Remembering May McAvoy

I can think of few actors of such high stature in their own time who’ve become quite as forgotten as May McAvoy (1899-1984). She was the female lead in such pictures as Ben-Hur (1925), Lady Windemere’s Fan (1925) and The Jazz Singer (1927). Yet one seldom comes across her name even in writings and conversations about silent film.

A second generation Irish American, McAvoy’s folks ran a livery stable in New York City. She started out as a model, and broke into the film business as an extra starting in 1917, pretty quickly rising to star status on account of her striking looks. Other notable films she appeared in included The Enchanted Cottage (1924), Married Flirts (1924), The Mad Whirl (1925), My Old Dutch (1926), and The Terror (1928), regarded as the first all-talking horror film.

McAvoy had some 75 films to her credit in 1929 when she married Maurice Cleary, a top exec at United Artists. She retired from film for a decade, returning after their 1940 divorce as a bit player. As such she had walk-ons in such pictures as Ringside Maisie (1941), the Abbott and Costello version of Rio Rita (1942), Laurel and Hardy’s Air Raid Wardens (1943), Til the Clouds Roll By (1946), the 1950 Red Skelton comedies The Yellow Cab Man and Watch the Birdie, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Executive Suite (1954), Jailhouse Rock (1957) with Elvis Presley. Significantly, the 1959 version of Ben-Hur was her last picture, though now as a crowd extra.

In 1971 she and Cleary remarried.

For more on silent film and classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.