The Short Life of Merna Kennedy, Chaplin’s Co-Star in “The Circus”

During the silent era, Charlie Chaplin made his leading ladies from scratch, taking non-actors or aspirants with little experience and elevating them to the status of his co-stars for as long as he cared to and then releasing them back into the wild. Most did not long last beyond Chaplin’s use for them. The first, Edna Purviance, worked with Chaplin for eight years (1915-1923). Following this, she starred in but a single picture for another director (A Woman of the Sea, Josef Von Sternberg) but the results were apparently such an embarrassment, the sole print was destroyed. Lita Grey only made it partway through one feature with Chaplin (The Gold Rush, 1925) before he impregnated her and had to marry her (although she managed to appear in four films in later years). Her replacement Georgia Hale had a better time of it, starring in a dozen films through the end of 1931, including the first screen version of The Great Gatsby. Virginia Cherill (City Lights, 1931), also appeared in a dozen post Chaplin films, spanning a five year career, before briefly marrying Cary Grant. Of all these Merna Kennedy (Merna Kahler, 1909-1944) fared best by some measures, squeezing in over two dozen films over her short life and career.

Kennedy was all of 20 when  cast in The Circus (1928) — rather long in the tooth for a Chaplin love interest! Born in Kankakee, Illinois, her early family life was tumultuous; her parents split and there was quite a bit of moving around. The mother and children wound up in Southern California, where the mother remarried a man named Kennedy. Merna was onstage as young as 9 in a vaudeville dance act with her brother Merle on the Pantages Circuit. Merna met Lita Grey at dance school; it was Grey obviously who made the introduction to Chaplin, encouraging him to see Kennedy in a musical called All For You. Chaplin was impressed enough to cast her as the female lead in The Circus. (Either that, or he cast her to placate Grey, with whom he was having marital problems. The pair divorced shortly after this).

The Circus was a troubled production but it did well at the box office, and for a couple of years, Kennedy starred in some notable films, such as Broadway (1929), with Glenn Tryon, adapted from a Broadway musical and Barnum was Right (1929), also with Tryon, directed by Del Lord. By 1932, she was playing supporting parts. Other pictures she appeared in included King of Jazz (1930) with Paul Whiteman, Son of a Sailor (1933) with Joe E. Brown, and Wonder Bar (1934) with Al Jolson. She retired in 1934 to marry Busby Berkley, although that marriage only lasted a year. (Berkley, like Henry VIII, had six wives over his lifetime). It need hardly be pointed out here that Kennedy was a serious looker.

Apparently the Berkley divorce set her up pretty well. Whereas Kennedy had been reduced to bankruptcy in 1931, by 1938 she staged a highly publicized reading of her will, notable for her reading it aloud before a film camera, a novelty at the time. If a will was worth writing, she had dough to dispose of. This, and the fact that I haven’t yet come across any references to her working following the divorce (e.g., acting in plays, singing in nightclubs, as was usual among performers who washed out in movies), lead me to think she had ample means at her disposal.

In 1944 she married an army sergeant is Las Vegas, for whom she is said to have waited three years while he served in the Pacific. She died only four days after the wedding of a heart attack at the age of 35. That could be all there is to it, but one can’t help wondering if there wasn’t more. People do die of unsuspected heart conditions at a young age, and perhaps the couple did have a particularly strenuous honeymoon — they did, after all, wait three years. And there was an army base nearby. But (it must be said) that drugs have been known to kill people at a young age, too. I have no real basis for a suspicion, not even a rumor, other than the rarity of the circumstances. It’s not like drugs were unheard of among Hollywood people, even in Chaplin’s circle. His first co-star Mabel Normand had a well known cocaine problem; his first wife Mildred Harris was pegged as a junkie by Phil Silvers, who toured with her in vaudeville and burlesque (this from his autobiography This Laugh is On Me). And, well, Vegas is Vegas. But it’s doubtful we’ll ever know for sure.

For much more on the short life of Merna Kennedy I found this article to be most thorough.


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