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).