June Marlowe: More Than Miss Crabtree

We’re not quite sure why, but we suddenly find ourselves writing about all these people from Minnesota: Ignatius Donnelly (November 3), Gig Young (November 4), and today our topic is screen actress June Marlowe (Gisela Valaria Goetten, 1903-1984). We work off of birthdays, so it’s either coincidence or all the women in Minnesota give birth at the same time. Village of the Damned, anyone?

Marlowe’s best remembered credit comes at the the end of her decade-long career, but it’s important to know (though some might assume otherwise) that this credit was far from her only one. Born in St Cloud, Marlowe moved to the Los Angeles area with her family in 1920. She never intended on a career in show business. Malcolm St. Clair happened to spot her in a high school play and cast her in the George O’Hara comedy Fighting Blood (1923). Over three dozen films followed, including the comedy shorts Killing Time (1924) with Lloyd Hamilton and Horace Greeley Jr (1925) with Harry Langdon. She was signed to Warner Brothers in 1924, and that is where she spent the next couple of years, usually 2nd, 3rd or 4th in the billing. Being elevated to the coveted status of WAMPAS Baby Star helped cement her position. She is many films with Irene Rich and several Rin Tin Tin films. On account of a contract dispute she was given a small uncredited role in the early talkie experiment Don Juan (1926) with John Barrymore and she moved over to Universal, supporting Jean Hersholt and others. You can also see her in the William Beaudine comedy The Life of Riley (1927) with Charlie Murray and George Sidney. Her last couple of films of the silent era were made for Universal’s German division in 1929: The Brandenburg Arch and The Unusual Past of Thea Carter (in which she played the title character). In 1930 she appeared in another Rin Tin Tin serial The Lone Defender, this one a talkie.

As we have indicated, Marlowe’s stage experience was limited, and talkies seemed to portend the end of her career. As luck would have it, however, she was hired by Hal Roach to play the schoolteacher Miss Crabtree for his Our Gang shorts. Surprisingly (because they and she are so memorable) she only appeared in a half dozen of them in this role. They are Teacher’s Pet (1930), School’s Out (1930), Love Business (1931), Little Daddy (1931), Shiver My Timbers (1931) and Readin’ and Writin’ (1932). Love Business is probably the one folks remember best: it is the one where Chubby Chaney and Jackie Cooper vie for their pretty teacher’s affections. Marlowe is winningly artless in these films. She seems like a real teacher, as opposed to an actress playing a teacher, and I think upon first encountering these films many of vaguely assumed something along those lines (that she was a non-actress and merely talking to the children). Her lack of affectation is irresistably charming and there is an old-fashioned quality to it all that was just fascinating to me as a kid, growing up in very different times four decades later. We know that the writers of The Simpsons were also fans — the name of the teacher Miss Crabapple is an obvious homage.

In addition to the Our Gang films, Marlowe also appeared in Laurel and Hardy’s first feature Pardon Us (1931) for Roach, portraying the Warden’s daughter. She was also in an independently produced adventure film called Devil on Deck (1932). This film (now lost) was her last feature. In 1933 she married a businessman named Rodney Sprigg and retired from acting, although Roach hoped she would return for more Our Gang shorts, as she was popular. It is sometimes assumed that she was in the 1935 feature Roaring Roads, which starred many Our Gang alum, but amazingly that was a DIFFERENT June Marlowe, a singer and actress who was married to Mexican director Tito Davison.

For more on silent film and classic comedy like Our Gang and the Little Rascals please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.