The screen career of Priscilla Dean (1896-1987) lasted about 20 years (1912-32), with the peak being the decade from 1917 to 1927. Silent and classic comedy fans may known her best; she was the leading lady in Al Christie comedies starring Lee Moran and Eddie Lyons (with whom she shared a birthday) in 1916 and 1917, and she also appeared with Laurel and Hardy in Slipping Wives (1927) and Charley Chase in All for Nothing (1928).
Dean was a second generation stage actress. Born in Manhattan, Dean began acting in the theatre as a very small child. She was 16 when she did some of her first screen work at Biograph, then based in New York, circa 1912. This led to work at IMP and other studios and a move to the west coast. Prior to the films with Lyon and Moran, she also supported Paddy Maguire and others in comedies. The serial The Grey Ghost (1917) elevated her to stardom, and the bulk of her top years as a Hollywood actress was at Universal. The best remembered of her features were directed by Tod Browning, in his pre-Lon Chaney/horror period. In these she often played feisty, rather rough hewn heroines. These pictures include Which Woman? (1918), The Brazen Beauty (1918), The Wicked Darling (1919), The Exquisite Thief (1919), The Virgin of Stamboul (1920, opposite Wheeler Oakman, whom she married), Outside the Law (1920), Under Two Flags (1922), Drifting (1923) and White Tiger (1923). Reputation (1921) is said to have contained one of her finest performances. Wesley Ruggles directed her in Wild Honey (1922). The provocative titles of many of her films speak to the nature of her typical screen character: The Siren of Seville (1924), The Danger Girl (1926), The Dice Woman (1926), The Speeding Venus (1926) and Jewels of Desire (1926).
The coming of sound coincided with a knotty period in Dean’s personal and professional life. She divorced Oakman in 1926. Universal seems not to have renewed her contract in 1927. In 1928 she married world circumnavigating aviator Leslie P. Arnold in 1928. The fact that he was not properly divorced from his previous wife led to an unpleasant period of legal troubles and bad publicity. By the time Dean returned to the screen in 1931 she was no longer a marquee name. Most of her handful of talkies were independent B movies. Her most notable sound movie proved to be her last: Klondike (1932) with Thelma Todd, Henry B. Walthall, Lyle Talbot, and Pat O’Malley.
With her background as a silent comedienne, Dean could conceivably have gone the round of fellow former screen siren Mae Busch and reinvented herself as a player in comedy shorts, if she wanted to keep acting badly enough. She contented herself to the wife of one of America’s Pioneers of Aviation. Arnold later went on to an executive position at Eastern Airlines, and served with distinction as an army air force colonel in World War Two.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy stars and early film read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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