Today is the birthday of Mildred Harris (1901-1944). Those few who remember her nowadays know her primarily as “Charlie Chaplin’s first wife”, although unlike some of the comedian’s later child brides and lovers, Harris actually had a significant career of her own before and after her marriage to Charlie. (I, for one, hadn’t realized that! probably because his autobiography and other sources make her sound like a pure opportunist).
Harris actually began as a child actress in westerns in 1912, nearly two years before Chaplin’s screen debut. By my reckoning she had been in nearly five dozen films (among them some of the early silent Wizard of Oz films and Griffith’s Intolerance) before an imaginary pregnancy forced Chaplin to marry her in 1918. By all reports, Chaplin didn’t like her very much, and was angered by the fact that Louis B. Mayer gave her a starring movie contract. Later she did become pregnant for real, but the baby didn’t live beyond three days. The couple became estranged (and Charlie charged in court that she had an affair with Hollywood’s most notorious lesbian Alla Nazimova). Chaplin and Harris divorced in 1920.
Harris was a movie star throughout the 1920s, seemingly without the benefit of her connection to Chaplin. And she toured big time vaudeville as early as 1922 with a one act playlet called “Getting the Money”. It was during the sound film era that Harris truly needed to lean on vaudeville and her former association with Chaplin. There is a terrific account of this period by someone who had a front row seat. You can find it in Phil Silvers’ autobiography This Laugh is on Me. In the early 30s, Harris was set to tour the Orpheum circuit in an act underwritten by Herman and Sammy Timberg. To play with her in the sketch they hired two comedians: Herbie Fay, and the 20 year old Silvers. Unfortunately for all involved, when she was totally down and out, Harris had previously taken a one week booking at the Star and Garter in Chicago, a low down burlesque joint. She stripped. The resulting bad publicity caused the Orpheum bookers to drop the trio like a hot potato. (Silvers also reports that Harris was a drug addict. It’s entertaining reading, I recommend it highly).
After this, she continued to act in films sporadically. You can see her for example in the 1936 Three Stooges short Movie Maniacs, and in Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), her penultimate film. She died in 1944 as a result of post-operative pneumonia following abdominal surgery.
To find out more about the vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold, and on silent comedy, don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media