Barbara Kent: Lloyd’s Last and Longest Living Leading Lady

Barbara Kent (Barbara Cloutman, 1907-2011) may most pique the interest of our readers on the basis of Harold Lloyd’s fourth leading lady, following Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis, and Jobyna Ralston. Kent co-starred in Lloyd’s first two talkies Welcome Danger (1929) and Feet First (1930).

Kent was cast opposite Lloyd with a higher status than was usually the case in comedies (typically, comedians were the unambiguous stars of their own pictures, surrounded by constellations of familiar character actors). But Kent had been a star, or co-star, herself in the 20s, and already possessed an association with comedy. Her previous films had included the western-themed No Man’s Law (1927) with Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, and Rex the Wonder Horse; The Small Bachelor (1927), based on a P.G. Wodehouse novel; Stop That Man (1928) with Arthur Lake and Eddie Gribbon; That’s My Daddy (1928) with Reginald Denny; and Lonesome (1928) with Glenn Tryon, which is set at Coney Island!. Working with Denny and Tryon in particular were excellent preparation for holding her own with Harold Lloyd.

But Kent was still a bigger fish than we have already suggested. her second picture was nothing less than the classic Flesh and the Devil (1926), in which she was third billed under John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. Fresh out of Hollywood High, she had very little experience but had just been voted Miss Hollywood in a beauty pageant. The following year she was made a WAMPAS Baby Star (largely egged on by a notorious near-nude swimming scene in No Man’s Law). Like many silent actresses, comical and otherwise, Kent was tiny in stature, under 5 feet tall. Most her other early films at Universal were westerns.

Around the time of the Lloyd films, Kent also co-starred in William Wyler’s The Shakedown (1929) opposite James Murray, fresh off King Vidor’s The Crowd, and the comedy Dumbbells in Ermine (1930) with Robert Armstrong, later of King Kong. Kent worked steadily in films through 1933, though she was generally now third of fourth in the billing. For example, in the 1931 comedy Indiscreet with Gloria Swanson and Ben Lyon, she is fourth billed. She has quite a good part in the 1932 modernized adaptation of Vanity Fair, billed just under Myrna Loy and Conway Tearle. In Marie Dressler’s Emma (1932) and Oliver Twist (1933) starring Dickie Moore, she had much smaller supporting roles, but was critically well received. After taking ’34 off to assess her career, she returned in 1935 to appear in three pictures: Swell Head with Wallace Ford and Dickie Moore; Guard That Girl with Ward Bond, Florence Rice, and newcomer Robert Allen; and Old Man Rhythm with Buddy Rogers.

After less than a decade in pictures, Kent retired, discouraged from continuing by her husband, the powerful agent (and later, producer) Harry E. Edington. Around 28 years old at the time, she would live until just a couple of months shy of her 104th birthday! Over 70 years of retirement!

Lloyd’s subsequent leading ladies would include Constance Cummings, Una Merkel, Grace Bradley, Verree Teasdale, Helen Mack, Phyllis Welch, and Frances Ramsden. But Kent was the last two co-star in more than one picture with the comedian. And this is why we say that she is Lloyd’s Last and Longest Living Leading Lady.

For much more on Barbara Kent, see Michael G. Ankerich’s web site here.

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