Marjorie Rambeau: From Klondike to Car Crash

A tribute today to stage and screen actress Marjorie Rambeau (1889-1970).

Rambeau was a direct descendant of Peter Gunnarsson Rambo (1611-1698), the “Father” of the short lived North American colony of New Sweden (in the lower Delaware Valley, encompassing parts of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania). She was born in San Francisco, and raised by her mother in Nome, Alaska during the Gold Rush, where, from the age of 12 or 13, Marjorie dressed as a boy (to ward off mashers) and sang and played the banjo in saloons and music halls. This led to roles such as the title part in Camille as she barnstormed up and down the West Coast. In 1913 Rambeau married Canadian actor/playwright/director Willard Mack, and the two appeared in his play Kick In, both in a full length version, and in a one act vaudeville version. The play moved to Broadway in 1914 without Rambeau, but she did star there in his next play So Much for So Much, and became a sensation, appearing in 15 plays there over the next dozen years. Her second Broadway show was Avery Hopwood’s Sadie Love (1915-1916).

In 1917 Rambeau divorced Mack and began alternating silent films for the Mutual company with her Broadway engagements. She starred in nine silent melodramas through 1920. The last of these, The Fortune Teller (1920) was an adaptation of a play she’d starred in on Broadway. The films were not as successful as her stage work, so she concentrated entirely on Broadway plays through 1926, her last being Just Life. In her ingenue days Rambeau was renowned for her beauty and grace; Dorothy Parker once wrote a poem about her!

According to her IMDB bio, “alcohol and temperament” forced a cooling off period for her in the late 20s. Franklin Pangborn then invited her to appear in two plays at the Vine Street Playhouse in Hollywood, which reignited her career.

In 1930 Rambeau reinvented herself in talkies as a middle-aged character actress. Her films of this period included Her Man (1930), Min and Bill (1930), Palooka (1934), Primrose Path (1940, nominated for an Oscar), 20 Mule Team (1940), Tugboat Annie Sails Again (1940, playing Marie Dressler’s former role), Tobacco Road (1941), Salome Where She Danced (1945), Torch Song (1953, also nominated for an Oscar), and dozens more besides. In 1931 alone she appeared in 12 movies! A terrible car crash in 1945 forced a three year hiatus as she struggled to regain the use of her legs, but she managed to resume her career in 1948 with The Walls of Jericho. Her last film was Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) which starred James Cagney as Lon Chaney. 

After years of pain and drug dependency from the 1945 accident, Rambeau retired in 1958 and became a virtual recluse, living her third husband millionaire Francis A. Gudger through his death in 1967. She passed away herself three years later.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and vaudeville veterans like Marjorie Rambeau, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,