Mary Thurman: Started on a Beach; Ended in a Swamp

There is no reason to suspect that, had she lived until the age of sound, Mary Thurman (Mary Christiansen, 1895-1925) wouldn’t have continued to have been at the very least a well-known supporting player. She appeared in nearly 60 films over a period of ten years during the silent era, and is today perhaps best known for being the very first screen actress to adopt the “Dutchboy” bob haircut that was so in vogue during the Jazz Age. She sports it in pictures as early as 1920, prior to better known rivals like Louise Brooks and Colleen Moore.

Thurman was a schoolteacher from Utah with some college theatrical experience when she was spotted by scouts for Mack Sennett (Keystone-Triangle) circa 1915. The lore has her starting out as a Sennett Bathing Girl, but she rapidly went from bit roles to good-sized supporting parts almost immediately. She went from walk-ons in early Douglas Fairbanks comedies like The Lamb and Double Trouble in 1915, to parts in the ensembles of Keystone slapsticks supporting Charles Murray, Louise Fazenda, Chester Conklin, Al St. John et al. Here she is in His Last Laugh (1916) with Harry McCoy:

Thurman was a key player at Sennett through 1918, and then she went up to features, many of them directed and/or produced by Allan Dwan, her paramour for a time. Her many features include The Sin of Martha Queed (1921) in which she played the title character; Zaza (1923) with Gloria Swanson; and Leap Year (1924) with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Then, sadly, while filming Way Down Upon a Suwanee River (1925) on location in Florida, she contracted malaria. This turned into pneumonia, which finally killed her a few months later at the age of 30. One last film The Wives of the Prophet was released posthumously at the beginning of 1926.

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