Betty Ross Clarke: Silent Star of the Early ’20s

The missing “e” is an anomaly, although she was sometimes credited that way.

There is a herky-jerky aspect to the career of Betty Ross Clarke (May Clarke, 1892-1970), preventing her career from attaining the kind of momentum it required to really get going.

Clarke was born in North Dakota of pioneer stock, and raised mostly in Minneapolis. One grandfather, Leonard F. Ross, was a Union general in the Civil War. She moved to New York to study ballet, and danced for a number of years in vaudeville. Then, she acted with regional stock companies in Canada, New England, and the Midwest.

In 1920, she was cast in her first film, Taylor Holmes’ The Very Idea. She was third-billed in the movie, a very good starting place. Clarke had starring or co-starring roles in ten Hollywood pictures through 1922, including Brewster’s Millions and Traveling Salesman, both opposite Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. her last starring Hollywood picture was The Man from Downing Street (1922). After this, she moved to London with her husband, stage director and banker Arthur Collins. There, she starred in two addition films, and a third one in Berlin, all in 1924, and acted in West End plays. In 1926 the pair moved to Australia, where Clarke continued to act in the theatre.

The Stock Market Crash of ’29 wiped Collins out and the pair returned to Hollywood. Clarke then appeared in supporting roles in 20 additional films, including The Age of Love (1931) with Billie Dove, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) with Bela Lugosi, and a couple of Andy Hardy pictures. A bit player by the end of the decade, her last film was Untamed (1940) with Ray Milland. After this she continued to work in the theatre.

Meanwhile, sometime prior to 1934 Clarke and Collins had gotten divorced. In 1933 he became a Hollywood dialogue coach, then went on to direct a half dozen Hollywood movies, the best known of which is Thank You, Jeeves (1936) starring Arthur Treacher. In 1939 he moved back to Australia and continued on as a director there. He died in 1980.

To learn more about vaudeville history, 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.