The extent to which the careers of certain silent screen stars’ careers were destroyed by sound is often exaggerated, but the case that that is what happened to Ethlyne Clair (Ethlyne Williamson, 1904-1996) seems pretty clear. Clair’s career was humming during the final years of silents (1926-29), and then plummeted with dizzying swiftness.
The Alabama deb was an art student and model in New York. Her mother encouraged her to enter a beauty contest which then landed her a screen test. She landed a bit part in Sandra (1924) with Barbara La Marr, Bert Lytell, and Leila Hyams; followed by similar walk-ons in Cecil B. Demille’s The Golden Bed (1925) and Chickie, with Dorothy Mackaill, both 1925. Her career began to take off in 1926 when she cast as Snookums’ mother in the Newlyweds comedy series, which lasted through 1928. Other comedy shorts included George Runs Wild (1927) with Syd Saylor, Jane’s Sleuth (1927), in which she starred; and Be My Wife (1927), Dancing Fools (1927) and Taking the Count (1928), all with Charles King.
This led rapidly to features, almost all of them westerns. She was Hoot Gibson’s leading lady in Hero on Horseback (1927), Painted Ponies (1927), and Riding for Fame (1928). She also co-starred in The Vanishing Rider (1928) with William Desmond; Wild Blood (1928) and Guardians of the Wild (1928) with Jack Perrin; Gun Law (1929), The Pride of Pawnee (1929) with Tom Tyler; and From Headquarters (1929) with Monte Blue. Of her two non-western features: Three Miles Up (1927) was an aviation drama starring pilot Al Wilson; Hey Rube (1928) with Hugh Trevor was a circus story.
1929 was arguably Clair’s peak year. She was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star; and starred in the 1929 serial Queen of the Northwoods.
Then sound. In which she didn’t even get a toehold, it seems. She had a chorus part in the all-star musical Show of Shows (1929), then was sixth billed in Second Choice (1930) with Dolores Costello and Chester Morris, then had a walk-on in God’s Gift to Women (1931) with Frank Fay. Her last film was a low-budget true crime short called Self Condemned (1932).
The extent to which changes in her private life impacted her career is unknown. From 1928 through 1930 she was married to her agent Richard Lonsdale Hinshaw (or Hanshaw), whom she claimed forced her to marry him at gunpoint in Mexico. That her career tanked at the same moment they split up could be significant. From 1930 through 1937 she was married to legendary make-up artist Ern Westmore. In 1939 she married auto dealer Merle Arthur Frost, to whom she remained hitched until his death three decades later.
For more on silent film and classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,