regular mystery stories for various magazines, and hosts a radio show in Ireland where she reads her stories.
In 2013, Darling made her first film appearance in decades in a short silent film. It can be viewed here.
Moore (88) made one appearance as a baby in a silent film. By this point, you should know what the next sentence will be: he was in Our Gang shorts as a child. As a child, his biggest role was as the title role in the 1933 Oliver Twist adaptation. His second most prominent role was opposite Shirley Temple in a much hyped first kiss for her in Miss Annie Rooney (the movie bombed). Moore made more sporadic appearances through the 50s and married Jane Powell in 1988.