Eve Golden / Queen of the Dead: Robert Harron & Clarine Seymour

True Heart Susie

Robert Harron & Clarine Seymour


This week I am going to start you off with a clip, rather than ending with one.: The unhappily married young couple in this D.W. Griffith film, The Girl Who Stayed at Home, would both be dead a little more than  a year after its March 1919 release. (By the way, I love Lillian Gish—she was a friend of mine—but isn’t she so smug in this clip you want to smack the daylights out of her?)

The husband is played by 26-year-old Robert Harron, who had already turned in some of the best performances of his generation, most notably as the budding tough-guy in Intolerance (1916). Harron was from a large New York family; his brother John became a successful character actor; brother Charles and sister Tessie had just started on acting careers when they died young (Charles in a car accident and Tessie of the Spanish flu). Robert—Bobbie, he was usually called—got a job as go’fer at Biograph Studios and by age 14 (in 1907) was already acting—in fact, he starred in Bobby’s Kodak in 1908. Harron was always youthful-looking; not so much handsome leading-man material as kid-next-door. He appeared in the Gish sisters’ film debut, An Unseen Enemy (1913), and in some of Mary Pickford’s first movies.

Griffith took Harron under his wing and in the Biograph stock company, the young actor was given every possible kind of role, from caveman to gangster to romantic lead to mentally-challenged object of sympathy. He had a small supporting role in The Birth of a Nation, then broke through with his breath-taking performance in Intolerance (nods must be given to Mae Marsh and Constance Talmadge as stand-outs in that film too, of course). He made another handful of films with Griffith—the best probably being Hearts of the World, looking manly and handsome in moustache and soldier’s garb. After The Girl Who Stayed at Home, Harron made another two films with Griffith, then left the fold to star with the up-and-coming Metro Pictures Corporation, in Coincidence(released posthumously, in 1921).

Harron died while in New York for the premiere of Griffith’s Way Down East—in which the “Harron part” was played by Griffith’s new pet, Richard Barthelmess. Harron shot himself in a New York hotel room and died in the hospital on September 5, 1920, aged 27. No one knows what happened: Lillian Gish later wrote that a gun fell out of his pocket as he was unpacking, which is possible but highly unlikely. He was said to have insisted to a priest his death was an accident—but what an odd accident it was.

His delightful costar in The Girl Who Stayed at Home does not have an Intolerance to her credit, so she is largely forgotten—but what a delight she was! Steals this scene from under everyone’s nose, doesn’t she? Clarine Seymour was born into a well-to-do Brooklyn family at the end of 1898, making her only 20 when she appeared in this film and 21 when she died in a New York hospital on April 25, 1920. Seymour was a proto-flapper: she is closer in spirit to Clara Bow and Colleen Moore than to Gish and Pickford, with her big jazzy eyes and feisty air. Beginning in 1917, she had acted for the Thanhouser, Pathe and Rolin studios, bouncing from New York to New Jersey to California. She left Rolin under a cloud, claiming that they wanted her to do her own (very dangerous) stunts for the Toto the Clown film Toto’s Troubles.

Griffith snapped her up, “to my amazement,” she admitted, for The Girl Who Stayed at Home, precisely because she was the anti-Gish. She played the nasty, modern foil to the angelic Miss Lillian, and ran off with the film. She was not the typical Griffith actress, and he was indeed grooming the more Edwardian Carole Dempster at the same time. But he was no fool, and followed-up with roles for Clarine Seymour in True Heart Susie (again, as the vamp to Gish’s good girl), Scarlet Days (a gold rush adventure with Dempster and Barthelmess) and, finally, The Idol Dancer, as a kind of South Seas precursor to Hedy Lamarr’s Tondelayo inWhite Cargo.

Seymour was in Vermont shooting a supporting role in Griffith’s Way Down East when she took ill and died within days: an “intestinal ailment,” “strangulated intestines” and surgery were mentioned in press reports. It is tempting but useless to even guess what actually killed her (remember how easy it was to die young in those pre-antibiotic days). The Idol Dancer—like Harron’sCoincidence—opened posthumously, and fan magazines already gone to press had hopeful stories about the young star on the newsstand even after her burial. In one, she played with her kid brother and said hopefully, “I want to go on working and learning for a long time yet. Then if I am worth it, I hope for stardom—like all the rest.”

Watch the above clip again and you can see that she was indeed ready for stardom, as Bobbie Harron was coasting into a promising career himself. Lillian Gish, bless her little cotton socks, would go on acting for another 68 years after this film was made (and the fact that she was not even nominated for an Oscar for her swan song, The Whales of August, still irritates me).

Eve Golden

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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18 Responses to Eve Golden / Queen of the Dead: Robert Harron & Clarine Seymour

  1. Gregory Moore says:

    It amazes me that even though I’ve been a devotee of the silent era of films since childhood, I can still discover stars–such as Clarine Seymour–that I’d never heard of before. And I have always had a specific interest in the “gone-too-soon” stars, such as Wallace Reid, Barbara LaMarr and the like. Thanks for enlightening me on yet another. She did, indeed, fairly jump off the screen, didn’t/doesn’t she? She certainly did have a very vivid “star presence”…and it’s good that you’ve created an internet presence for her, should anyone try to research her in the future.


    • Eve says:

      Thanks–wasn’t she fabulous? Clarine might have been swept aside by the jazz babies of the late 1920s–Bow, Crawford–but I can certainly see her having a parallel career to, say, Dorothy Gish or Connie Talmadge as a major comic star of the ’20s. What a shame she never had her big star-making vehicle before dying!


  2. mark says:

    She’s wonderful. And yes, Lilian needs a slap.


  3. Steven Bibb says:

    Bob Harron has always been a favorite of mine. I have a copy of the inquest into his death with lots of valuable information on his passing.


    • Eve Golden says:

      Realllllly? Anything interesting you can share? I read he was shot through the lung in a hotel room, and died a few days later in the hospital. “Lung” doesn’t sound like a suicide, but really, has a gun ever just “fallen out of your pocket” and shot you?


      • Joe Fanning says:

        He actually committed suicide. I *literally* proved it. I was the presenter for his Birth Centennial at MoMA in 1993. In preparation for the event, I located the autopsy report and had a number of medical people review it. They all determined it was suicide due to the angle (right over the heart) and powder burn size (small as it was close but had it been “just dropped to the floor,” NO burn would have appeared). Of course, Lillian and Blanche (both of whom I knew), confirmed it was an accident. Blanche did hedge a bit as she admitted, “I was not there but was told it was an accident.” Thus, I wonder if she thought otherwise as well but would not speak. Gish, did firmly hold onto the ‘official’ story. Anyway, my thesis is that Harron was so depressed being passed over with the BIG film (Way Down East) for Bathlemess by Griffith, that the emotions overtook him. You see, due to Harron’s poor Irish shanty growing-up, (forgive me, but I, too, am 100% Irish) DW became the father figure he never had (I also interviewed Harron’s last remaining sister). Thus, when Bob lost that starring role, he was terribly sad, i.e. being passed over for another favorite child. Therefore, actually going to the film event was too hard and thus, the bullet happened. At that time, there were no real scandals happening (Hollywood was too young) and Griffith was able to hush it up for personal reasons and the fact that being a Catholic, Harron could not be buried if he did kill himself. Thus, the phony tale about “buying it from a vagrant” was made up to cover the possession of the ‘new’ pistol. in addition, DW was so remorseful, that he actually had a fund (as well as after his own death via his will) sent to Mrs. Harron every month, until she, herself, did die. Also, so you do not think I am a rambler, just check up with MoMA and they will/should have the records and report I presented at that time. Joe Fanning


  4. Mary Mallory says:

    I’ve always liked Bobby Harron too, seems so sensitive and vulnerable. Such a sad loss with both.


    • Eve Golden says:

      Some sources speculate that he killed himself from despair at being replaced by Richard Barthelmess in the Griffith films–but Harron had just signed a starring contract with Metro and I understand was in talks to run his own production branch, so that doesn’t follow.


  5. Steven Bibb says:

    From the official documents that I have obtained, the chief medical examiner noted: “After the autopsy was performed the doctor from Bellevue Hospital stated he received information from a friend of the deceased who accompanied him to the hospital that deceased, while examining a trunk that was open, he placed the gun on the edge of the open trunk, the lid or cover of trunk being closed and then the gun went off. I was notified on Sept. 6th. 1920 by the 29th Precinct of the appearance of bullet wound of entrance and Sgt. Dietsch informed me that he subsequently learned that the gun was discharged accidentally while cleaning it.”

    According to the hearing before the Chief Medical Examiner on November 30, 1920 Harron told the responding officer “Oh, my God; I didn’t want to commit suicide. I was taking clothes out of the trunk and when I was taking my evening clothes out, the gun I had in my pocket dropped to the floor and exploded.” According to Harron, the gun was used in his motion pictures and he had no permit.

    According to interviews with those on the scene in the report I have, Harron was looking through a trunk for a pair of dress trousers, and upon removing them from the trunk, a 38 caliber gun fell out of the pocket, and back into the trunk and discharged, striking Harron below the left nipple and coming to a stop just beneath the skin in his back. At the time Harron was dressed in his underwear, undershirt, garters and bright purple kimono. It took 25 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the Seymour Hotel (where the accident occurred), while in the ambulance Harron kept repeating that he did not want to die, that “he wanted to live and that everything was so bright for him.”
    The report lists his death as accidental.


    • mark says:

      He used a real gun in his movies? Oh, and by the way: a purple kimono?


    • Eve Golden says:

      Mysteriouser and mysteriouser! Three different stories, then. I wonder if Bobbie was shot by his friend–maybe by accident–and he was protecting him? And yes, being in a hotel room with another man, “in a purple kimono,” in 1920 would raise Knowng Eyebrows.

      Thanks for all the inside dope, fascinating!


      • Lea S. says:

        Being a major Harron fan, these comments are downright fascinating to me. I’ll add that I believe Bobbie traveled to the premiere of Coincidence with screenwriter Victor Heerman, who was going to attend it as well–Heerman is probably the “friend” referred to in one of the stories.As Heerman would marry the following year and have have a completely normal life with two kids, I’m honestly not tempted to read too much into that–friends sharing hotel rooms couldn’t have been any more unusual than it is now. No, not even with the “purple kimono” (come on, people wore all sorts of unusual stuff back then.)


    • Joe Fanning says:

      But medically the Autopsy actually shows it differently. I have a copy and had medical folks review it for a presentation I prepared at MoMA in 1993.


  6. Gregory Moore says:

    This story has some tangential foreshadowing of the death of “crooner,” Russ Columbo, 14 years after Harron’s death. Though it was “officially” determined at the inquest of Columbo’s best friend, Hollywood portrait photographer Lansing Brown, that Brown had shot Columbo by accident, the event has always been surrounded by myth, rumor and innuendo. There is a large contingent who refuses to believe the official story and think that there had to be more to the story than just a stupid accident with a gun (in fact, the bullet that pierced Columbo’s left eye had actually ricocheted off the top of an oaken desk–which, itself, is enough to convince me that it was accidental). As with most of the classic Hollywood tragedies, the “other versions” are many, including that of Brown/Columbo having purple kimonos of their own (though I find that one hard to believe, as Columbo was practically engaged to Carole Lombard at the time of his death…and I can’t imagine her as anyone’s “beard”).


  7. Gregory Moore says:

    Oh, and furthermore: I like to see whatever became of places where tragedies/scandals happened, and found that the Seymour Hotel (on West 44th Street in Manhattan) stood where what is now the Sofitel stands–the very hotel where that creepy Frenchy-guy, Dominique Strauss-Kahn had his own sort of “kimono incident” with the West African maid. Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…


    • Eve Golden says:

      Was Bobbie Harron shot at the Seymour Hotel? That would be ironic. Maybe Clarine Seymour was taken ill after eating at the Harron House Restaurant . . .


  8. Joe says:

    Yup! That was the place. At that time it was the ‘trendy’ fancy place – not Rocker or Vandy, but elegant enough to know one had arrived.


  9. Robert Cole says:

    Eve I have always loved your articles. You are a wealth of knowledge. Sure wish I could have met and interviewed some of the silent film performers and film makers while they were living. Have you ever written about theh career and life of silent leading man Robert Gordon who was born Marion Lamport Duncan in 1895 and died in 1971 ? I have done some investigating. Sadly most of his films are lost.


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