Marshall Neilan: From Kalem to Cabbin’

I can’t help it but the name Marshall Neilan (1891-1958) sounds like a department store to me. Guess I’m mashing up of Marshall’s and Neiman Marcus. At any rate, as it happens, Neilan himself also offered one stop shopping: actor, director, producer, and screenwriter, with a robust career spanning a quarter century (1912-1937).

A native of Southern California, Neilan had some experience as a supernumerary in live theatre, and was working with cars (driving them? selling them? I’ve seen both) when he got his foot in the door of flickers by way of his interactions with studio people. Most of his over 130 screen credits as an actor occur between 1912 and 1916, nearly three dozen of those in the first year along. He started out in comedies at the Kalem Company, often opposite Ruth Roland or John E. Brennan, but he later also worked for Selig Polyscope, Biograph (including some pre-Keystone Mack Sennett comedies), Bison, and others. By 1914 he was also writing and directing shorts, including many in Kalem’s Ham and Bud series.

In 1915 Neilan appeared in Rags with Mary Pickford, and this seems to have been an inflection point in his career, for after that he directed that star in several of her hit films, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Little Princess (1917), Stella Maris (1918), Amirilly of Clothes-Line Alley(1918), M’liss (1918), and Daddy Long Legs (1919), as well as the Jack Pickford film Freckles (1917). He also directed films outside the Pickford orbit, such as In Old Kentucky (1919) with Anita Stewart, and several others.

Circa 1920 through 1926, he produced as well as directed his own films, further establishing his reputation. Films from this period included Dinty (1920) and Penrod (1922) with Wesley Barry (with whom Neilan had worked since the Ham and Bud series and Pickford films), The Lotus Eater (1921) with John Barrymore, and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924) with Pickford. In 1922 he married Blanche Sweet, who starred in Neilan films like Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1924), The Sporting Venus (1925) and Diplomacy (1926). Late Neilan silents included Wild Oats Lane (1926) with Viola Dana, Her Wild Oats (1927) with Colleen Moore, Venus of Venice (1928) with Constance Talmadge, and Take Me Home (1930) with Bebe Daniels. That’s a lot of projects with a lot of (other) leading ladies; one can’t help wondering if that contributed to Sweet’s divorce from Neilan in 1929. Neilan also worked on the story for Howard Hughes’ 1930 film Hell’s Angels and was originally slated to direct, but the job was eventually handed over to Edmund Goulding after conflicts.

Taxi 13 (1928) with Chester Conklin was Neilan’s first movie with elements of sound. He also directed such notable early talkies as the 1929 version of The Awful Truth (later remade in 1937), The Vagabond Lover (1929) with Rudy Vallee and Marie Dressler, and Sweethearts on Parade (1930) with Alice White. In 1930 he reunited with Pickford on the film Forever Yours, but after a few weeks of shooting she pulled the plug and had all the negatives destroyed. One imagines this had less to do with Neilan than with Pickford’s insecurities about sound pictures and her new more mature screen persona. She finally went back and made this film with Frank Borzage as Secrets in 1933, her final film as an actress. Both films were talkie remakes of the silent feature Secrets (1924) starring Norma Talmadge.

Neilan’s status began to dip at this point. In 1931 he directed comedy shorts for Hal Roach, such as Ex-Sweeties with Harry Gribbon and Marjorie Beebe, Catch as Catch Can with Guinn Williams, Thelma Todd, and Zasu Pitts, and War Mamas with Todd and Pitts. Following a two year gap Neilan returned to features with Social Register (1934) starring Colleen Moore; Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934, Olive Borden’s final film); the original 1934 version of The Lemon Drop Kid with Lee Tracy; and This is the Life (1935) with Jane Withers. Then in 1937 he returned to direct three low budget musicals starring Pinky Tomlin: Sing While You’re Able; Swing It, Professor; and Thanks For Listening. He had a small supporting role (as a washed up drunk!) in the original version of A Star is Born (1937) and contributed some writing work to the treatment for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and there ended his career.

Booze is said to have been what ended Neilan’s heyday in Hollywood. That problem may explain those two gaps in his work credits during the ’30s (1932-33 and 1936), with him either in no fit state, or drying out someplace (the latter seems more likely as he did manage to return to work twice). His outsized ego at his peak (when he was drawing one of the largest salaries in Hollywood) is also said to have alienated studio bosses who might have helped him out more.

After two decades of driving a taxi cab, Neilan returned to the screen as an actor in the Elia Kazan/ Budd Schulberg classic A Face in the Crowd (1957), and in a decent sized role, too — 9th billed! Many’s the actor with his track record who never came back as more than an extra. But the return proved short-lived. He died of throat cancer the following year.

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