Owen Moore (and His Brothers)

These days, Owen Moore (1886-1939) is unfortunately remembered primarily as a footnote in the life of his first wife Mary Pickford. Because she ascended to the stratosphere, and Moore didn’t quite, and she left him for the screen idol Douglas Fairbanks there is a tendency to think of him as an also-ran, a kind of silent movie Tom Arnold, as well as a cuckold. And there is maybe more than a smidge of justice in that, given the number of wives who are looked at in relationship to their famous husbands in this way. But in shaping a mental narrative of his life we must also guard against diminishing Moore too much, for he was also a star in his own right, one with nearly 300 films to his credit, including some well-remembered classic talkies towards the end.

Moore was from County Meath, Ireland, emigrating to the U.S. when he was 11 years old. His family settled near Toledo. A good singer, he sang in vaudeville briefly before making his way to Biograph studios at age 22 to become a key member of D.W. Griffith’s stock company. The Guerilla (1908) was his first film. Moore acted in scores of these short early films over the next few years, including better remembered ones like Pippa Passes (1909) and A Corner in Wheat (1909). His brother Tom Moore joined the studio at around the same time, and became a movie star of roughly the same caliber. (Tom too would marry movie star wives: Alice Joyce and Renee Adoree). A few years later they were followed into the business by brothers Matt and Joe. Matt would become a star like his brothers; Joe was more of a supporting player. Their sister and mother, both named Mary Moore, were also minor silent film actresses).

Pickford was hired by Biograph in 1909. Within a few months the pair were acting together in some films. They married in 1911, when she was 18. The following year, Pickford and Moore left Biograph for IMP, where Moore co-starred in films with Florence Lawrence. At Famous Players-Lasky, he played Prince Charming to Pickford’s Cinderella in an adaptation of the fairy tale in 1914. But in real life, the roles were reversed. Pickford had all the status. Moore grew frustrated, angry and abusive, and was given to strong drink. It is odd that he should be so, for he was still starring in things like Mabel Lost and Won (1915) wth Mabel Normand, and The Kiss (1916). But by that time, Pickford’s films were doing so well that she had formed a business partnership with Adolph Zukor and was co-producing her own films. In 1916 she met Fairbanks, and drifted away from Moore. In 1919 she co-founded United Artists with Fairbanks, Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. Pickford and Moore were divorced the following year, with Moore receiving a cash settlement. Almost as an editorial comment, in 1920 he starred in a comedy called The Poor Simp.

But in some ways, his best years were ahead of him. In 1921 he married fellow film star Katherine Perry, with whom he had appeared in Sooner or Later (1920). He then co-founded the Owen Moore Film Company with David O. Selznick in 1922. In the ’20s he continued to be a star in his own right, turning out several features a year. Some notable ones include, Oh, Mabel Behave! (1922) with Mabel Normand; The Parasite (1925); and The Red Mill (1927). In The Bluebird (1926) and The Road to Mandalay (1926) he worked with Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. In Side Street (1929) he appeared with Perry and his brothers Tom and Matt (Joe had passed away in 1926).

In the talkie era, things slowed somewhat what he he continued to work steadily through 1930. Outside the Law (1930) reunited him with Tod Browning. He had a memorable role in Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong (1933) — it is to him that she utters the immortal line “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you happy to see me?”. Moore’s presence in the film, set in the Bowery in the 1890s, adds a bit of nostalgia, evoking his early Biograph days for those who could remember them. After this he starred in the independently produced A Man of Sentiment (1933), and then nothing for four years, when he had a supporting role as a movie director in the original version of A Star is Born (1937). He died of a heart attack two years later at age 52.

To learn more about vaudeville, where Owen Moore got his start, please see 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.