Katherine Perry: Follies and Filmdom

Katherine Perry (1897-1983) is notable in being one of the few whose life embraced both of those great Jazz Age forms, the Broadway revue and the silent film, and who enjoyed more success in both realms than most by far without crashing and burning as, say, Louise Brooks or Clara Bow would do. She was in and around show business for three decades, each of them organized around a different field: stage revues in the teens, silent movies in the twenties, and talkies (in a much more modest way) in the thirties. She enjoyed her greatest fame in the silents.

Perry was only 14 when she hired for the chorus of the Ziegfeld Follies in 1911; she would return for the Follies of 1917, 1918, and 1919. Almost every show she was cast in was significant or a hit: Broadway to Paris (1912), The Passing Show of 1913, Robinson Crusoe Jr (1916) with Al Jolson, The Century Girl (1916-1917), Miss 1917, and The Midnight Frolic (1918).

Anthony Slide’s wonderful book Silent Players features a charming interview with her, including reminiscences from her Broadway days and impressions of people she worked with. She called Will Rogers a “phony”, saying she was probably the only person who didn’t like him. She said Eddie Cantor used to point his banjo eyes in the direction of the girls changing in the dressing room. As many have said, she found Ziegfeld to be paternal, whereas Charles Dillingham chased her around a desk

In 1920 she was cast in her first silent film, Sooner or Later (1920), directly by Wesley Ruggles and starring Owen Moore. She married Moore the following year, becoming his second wife (his first had been Mary Pickford). She co-starred with Moore in The Chicken in the Case (1921), A Divorce of Conscience (1921), Love is an Awful Thing (1922), and Husbands for Rent (1927), and opposite his brother Matt Moore in The First Year (1926) and Early to Wed (also 1926). She appeared in 30 talkies throughout the ’20s, sometimes billed as Katherine, sometimes as Kathryn.

Her first talkie, Side Street (1929), cast her with all three Moore brothers, Owen, Matt and Tom, with the latter as her love interest. But apparently she didn’t click in talkies. She appeared in just five more of them as an uncredited extra, the most notable of which was My Man Godfrey (1936) in which she played a socialite. Her last film was Allan Dwan’s Fifteen Maiden Lane (1936) with Claire Trevor and Cesar Romero. Moore’s career had also ebbed in the 30s but he fared better. Though now in supporting parts, he continued working until he died in 1939.

She spent her last years at the Motion Picture Country House, a retirement home for actors. The overall takeaway from the Slide interview is of someone who managed to stick to old-fashioned values, no matter what her hedonistic co-workers up to. By her own testimony she remained a “nice girl” through the Broadway years, who didn’t put out in exchange for bracelets as most of them did. Then she married just the once and was faithful to her husband. If the true story was different we have no way of knowing, but it was nice hearing this one if only for the change of pace!

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