Marilyn Miller (born Mary Ellen Reynolds this day in 1898) began her vaudeville career at age four under the nom de guerre “Mademoiselle Sugarlump”. From here she joined her family’s musical vaudeville act The Five Columbians, consisting of herself, two siblings and her parents, which is cuter than The Cowsills.
After about a decade, she was spotted by Lee Shubert who put her in several of his Passing Show reviews. From here she graduated to Ziegfeld shows. In his autobiography, Eddie Cantor writes movingly how he and his pals Van and Schenck (her co-stars in the Follies of 1919) cheered her up when she learned that her husband Frank Carter had been killed in a car accident. Miller was all of 21 then, a little young to be a widow. She had bad luck in the marriage department. Her next husband (1922-27) was the notorious drunken and syphilitic wastrel Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother). Next came dancer Jack Donohue (1928), and that too was fated for divorce. In 1930 she was engaged to Michael Farmer, who opted to marry Gloria Swanson instead. An announced marriage to Latin actor Don Alvarado in 1932 also fell through.
Miller main claim to fame was to be Broadway musicals, in which the singing-dancing five foot tall dynamo was to star throughout the 1920s and early 30s. Indeed she could be described as the top Broadway star of her day. There was a sort of formula to a Marilyn Miller musical — most of them sweet Cinderella stories that suited her cheerful personality. Miller played the title roles in Sally (1920-23), Peter Pan (1924-25), Sunny (1925-26) and Rosalie (1928), and starred also in the Depression era musicals Smiles (1930-31) and As Thousands Cheer (1933-34). Her theme song “Look For the Silver Lining” sums up her appeal — and becomes ironic in light of the many tragedies that impacted her life.
Miller made but three films: the screen versions of Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930), and Her Majesty, Love (1931) with W.C. Fields. In 1934, she married her last husband, chorus boy Chester O’Brien, 11 years her junior.
Marilyn Miller was ripped untimely from this mortal stage in 1936 after going into the hospital for a simple sinus operation.
Her legend lived on, however. A decade later, the similarly ill-fated Judy Garland played her in the Jerome Kern bio-pic Til the Clouds Roll By. In 1949, June Haver portrayed Miller in her own life story Look for the Silver Lining. Perhaps her greatest immortalization came in the form of a namesake, however. Ben Lyon, her co-star in Her Majesty, Love later went on to be a casting director at 20th century Fox, where one of his most significant acts was hiring young Norma Jean Baker — and renaming her Marilyn Monroe.
To learn more about Marilyn Miller and vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever great books are sold.