Today is the birthday of Patsy Ruth Miller (1904-1995). The word “fluke” is the wrong one to use in describing Miller’s career (after all, it was far better than that of most people who actually aspire to be in movies) but it is a tempting one nevertheless. “Accident” may be more apt. Miller was from St. Louis. She happened to meet Alla Nazimova at a party while on vacation with her family in Los Angeles. This led to a screen test, which led to getting cast. Her career progressed rapidly. She had a small role in Camille (1921) and was selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1922.
In 1923, she landed the movie role for which she is best known today, that of Esmerelda opposite Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And she worked steadily and prominently for nearly another decade. In 1924 she was in the ill-fated Lloyd Hamilton feature A Self Made Failure 1924 (which is of more interest to us now than it was to audiences at the time). Other films included the 1926 Lubitch comedy So This is Paris, which boasted the first choreographed dance number in a silent film (it happened to be the Charleston), as well as So Long Letty with Charlotte Greenwood (1929), several comedies with Edward Everett Horton (The Hottentot, The Aviator and The Sap, all 1929) and the all-star 1929 musical showcase The Show of Shows. Her film career was over by 1932.
In 1936 she appeared in a Broadway show called White Man (it ran a week).
After this, she reinvented herself as a writer, and was a success at it. She won 3 O. Henry awards for her fiction, and she also wrote radio scripts, the moderately successful 1947 Broadway show Music in My Heart, and the 1988 memoir My Hollywood: When Both of Us Were Young, which got this terrific review by Richard Brody in the New Yorker just six months ago.
Miller came out of retirement as an actress only twice. She has a cameo in the 1951 film Quebec. And she appeared in a 1978 low budget (black and white!) drama called Mother.
For more on silent films please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc