Kenneth Harlan: A Much Married Muckety-Muck of the Movies

I don’t ask you to remember the name Kenneth Harlan (1895-1967) for the rest of your life, or even an hour from now, but he did possess a certain significance in his own day, and his biography possesses one or two points of interest that I thought merited a little attention in this space.

For starters he was married NINE TIMES, which must come close to being a Hollywood record. The best known of his wives was Marie Prevost, to whom he was hitched from 1924 through 1929, kind of peak years for both of them. Three of his other wives (Emily McLaughlin, Helen Stanton, and Flo Hart) were Broadway actresses.

Second, he was the nephew of stage and screen actor Otis Harlan, perhaps best known for voicing Happy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938). We’ll be writing about his delightful career in a few months.

Third, Harlan had a vaudeville background. He started out acting in vaudeville and with stock companies at age seven. His mother Rita W. Harlan (Sarah Wolff) was also an actress. Kenneth was born in Boston, but the family later moved to Brooklyn, and Harlan attended Fordham University. He was also a dancer, a skill he no doubt acquired in vaudeville. In 1916 he toured nationally with Denishawn-trained Evan Burrows-Fontaine. 

Fourthly, and not insignificantly, Harlan was a Hollywood leading man from roughly 1917 through the early ’30s, appearing opposite such co-stars as Mary Pickford and Constance Talmadge. Forgotten now doesn’t mean unimportant then! Some notable pictures in which he starred include The Penalty (1920) with Lon Chaney, the first screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), the 1923 version of The Virginian, and Twinkletoes (1926) with Colleen Moore. In 1929 he returned to Broadway, presumably to prove that he could handle spoken dialogue for the talkies. He appeared in the plays White Flame (1929) and The Curtain Rises (1933). Then, after starring in some B movie serials, his stock began to sink. By the mid ’30s he was a supporting player in B movies, mostly westerns, and by the 40s he was essentially a bit player. His last film was the Gale Storm comedy Nearly Eighteen (1943).

Interestingly, Harlan married his last four wives after his retirement from the film business. He was retired for nearly a quarter of a century. He must have been a peach to spend time with!

To learn more about vaudeville, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.