Dale Fuller, Exhibitors Herald, June 24, 1922.
Best remembered today for her melodramatic character parts in Erich von Stroheim films, actress Dale Fuller possessed a wide range of skills, displaying talent singing, mugging, and performing dramatic roles. Not beautiful in the conventional sense, Fuller employed drive, ambition, persistence, and intelligence in getting herself noticed and fashioning an entertainment career. While most of her roles entailed playing subservient characters, she made the most of her screen time, possessing a fierceness that demanded attention. Her time-worn face and piercing eyes reflected that of someone tenaciously overcoming struggle.
Like many performers in the silent film era, Fuller’s past remains shrouded in mystery. While she was born June 17, 1885 in Santa Ana, supposedly under the name Marie Dale Phillipps, little is known of her until adulthood. Brent Walker, in his “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory,” states that she attended convent schools in Chicago and Los Angeles before entering stock. Fan magazines from the time claimed different stories for her: some stated that she attended and graduated from Mills College, while Myrtle Gebhart in Picture Play Journal reported that she lost her family at 19 before turning to the stage. Another claimed in 1916 that she married at 15 and was widowed at 19, though I can find no reference in Ancestry.com.
Dale Fuller, Photoplay Magazine.
Whatever the case, Fuller turned to performing in musical comedies on stage. The Los Angeles Herald notes on September 27, 1908 that she performed as a soubrette in the comedy, “The Trouper,” filled with musical interpretation. She joined the cast of Harry Bulgur’s “The Flirting Princess,” a musical revue, in 1910 and toured with it off and on around the country for a few years, appearing in such places as San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, and Rhode Island.
In the summer of 1910, Fuller performed in the chorus of Florenz Ziegfeld’s “The Girl in the Kimona” in Chicago, receiving excellent reviews for her expressive, uninhibited performance in a small but pivotal role. Variety in July called the show, “a musical comedy sundae,” something light as air but unsatisfying in the long run. They singled out Fuller for praise. “Dale Fuller made a slavey role stand out clearly as a cameo as it ran through the whole performance. She ambled in and out enveloped in a cloak of clean comedy, led a number with an eccentric abandon, which climaxed her deeds of cleverness,” keeping the show moving forward at breakneck speed. They pointed out that she came into Chicago as “The Flirting Princess” chorus girl, but stole the show in “Girl in the Kimona,” earning a principal role in the company.
Over the next several years, she continued grinding out performing on the stage in comic roles, sometimes even playing old men and boy roles, thanks to her plain appearance and small stature. The 1914 Los Angeles City Directory lists her as a musician, living at 1549 Echo Park Ave.
By 1915, Fuller joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone as an extra, earning $3.50 a day. Noting her somewhat pinched, dowdy looks, Sennett began casting her as a harridan or victim in shorts. Thanks to her comedic abandon, she co-starred opposite Fred Mace in some two-reel shorts. Over the next few years, she played everything from plain admirer, wife, pursuer, mother, and victim in short films such as “Bathtub Perils” and “The Village Vampire.” While her roles might be small, Fuller made great use of her screen time, with her deep set, sad eyes grabbing attention.
Dale Fuller, Motion Picture Magazine.
Performing on stage around her occasional film appearances, Fuller sang and danced in revues. A Washington D. C. newspaper on November 12, 1916 revealed that her dance with Arthur Freeman for “Oogie” and “Glooming Glooms” were highlights of “The Scoundrel’s Toll.”
Her expressive, vulnerable eyes and physical presence led fan magazines and trade journals to call her a physical comedienne by 1918, when Fuller landed her own dressing room at the Fine Arts Studio.
Fuller’s complete abandon while performing perhaps caused her to break two ribs. Moving Picture World states in its July 18, 1916 issue that she slipped on the edge of Keystone’s tank while filming “The Surf Girl”, causing internal injuries. Photoplay reported in August that Fuller ended up in the hospital with two cracked ribs. They noted she was treated by doctor Guy A. Rawson. One story on ancestry.com claims Rawson was her husband, but links to his name show he was married to another person.
Dale Fuller might also be called filmdom’s first cat lady, as Photo-Play Journal claimed she raised angora cats on her farm, calling her a “cat lady.”
Fuller moved on to other comedy companies, appearing in Chester Comedy films with Snooky the Humanzee in 1920. Around the same time, German film director Erich von Stroheim spotted her on screen, and realized her distinctive flashing eyes and attitude suited her upcoming film, “Foolish Wives.” He cast her as a maid, seduced, tricked, and abandoned by his character, causing her to set fire to the estate’s tower before committing suicide by jumping to her death in the sea.
Her small but mesmerizing performance attacked great reviews, with many stating she gave one of the film’s best performances. “Dale Fuller makes a masterpiece of the role of the wronged servant girl,” stated Washington Herald’s June 12, 1922 review. Exhibitors Herald wrote that “some of the best acting of the picture is done by Dale Fuller, the maid. Photoplay called her “exceedingly good”, and Motion Picture thought she contributed one of the most tragic characterizations ever. Variety stated that Fuller made the greatest contribution to the film, “who makes the fact that the Count has betrayed her poignantly convincing. It’s a minor role, this maid part, but Miss Fuller makes it stand out remarkably.”
Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times thought she gave “the most conspicuous acting” in “Foolish Wives” outside of Erich von Stroheim. She gave great emotion to the scene of the chateau being devoured by fire. “Eyes that are like an unhappy black twilight” draw viewers to her.
Dale Fuller, Motion Picture Magazine.
Schallert’s story goes on to claim that von Stroheim selected her for the film from a photo, but he increased her role once he noticed her talent. He was the first to see the desperation under her wild acting, giving her a dramatic start to serious films. Fuller stated that von Stroheim “was the first and only one to see that I could be a serious actress and he gave me my big opportunity.” Throwing herself into the role like a Method actor, remaining in character off-camera, she lost weight, and became ill with double pneumonia, landing in the hospital for weeks.
Fuller revealed that she planned a career in opera before realizing that her talents lay in musical comedy. While she found roles performing in musicals, she found little that demonstrated her comedic skills. She stated that family illness brought her back to Los Angeles and that’s when she decided to enter films. Charlie Murray supposedly introduced her to Mack Sennett, thus helping her break into the field.
After the success of “Foolish Wives,” Fuller negotiated with two vaudeville circuits about performing a comic sketch where she would portray seven different roles, but she reached no agreement. She moved on to other roles in such films as Manslaughter,” “One Wonderful Night,” and “Borderland.”
Von Stroheim wrote a small but showy part for her in his Universal film, “Merry-Go-Round,” casting her her as Hubler’s wife Henrietta. Motion Picture News wrote that she gave another of her thoroughly convincing characterizations in the film, which saw von Stroheim replaced as director by Rupert Julian. Though her part was drastically cut for the picture, she once again suffered an ignoble death, choked to death near the conclusion of the film. Unfortunately her role was cut back to focus more on the lovers’ story, but many reviews still sang her praises.
Fuller’s reserve and shyness prevented her from fully taking advantage of publicity to help promote her career, as did her people pleasing personality, perhaps learned from her tragic past. Gebhart’s story in Photo-Play Journal states, “Always thoughtful and considerate, her many little kindnesses to me and to others are illustrative of a woman whose own path has been rocky and who will go to any trouble to make things easier for another.”
In 1924, she appeared in “Babbitt,” “His Hour,” and “Three Weeks Announcement,” an Elinor Glyn film, before being summoned by her champion von Stroheim for another part in his epic film, “McTeague,” later renamed “Greed.” She played the role of greedy scrubwoman, Maria Macapa in the film, walking around and spouting a line about hidden gold, with her husband coming to believe her. He demands the loot, but when she reveals that she made it all up, he cuts her throat. This was to be a side story along with that of McTeague, but when the film ran to a massive length, the studio cut most of these scenes from the film. Several who saw the completed picture thought it would have set her up as one of the screen’s great actresses, but yet it wasn’t to be. MGM did add her to the stock company of actors that year, however.
Dale Fuller, Motion Picture Magazine.
To keep her sanity from the craziness of the film industry, Fuller spent her time offscreen on her citrus farm near Pomona, with several stories starting in the late teens claiming she managed and worked the farm, helping pick the fruit. She raised chickens, doves, canaries, dogs, cats, and a parrot at the ranch, a big green, old fashioned home on a hill, like her, unpretentious and simple. Fuller might be quiet and thoughtful offscreen, but she frankly revealed her opinions to one and all.
Though she appeared in other films, Fuller kept returning to working with von Stroheim, perhaps a glutton for punishment like her characters. She once again played a chambermaid in his 1925 film, “The Merry Widow,” a small but effective role that wasn’t cut out of the film.
In an April 15, 1925 Los Angeles Times story called, “Does Beauty Matter Now?, stars like Zasu Pitts, Louise Fazenda, and Fuller are described succeeding on personality and brains, not looks. Their strong characterizations attract attention, not their great beauty. A September 20, 1925 article in the Times entitled “Gives Advice to Ugly Ducklings” wrote that Fuller claimed that only hard work and patience would enable a girl without looks to break into the film industry.
Within a few years, Fuller began playing mother parts in dramas, appearing as Renee Adoree’s mother in “The Cossacks,” and Fay Wray’s mother in von Stroheim’s “The Wedding March.” A few reviews noted her exceptional work in “The Wedding March,” with Film Spectator noting that she “gives a flawless performance, a striking characterization,” but opining that the screen wasted her talents. She did gain a nice part in the Thomas Meighan film, “The Canadian,” playing a hard prairie wife.
At this point, however, her career was winding down, and she appeared in only a few more films, though they did include the 1934 movie, “The Twentieth Century,” and the great 1935 film, “A Tale of Two Cities,” where she played an old hag. A little too old and plain to succeed in comedy, when she did gain some interesting parts in dramas, the roles were cut too much to help her career.
Dale Fuller died October 14, 1948 at her citrus ranch of heart problems, forgotten once again. The revival of silents brought attention to her pleading and desperate characters, looking for attention and love in all the wrong ways. Her small but showy roles in Erich von Stroheim films give recognition and remembrance to her hard work, a small pittance for the sweat and tears she endured throughout her life.