Eileen Percy: From Movie Star to Mrs. Ruby

A brief look this morning at silent screen actress Eileen Percy (1900-1973), whose other claim to fame was being Mrs. Harry Ruby. As such you will see her portrayed by Arlene Dahl in the Kalmar and Ruby bio-pic Words and Music.

Born in Belfast, Ireland, Percy spent much of her childhood in Brooklyn. As a teenager she began to model for illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson (and could technically thus be called a Gibson Girl, though the vogue for them was over by then). She was only 15 when she was cast in the chorus of the Broadway show Stop! Look! Listen! (1915) starring Blossom Seeley, Joseph Santley, Harry Fox, Doyle & Dixon, and Gaby Deslys, along with fellow chorus girls Marion Davies (who became a friend), Mae Clarke, and Dorothy Davenport. This was followed by Dance and Grow Thin (1917) with Leon Errol, Van and Schenck, Gertrude Hoffman, Joe Jackson, Vera Maxwell, and Lilyan Tashman. It’s also been claimed that she was in The Century Girl that same year. Her name is not among the IBDB credits for that show although perhaps she was a replacement or went with the show on tour.

In any case 1917 was a big year for year, because at the same time she was breaking into the movies. Allan Dwan gave her a small role in Panthea starring Norma Talmadge that year. This led immediately to becoming Douglas Fairbanks’ leading lady in four films that same year: Wild and Woolly, Down to Earth, The Man from Painted Post, and Reaching for the Moon, all written by Anita Loos and directed by John Emerson. Mind you, she was still only 17 years old! In 1918, she appeared opposite Lloyd Hamilton in the comedy short A Waiter’s Wasted Life, and with Bert Lytell in his comedy features Hitting the High Spots (1918) and One-Thing-at-a-Time O’Day (1919).

In 1919 Percy married brewing heir Ulrich Busch. Meanwhile, throughout the ’20s, her onscreen leading men were stars like William Russell, Warner Oland, Sessue Hayakawa, Buck Jones, George Nichols, and Hoot Gibson.

More impressively, Percy starred herself in features like The Land of Jazz (1920), Hickville to Broadway (1921), Why Trust Your Husband? (1921), Elope If You Must (1922), Missing Daughters (1924), Under the Rouge (1925), The Shadow on the Wall (1925), and Burnt Fingers (1927). By the end of the silent era she was more often a second female lead to stars like Nita Naldi, Marceline Day, or Joan Crawford.

Percy was fourth billed in her first talkie Temptation (1930), but by 1933 she was busted down to uncredited extra and quit the biz. She married the great Tin Pan Alley songwriter Harry Ruby in 1936, having divorced Busch six years earlier.

Eileen’s sister Thelma Percy (1903-1970) briefly had a career as an actress from 1920 through 1922. In 1920 she appeared opposite Sessue Hayakawa in The Beggar Prince, Hoot Gibson in Wolf Tracks, Larry Semon in The Stage Hand, Lloyd Hamilton in April Fool, and Jimmie Adams in High and Dry, among others. She was also in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) with Max Linder, and An Idle Roomer (1922) with Harry Sweet and Bud Jamison. She also appeared in the 1922 Broadway show The Blushing Bride.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, in which Eileen Percy and Thelma Percy starred, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.