My entry point for today’s excursion was silent screen actress Ella Hall (1896-1981), born on this day. But she proved to be a human hub at the center of a family of other performers, now all pretty much equally forgotten, and so we thought it only just to treat of them all.
Ella’s mother, Mary “May” Hall (1877-1962) was an aspiring actress from New York. Quick math will tell you that she was only 19 when Ella was born in Hoboken; her career likely hadn’t made much headway prior to that complication. When Ella was still a child, the Halls moved to Hollywood to attempt to break into pictures. May only seems to have one movie credit without her daughter, the Dorothy Gish picture Battling Jane (1918). She also appeared with Ella in the 1914 movie The Symphony of Souls. This was less than a splash.
By that time her daughter Ella, 18, had appeared in at least 30 films. While her name is often mentioned in early connection with David Belasco and D.W. Griffith, her career verifiably began to take off in 1913 at Edwin S. Porter’s Rex Motion Picture Company, soon to be absorbed into Universal, where she would be a leading star. In the early years, she was often in Lois Weber pictures, co-starring the likes of Rupert Julian. She was also in lots of movies with actor/director Robert Z. Leonard, later a director of many Hollywood classics, who at that time often played a comedy character named “the Boob”. Hall was said to be linked romantically to Leonard for a time. Her notable pictures, among dozens, included the title roles in Jewel (1915) and Polly Redhead (1918).
In 1918 Leonard married Mae Murray; the following year Hall married Universal actor/director Emory Johnson (1894-1960) and gave birth to their first child Richard Emory (1919-1994). At that point, Hall’s rate of appearing in films slows down drastically, although she continued to co-star with Francis Ford and others regularly through 1923, by which time she’d had two additional children, Alfred (1922-1928) and Ellen (1923-1999). After The Flying Dutchman (1923), Ella essentially retired. Interestingly, after Alfred’s death in a car accident in 1928, the birth of a fourth child, Diana (1929-1984), and her 1930 divorce from Johnson, Ella chose to return to the screen as a bit player in Cecil B. DeMIlle’s Madame Satan (1930), Roy Del Ruth’s Taxi (1931), and Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932). In 1934, she was briefly married to a man named Charles Clow.
Ella’s first husband Emory Johnson (1894-1960) was a child of privilege; his parents ran popular bathhouses in San Francisco. He wasn’t yet 20 when he began appearing in Broncho Billy westerns and Snakeville comedies at nearby Essanay in Niles in 1913. By 1916 he was at Universal, initially under the wing of Hobart Bosworth. Carl Laemmle put some energy and resources in trying to build him up as a leading man, and this was how Johnson met, courted and married Hall, though Laemmle cut them both loose in 1918. Johnson worked with a variety of studios afterwards, including his own independent production company. Movies from this period include Green Eyes (1918) with Dorothy Dalton, Johanna Enlists (1918) with Mary Pickford, Polly of the Storm Country (1920) with Mildred Harris, and The Sea Lion (1921) with Hobart Bosworth and Bessie Love. With In the Name of the Law (1922) he became a director as well as a star. Through the end of the silent era (1927), he directed ten more features, culminating with The Shield of Honor (1927) starring Neil Hamilton, later famous for playing Commissioner Gordon on Batman. In the talkie era, he directed only two pictures, both low-budget independents, The Third Alarm (1930) with Anita Louise and The Phantom Express (1932) with Buster Collier. He filed for bankruptcy that year. By this point, his children Ellen and Richard, still children, had already made their screen debuts in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The torch would soon be passed to them. (An unfortunate expression perhaps, given that Johnson later perished in a house fire in 1960. “The Third Alarm”, indeed.)
The screen career of Ellen Hall (1923-1999) was short (just over a decade) and numerically modest (fewer than two dozen credits) but she did appear in numerous well-known films, and began her career in earnest prior to her brother Richard, who served in World War Two before getting serious about acting. Apart from the low-budget horror classic Voodoo Man (1944) with Bela Lugosi, most of her films were either musicals or westerns. The Chocolate Soldier (1941) was the first of the former type. In 1943, she became a Goldwyn Girl, and you can see her in the choruses of such musical entertainments as Up in Arms (1944) and Wonder Man (1945), both with Danny Kaye, as well as Here Come the Waves (1944), Having Wonderful Crime (1945) and Cinderella Jones (1946). She enjoyed larger parts in B movie westerns starring the likes of Johnny Mack Brown, Hopalong Cassidy, Smiley Burnette, Bob Steele and others. She also made several appearances on The Cisco Kid television program (1950-51). One of her last appearances was in Bowery Battalion (1951) starring the Bowery Boys.
In late 1944, Hall married future Hollywood restaurateur Lee Langer at the home of Frances Marion, with Rickie VanDusen (Mildred Korman) as maid of honor, and family friend Mary Pickford in the receiving line.
Though, like his younger sister, Richard Emory (1919-1994) had attended the Professional Children’s School and been in All Quiet on the Western Front, his movie career didn’t really get started until Ellen’s was nearly over. Prior to this, he’d served in the war, and done two years at Gilliard’s Playhouse. With this theatrical grounding he began appearing in B movies westerns, crime dramas and war pictures starting in 1949. He was a supporting player, in parts ranging from small to smaller to smallest, yet, like his sister, he was in many well known projects, and he had 3 to 4 times as many of them as she does. His films include Gene Autry and the Mounties (1951), Sailor Beware (1952) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Singing in the Rain (1952), The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), Seven Angry Men (1955), Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) and the 1957 remake of My Man Godfrey. His TV work features guest shots on shows like The Cisco Kid, The Roy Rogers Show, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Highway Patrol, and Bat Masterson. His last screen credit was a 1963 episode of Perry Mason. His final years were spent in Moab, Utah.
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For more on silent film history read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.